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Wildfires in Texas

Wildfires Introduction

Wildfires are uncontrolled fires that occur in vegetated areas such as forests, grasslands, and deserts. Depending on the area they arise, they are also known as forest fires, brush fires, grass fires, or bushfires. Wildfires sometimes occur naturally and can be triggered by a lightning strike or heat from the sun. They can also be caused by human acts of carelessness such as leaving campfires unattended or negligent discarding of lit cigarettes. These fires spread quickly and can wipe out millions of acres of land within minutes. They can pose harmful threats to human health, homes, wildlife, and vegetation.

Wildfires Causes and Geography

Wildfires occur either naturally or due to human action. However, according to the National Park Service, human-induced wildfires are the most common. The agency noted that nearly 85 percent of the wildland fires that affect the U.S. every year are triggered by humans. Human activities that can ignite wildfires include poorly attended campfires, debris burning, sparks from faulty equipment, fireworks, power lines, discarded lit cigarettes, arson, and so on.

Wildfires can also be caused by a natural phenomenon such as lightning. A lightning strike produces a spark that can ignite trees, rocks, power cables, or any other object that can trigger a fire. This type of lightning is known as hot lightning. Although hot lightning has less voltage, it generates intense heat and lasts for a long time. There is also another type of lightning called cold lightning. However, this occurs for a short time and rarely causes wildfires. Another natural cause of a wildfire is hot burning lava that flows from volcanic eruptions. When lava passes over a vegetated area, the intense heat can trigger a fire and spread out to form a wildfire. This type of natural wildfire usually occurs in the Hawaiian Islands, where volcanic activity is more common.

Wildfires can occur anywhere on earth where the climate allows for vegetation growth, but also experiences long-lasting dry, hot periods. This disaster usually occurs in the forests and grasslands in Europe and North America. Wildfires can also arise in the vegetated areas of Australia and the Western Cape of South Africa. They are common in the summer and fall seasons, particularly during droughts when fallen leaves dry out and become susceptible to fire. Wildfires are therefore likely to occur between June and September when areas become dry and hot.

How Do Forest Fires Start

Forest fires can start with a man-made spark or a natural occurrence such as a lightning strike. However, weather conditions such as strong winds, high temperatures, and low humidity determine how much a wildfire can spread. Topography also contributes to the intensity and direction of a wildfire. Wildfires spread faster uphill than downhill and the steeper the slope, the faster the fire can burn. This is because the flames are closer to the fuels (flammable materials like trees) that are on the uphill side. The fuels become drier and ignite more quickly than if on level ground. Regardless of whether a wildfire is natural or man-made, three elements must be present which are:

  • Fuel: This is any material that can ignite and burn such as trees, grasses, shrubs, and even buildings. A fuel's size, moisture content, and composition usually determine how quickly a fire will spread. For example, light dry fuels such as grasses and small trees can ignite easily and burn quickly. However, heavy fuel sources like large trees take longer to ignite but can burn more intensely.

  • Heat: This element brings fuel to temperatures hot enough to ignite. Examples of heat sources that can ignite a fire and keep it burning include lightning, the sun, burning debris, campfires, and fireworks.

  • Oxygen: When burning fuel comes in contact with oxygen from the air, it releases heat and generates combustion products such as smoke, embers, etc. This process is called oxidation.

Wildfires Consequences

Although wildfires may have some ecological benefits, they can cause harm to people and the environment. Some of the consequences of wildfires include:

  • Damage to vegetation and wildlife: Wildfires can cause immediate and long-term damage to the ecosystem. They can destroy thousands of acres of trees and plants within minutes or hours. This disaster also causes the extinction of wildlife animals such as birds, rabbits, squirrels, insects, and so on.

  • Effects on human wellbeing and health: Wildfires have contributed to significant loss of lives, especially for firefighters and other rescue teams. The large amounts of smoke and dust released into the air during a wildfire can cause breathing problems and serious medical issues in humans. It can also worsen the health condition of people who have allergies and respiratory disorders.

  • Economic losses: Wildfires can destroy homes and disrupt electricity, communications, transportation, power, and water supply. The disaster also causes huge economic losses for farmers whose field crops and animals are destroyed by the fire.

  • Damage to the climate: When wildfires occur, they release large quantities of carbon dioxide, greenhouse gasses, and other particles into the atmosphere. This can have devastating effects on the weather and the climate.

