El Nino Drowning Texas Wildfire Threat

February 9, 2010

Central Texas rancher Debbie Davis can hardly believe the turnaround in rainfall.

While her pastures were parched and withered last summer after nearly two years without appreciable rain, the area northwest of San Antonio where Davis raises beef cattle and Texas Longhorns experienced its wettest September through January on record, a National Weather Service meteorologist said Feb. 5.

“I don’t see any threat of fires and a year ago that was a distinct possibility,” Davis said. “It’s not something I think about day-to-day but last year I did.”

The threat of wildfires across Texas this winter is low and will remain so as long as the El Nino weather pattern persists.

Texas Forest Service spokesman Mark Stanford said rain and snow across the state the past several months would keep vegetation and grasses wet through winter.

“I love El Nino in the winter,” Stanford said. “You can expect regular precipitation that will keep fire danger low.”

El Nino is characterized by unusually warm temperatures in the equatorial waters of the Pacific Ocean.

The weather pattern, which began last fall, was expected to remain through May, according to Victor Murphy with the NWS in Fort Worth. It followed a nearly two-year drought that cost an estimated $3.6 billion in crop and livestock losses in the nation’s No. 2 agriculture state.

Last February, the San Antonio area was in the midst of its driest two years on record. From September 2007 to August 2009 the city’s airport got just 24.83 inches. An unusually hot summer compounded the problems.

San Antonio had 59 days over 100 degrees, shattering the record of 36.

At this time last year, 20 percent of Texas was in the two worst stages of drought, extreme and exceptional. Now, none of the state is in either stage.

During the past five months the San Antonio area has received 26.71 inches of precipitation, the wettest five months on record. Moreover, that span has brought almost 2 inches more rainfall to San Antonio than the preceding 24 months.

There and throughout most of the rest of Texas there is little fuel for wildfires.

“When fire seasons get bad it’s because all the moisture in all the vegetation is so low it burns easily,” Stanford said. “When it’s that dry that’s when you start losing towns and civilians are killed and houses are lost and cattle are lost. We’re not going to have that this winter.”

The worst season in recent years started in late 2005 and carried into 2006, when wildfires from the Panhandle to northern Texas left 19 people dead and burned more than 2 million acres, according to data from the Texas Forest Service. About 330 homes were burned in 2005 and 400 in 2006, according to the agency.

In 2008 more than 1.6 million acres and 250 homes burned. In 2009, fires killed four people and destroyed more than 700,000 acres and 400 homes.

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