More wildfires expected to come, but at a below-average rate, experts say

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Thursday, April 25, 2024
More wildfires expected, but at below-average rate, experts say
Although Houston isn't likely to see wildfires, smoke from across Texas and neighboring states can impact the city's air quality. Here's more on AccuWeather's wildfire forecast.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- AccuWeather released its wildfire forecast for 2024, and we know it's already been pretty active in Texas, especially in the Panhandle.

Paul Pastelok, AccuWeather's lead long-range forecaster, told Eyewitness News that overall, we are expecting a below-average year for wildfires in the United States.

"I think it's actually going to end up being below-average once again, similarly to what we saw last year, (maybe) a little more than we saw last year. The average is about 7 million acres being burned when we kind of measure the United States, as far as wildfire season. We're looking at 4 to 6 million of that. Already, we've gotten 1.1 million out of one fire, the biggest fire in Texas history. So far, we continue to see little fires here in the short term, but we are expecting to pick up again as the summer goes on," Pastelok said.

Texas' drought leads to a lack of rain and extreme heat.

"If you look at the drought situation, it's still ongoing. It's a long-term drought in west Texas right now. We've had some precipitaion from time to time within the last several months come through that area, but not enough to help the drought situation," Pastelok said.

Pastelok said that dry soil doesn't help. For the Houston area, smoke from those fires can impact the city's air quality overall.

"First, we deal with smoke, and we can also deal with dust and all these kinds of problems," Pastelok said. "Our problem right now is the smoke in the fires going from Yucatan to Central America."

The airflow coming out of the south spreads that smoke in our direction, and Pastelok believes New Mexico, Arizona, and West Texas will start to see some of it in the late spring or early summer.

All that smoke inevitably can affect the climate.

"There's a lot of carbon built up in these trees and our forests that you see burning, and that's released into the atmosphere," he said. "That can change situations across the nation as a whole, not just the area that's burning."

On Texas' top emergency manager told a panel of lawmakers on April 2 that the state should establish its own firefighting aircraft division after a series of wildfires, including the largest in state history, scorched the Panhandle region earlier this year.

But, the local landowners tasked with helping the legislature investigate the fires that were responsible for at least two deaths and burned through more than 1 million acres raised doubt over the state's ability to handle such catastrophes.

"We don't control our own destiny, and I want to control our destiny," Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, told a crowd of more than 100 people at the MK Brown Heritage Room, where lawmakers are holding a series of hearings into the fires.

Pampa is a town of about 16,000 in Gray County; it is closer to Oklahoma than the Texas Capitol. Lawmakers decided to hold the hearings in the town an hour northeast of Amarillo, making it easier for victims of the fire to attend.

The committee has five members, including state Reps. Ken King of Canadian, Dustin Burrows of Lubbock, and Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi. All three are Republicans. Landowners Jason Abraham and James Henderson are public members of the committee.

"This is not a Panhandle problem. This will have statewide effects," King, the committee's chair, told the mixed crowd of suits and cowboy hats. "We must do what we can to ensure this doesn't happen again."

The panel is expected to discuss what contributed to the wildfires, the allocation of response resources, and the effectiveness of wildfire disaster preparedness. It will also examine the coordination between local, state, and federal government agencies regarding prevention, disaster preparedness, and response.

The committee plans to publish its report by May 1.

The late firefighting air support was one of the first topics discussed on April 2.

For days, ranchers and residents could only look up to the sky and wonder where firefighting aircraft were as they watched the historic Smokehouse Creek fire rip across their land. Dozens of families, many in nearby Hemphill County, were displaced after their homes and ranches were destroyed and their livestock killed.

Without its own fleet of aircraft to fight fires, Texas relies on a series of contractors. Many of the planes were being serviced at the time the fires started in late February.

"Did the federal government jump through hoops to catch up? Yes. But there was a delay," Kidd, who has led TDEM for more than 13 years, said.

Kidd suggested Texas build its own firefighting air force with up to six aircraft, costing at least $50 million.

"It won't be an easy venture to start with, and we will have to continue with contracts while this is built up and people are trained. It will take some time, " Kidd said, adding that the state would still need to utilize a mixture of private contracts and other options in the meantime.

Emmet Webb, who owns Brazos River Helicopters and assisted with aerial firefighting efforts using his private helicopter, said Wyoming has one state-owned firefighting helicopter to address wildfires in their state quickly.

The average cost of a firefighting helicopter is $1 to 2 million, depending on the type, but once equipment is added, the price can reach up to $4 to $40 million each.

Abraham said he was skeptical of a state-owned firefighting air force throughout the day-long hearing, and Abraham and a long list of local fire chiefs and other first responders levied sharp criticism of the state's response.

"I am asking if we are sure we want Texas to be in charge of this because we have seen these guys in action. They do not have a good reputation," he said.

Local fire chiefs told the panel they need help keeping their equipment up-to-date. Many counties in the Panhandle have a declining population, and the taxes raised rarely reach the emergency departments. Hemphill County's volunteer firefighters, for example, use decades-old vehicles. Its oldest was made in 1969; its newest is from the 1980s.

Another topic early during the investigation Tuesday was a lack of communication between Panhandle volunteer fire departments and state and federal agencies. Officials said communication was fractured due to different radio frequencies between volunteer fire departments and state agencies, as well as a lack of command.

"We have to get all on the same system statewide, but we can't afford to upgrade to digital. All we can do is hope and pray a grant comes along. Until then, we are staying with the system we have," Trent Price, Hoover Volunteer Fire Department's chief, said.

Multiple volunteer fire chiefs told the committee they were called off fires because the Texas A&M Forest Service told them their services were no longer needed - even as fires burned in front of them.

Kidd, who is also a vice chancellor at Texas A&M, defended the state's response. And warned the committee to be careful how they word these statements during the meeting.

"Every fire has communication gaps," he said. "The firefighters in this area did expert work. They could have done a better job tying in, but when you are in the middle of the fight, it's hard to pause and get everyone on the same page."

King said there is a clear need to establish a communication standard because the disconnect between the state agencies and the fire departments in the Panhandle has reached unacceptable levels.

"Communication rules need to be placed on statute; either (Texas A&M Forest Service) are in command, or (local fire departments) are in command, but somebody needs to take responsibility," he said.

Stephen Simpson with the Texas Tribune contributed to this report.