Texas Wildfire Threat Profile

The state of Texas is located in the south-central region of the U.S. It has a size of 268,596 square miles (695,662 km2), and a population of over 29 million which make it the second-largest state in the U.S. Texas shares borders with the states of Oklahoma to the north, Arkansas to the northeast, New Mexico to the west, Louisiana to the east, and the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas to the south and southwest. The state also has a coastline with the Gulf of Mexico to the southeast. Texas is home to a variety of ecosystems including deserts, prairies, forests, grasslands, and wetlands. Over the years, the hot temperatures and drought conditions in the state have triggered thousands of wildfires. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), climate change has made Texas heat more intense and frequent, even at nighttime. The agency noted that over one percent of the land in the state has burned each decade since 1984.

Some of the historic wildfires in Texas occurred in the 2011 fire season. During this period, the state experienced extreme drought conditions, warm temperatures, and strong winds that caused many destructive wildfires. Several counties were affected including Bastrop, Brooks, Cass, Crockett, Grimes, Kent, Lipscomb, Montgomery, Tom Green, Val Verde, Waller, etc. A total of 3.9 million acres of land and 5,900 structures were destroyed in the state. Most of the damage was recorded in Bastrop County, where 34,457 acres of land and over 3,000 structures were destroyed. Damages in the County were estimated at $209 million. Overall, Texas recorded ten fatalities and more than $500 million in damages.

In 2022, Texas experienced over 300 wildfires that burned 210,045 acres of land and affected counties such as Brown, Calhan, Comanche, Eastland, Kleberg, Medina, Walker, Wilbarger County, etc. The largest fire that occurred during this period was the Eastland Complex fire which killed one person and burned more than 50,000 acres of land.

Preparing for Wildfires in Texas

You should prepare for a wildfire long before the fire season begins, which is usually from June to September. Check with your local fire department to inspect your home for any hazards before a wildfire strikes. Some of the safety tips to follow to protect your family, pets, home, and property can be seen below.

  • Stay informed: You should have several ways of receiving weather forecasts and alerts from the National Weather Service (NWS). Make sure you monitor the weather reports via radio, TV, internet or any media. You can also sign up for community alerts with your local government. Staying informed helps you to know when to take the necessary steps to be safe.

  • Have a family emergency plan: Before a fire season begins, it is important to practice with your family members to know what to do when a wildfire occurs. The emergency plan should contain your evacuation plans, how your family members will communicate with each other during a wildfire, and your meeting point after the fire ends. Remember to include your pets in your emergency plan.

  • Know your evacuation routes: During wildfire season, you may have to leave your home quickly and find a shelter. Follow the instructions given by local authorities and practice your evacuation routes. You can drive around the routes ahead of time and ensure your family members are familiar with them.

  • Gather emergency supplies: In case you need to evacuate immediately, you should have a Go-Kit that would contain all the supplies you may need. Your Go-Kit should contain essential items such as non-perishable foods, water, medicines, First Aid Kit, clothing, facemasks, phones, chargers, eyeglasses, flashlights, battery-powered radio, extra batteries, extra cash, and copies of important documents like your personal ID and medical records.

  • Review your insurance policies: Contact your insurance provider before a wildfire season begins and ensure you have adequate coverage for your home and belongings. You should also take pictures of your home and its contents before a wildfire strikes. This will help in filing a claim with your insurance provider if your home gets damaged by the fire.

Preparing Your Home

Consider the following safety tips when preparing your home for a wildfire:

  • Use fire-resistant materials when making repairs on the roof and exterior structure of your home.

  • Keep flammable materials such as propane tanks and gas grills, at least 30 feet away from your home.

  • Clean roofs and gutters regularly, and ensure they are free of dead leaves, debris, pine needles, or other materials that can easily catch fire.

  • Remove tree limbs, shrubs, and all flammable vegetation that extend within ten feet of your house, roof, or chimney.

  • Be sure to check your smoke alarms and fire extinguishers, and ensure they are working.

  • Bring inside all flammable items from the exterior of the house such as lawn furniture, toys, trash cans, etc.

  • Place a ladder against your house and ensure it is long enough to reach the roof.

  • Keep household items that can be used as firefighting tools including a rake, shovel, axe, chainsaw, and water bucket.

  • Install 1/8 inch metal mesh screening to reduce embers that could pass through vents.

  • Dispose of stove, fireplace, and grill ashes only after soaking them in a metal bucket of water.

  • Make sure you have an outside water source such as a well, swimming pool, or hydrant.

  • Store all flammable household products in approved safety cans.

  • Practice how to use a fire extinguisher (ABC type) and ensure each family member knows where it is kept in the house.

Preparing Your Vehicle

  • Maintain your vehicle, and ensure that all parts are in good condition.

  • Remember to put your emergency supply kit in your car when leaving your home. The kit should contain items such as water, respirators, multi-purpose tools, flashlights, eyewash or eye drops, facemasks, medication, and other things you may need.

  • Avoid driving your car on dry grass or brush. This is to prevent the risk of igniting a fire due to hot exhaust pipes and mufflers.

  • Keep your car in an enclosed garage if you would not be using it to evacuate. Be sure to close all doors and windows.

  • If you do not have a garage, park your vehicle outside and cover it with a fitted cover.

  • Make sure you have a fire extinguisher in your vehicle and learn how to use it.

  • Wash your car regularly to prevent damage from ash, soot, or debris.

Preparing Your Pets

  • Pack a pet emergency kit which should contain items such as pet food and water, a pet First Aid kit, poop bags, litter boxes, pet toys, pet carriers, pet medication, blanket, collar, copy of medical records and ID, etc.

  • Create your evacuation plans and include your pets in them.

  • Find a shelter ahead of time where you can keep your pets. You can leave your pets with family and friends who reside outside the area you live.

  • Make sure your pet is tagged and microchipped. This makes it possible to reunite with your pets in case you separate from them during a wildfire.

  • Get a fire alert sticker on your front door. This sticker helps firefighters know the number of pets to save in your home.

Preparing Your Boats

  • Create a fire emergency plan and ensure your crew knows what to do if a wildfire occurs.

  • Inspect engines, electrical wiring, and connections, and ensure they are in good condition.

  • Check your cooling and exhaust systems, and ensure they are working properly.

  • Install smoke and carbon monoxide alarms on your boat.

  • Make sure furnishings on your boats are fire-resistant.

  • Keep a fire extinguisher on your boat and learn how to use it.

Wildfire Warning and Alerts

The NWS is responsible for issuing forecasts, watches, and warnings during wildfires. When preparing for wildfire season, it is important to understand the difference between a warning and a watch alert. A warning is issued when a hazardous weather event is imminent or already occurring. However, a watch means critical weather conditions are possible, but not imminent or occurring. The NWS issues the following weather alerts during a wildfire:

  • Red Flag Warning: This alert is sent out when weather patterns indicate that wildfires are ongoing or expected to occur within 24 hours. If you are under a Red Flag Warning, it is important to take extreme caution and strictly follow evacuation orders by local authorities.

  • Fire Weather Watch: This is issued when fire danger could exist in the next 12 to 72 hours. This alert is sent out to give you time to prepare for the wildfire.

  • Extreme Fire Behavior: This alert means a wildfire is likely to behave unpredictably. These wildfires are usually difficult to predict and can be very dangerous. An Extreme Fire Behavior alert is issued after a wildfire has already started. The NWS will usually consider some factors before sending out this alert including the high rate of spread, extreme crowning or spotting, existence of fire whirls, and strong convection column (which is a rising column of smoke, gas, or debris released by the fire).

The state of Texas uses Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) to send out alerts and emergency information to the public. IPAWS is an advanced warning system that allows public officials to warn and inform the public about severe disasters. It uses the Emergency Alert System (EAS), Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio to send out alerts quickly. There are also other emergency notification systems in the state, including WarnCentralTexas which is available to residents of Central Texas. This alert system allows local officials to warn residents about natural and man-made disasters via text, phone call, or email.

Assessing Your Wildfire Risks

The first step to take when preparing for a wildfire season is to determine whether you live in a low or high-risk area. You can use fire maps to check your home's wildfire risk. Make use of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)'s National Risk Index map or visit the Texas Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal. Once you enter your home address on the portal, you will be able to see the risk for your house and your surrounding area.

During a Wildfire

Consider the following safety tips when trapped in a wildfire at home:

  • Keep your family together and stay calm.

  • Call 911 and provide your location. Be sure to explain your situation clearly to the dispatcher.

  • Turn on the lights in your home to make it easy for rescuers to find you in the smoke.

  • Close all doors, vents, windows, and fireplace screens. This helps to reduce drafts and radiant heat in your home.

  • Keep flammable materials such as drapes, curtains, and furniture away from windows and glass doors. You can move them to the center of your home.

  • Connect garden hoses and fill sinks, tubs, or other large containers with water.

  • Make sure you shut off natural gas, propane, or fuel oil supplies from the source.

  • Disconnect automatic garage door openers. This is to ensure that you can still open doors by hand if the power goes out.

  • Use a facemask to protect yourself from smoke inhalation.

  • Stay away from outside walls and windows.

  • Pay attention to emergency updates from the NOAA radio, TV, or any media.

If trapped in a vehicle:

  • Call 911 and inform the authorities of your location.

  • Keep windows and air vents closed to prevent the smoke from irritating your eyes.

  • Park your vehicle in an area clear of vegetation and keep the engine running. Try to stay in a rocky area, roadway, or close to a water source.

  • Once you pull over, lay on the floor of your car away from the windows. This protects you from radiant heat as the fire gets closer.

  • Do not drive through heavy smoke since it can affect your visibility.

  • Turn on your car's headlights and hazard lights to become visible to rescuers.

  • Pay attention to other cars, pedestrians, and livestock when driving.

  • Cover yourself with protective clothing such as wool or cotton blanket, or coat.

  • Continue listening to the radio, TV, or any media for emergency updates.

If trapped outside:

  • Stay calm and call 911.

  • Wear protective clothing when outside, such as sturdy shoes, wool clothes, gloves, and a facemask.

  • Stay in an area free of vegetation, such as a ditch or depression on level ground.

  • Lie face down in the depression and cover yourself with protective clothing.

  • Stay down until the fire passes.

After a Wildfire

Even after a wildfire is out, you should only return home when local authorities say it is safe to do so. Consider the following safety tips when returning home after a wildfire:

  • Be careful when entering burned areas. There may be pits in the ground filled with hot ash, embers, or debris that can injure you.

  • Look out for downed or damaged power lines when returning home. This is to prevent the risk of electrocution.

  • Wear protective clothing when cleaning. These include leather gloves, long-sleeved shirts, long pants, heavy thick-soled shoes, facemasks, and goggles to protect your eyes.

  • Use a protective respirator mask (N-95 or P-100) to limit the amount of ash you breathe in.

  • Avoid contact with ash and dust when cleaning. They may contain dangerous chemicals, including lead and asbestos.

  • Keep people with asthma, heart or lung conditions away from ash and dust.

  • Discard food that has come in contact with heat, smoke, ash, or chemicals. If you are not sure food is safe, throw it out.

  • Make sure your water supply is safe before drinking or using it to bathe, brush teeth, or prepare food. Check with your local health department to confirm the safety of the water.

  • Disinfect water by either boiling it or stirring in 1/8 teaspoon of unscented bleach per gallon and let it sit for 30 minutes.

  • Be sure to check your roof and gutters after a wildfire occurs. If possible, wet them down to remove hot embers or ash. Call 911 immediately if you see any smoke or fire.

  • Pay close attention to children and pets and keep them under your direct control.

  • Make sure you call 911 and a propane service provider about a damaged or leaking propane tank in your home. Avoid disposing of damaged propane tanks in the trash, or transporting them in a car.

  • Avoid exposed wires, broken glass, nails, plastic, and other debris that can cause injuries. Seek medical treatment immediately if you or your family members have been burned.

  • Take pictures of any damage to your home for insurance purposes. You should reach out to your insurance provider for assistance.

  • Seek help from local mental health providers if you are feeling anxious or emotionally distressed due to a disaster.

There are several state and federal recovery resources available to individuals and business owners in Texas who have suffered damage from a wildfire. For federal disaster assistance, residents of affected counties can register on FEMA's website, or call 1-800-621-3362. You can also send emails to FEMA from the Disaster Assistance webform. To be eligible for this assistance, your area must have been declared a federal disaster by the president. In addition, the Small Business Administration (SBA) offers low-interest loans to homeowners, renters, and businesses in areas affected by declared disasters. You must live in an SBA-declared disaster area to qualify for this disaster assistance. Visit the SBA website to find declared disasters by state and county.