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In Texas, a powerful combination of dry land and high winds fuels wildfires

One climatologist called the situation "like a hurricane making landfall at high tide." Fires raced across the landscape so quickly that firefighters had little chance to contain them.?
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Abnormally warm temperatures, dry grasses and a sudden windy cold front combined to create the conditions for the destructive wildfires that have raged across parts of Texas this week.

The winds that sent wildfires charging across the Texas Panhandle struck at the perfect time of day for destruction, “like a hurricane making landfall at high tide,” Texas State Climatologist John Nielson-Gammon said. Hot, dry temperatures — the kind that can be spurred by climate change — helped create conditions for those fires to take off, he added.?

On Monday, temperatures in some parts of the dry northern region of the state reached the mid-80s, and several wildfires began to burn.?

The next day, Arctic air plunged down from the north in a bitter cold front. Winds on both sides of that front — which exceeded 50 mph at times —?sent flames roaring through dormant grasses, Nielsen-Gammon said. The cold front arrived in the late afternoon, when wind speeds were highest, and also changed directions as it passed through, maximizing how quickly the fire spread.

It’s not clear how the fires started.

Firefighters working the Smokehouse Creek Fire, near Amarillo, in the Texas Panhandle on Feb. 27, 2024.
Firefighters working the Smokehouse Creek Fire, near Amarillo, in the Texas Panhandle on Tuesday.Flower Mound Fire Department

“The timing of the weather during the day was probably the worst possible,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “If you’re going to have a wildfire outbreak, this is the sort of weather pattern that will do it.”?

The fires raced across the landscape so quickly that firefighters had little chance to contain them.?

“Those fires were moving very fast, all things considered, for a wildfire. We’ve seen speeds between the 5-10 mph range,” said Christian Rangel, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Amarillo. “The strong winds really did help push these guys out and reach an uncontrollable state.”?

The region’s terrain also played a role, with open land helping the fires take hold and spread rapidly while also making it difficult to fight the blazes.?

Despite being mostly flat, the area is characterized by sandy and grass-filled “broken terrain” that can be difficult to access, said Luke Kanclerz, head of the predictive services department at the Texas A&M Forest Service. As such, once the fires tore across the plains, they quickly became difficult to contain.

“A fire moving at approximately 5 miles per hour may not sound very fast but when you have a large fire front and you’re trying to contain a large area, it pretty much outpaces the fire suppression efforts,” Kanclerz said.

The Texas Panhandle is no stranger to face-blasting winds nor roller-coaster dips in temperature. But the fires would not have had the same chance to take off if not for unseasonably warm temperatures and dry conditions made more likely by climate change.?

“This particular event would have been less devastating if it happened a few decades ago during the same time,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “These high temperatures can happen earlier in the season and it’s happening when the grasses are normally dormant, so there’s lots of dry fuel available.”?

John Abatzoglou, a climatologist at the University of California, Merced, said the wind was the biggest factor in the size of the fires, which were covering more than 1 million acres, according to the federal wildfire tracking website, Inciweb.?

“This is principally a wind-driven fire,” Abatzoglou said, adding that the role of climate change was “more subtle than we’d generally think.”?

Abatzoglou said the wind initially came from the west to spread the fires into the shape of an ellipsis on a map, then shifted about 90 degrees and began to push those lines to the south.?

Abatzoglou said there is little solid evidence about how climate change is shifting wind speeds.??

Temperatures in the Borger area, near where the fires originated, reached 85 degrees F on Monday, according to National Weather Service data.?

“We set records on many of our climate sites,” Rangel said of the Amarillo forecast area, adding that measures of relative humidity in many parts of the state were at 20% or below and that the landscape was ready to burn.?

A fire truck driving towards the Smokehouse Creek Fire, near Amarillo, in the Texas Panhandle, on Feb. 27, 2024.
A fire truck driving toward the Smokehouse Creek Fire, near Amarillo, in the Texas Panhandle, on Tuesday.Greenville Professional Firefighters Association

Parts of the Texas Panhandle are abnormally dry, according to the National Drought Monitor, but the landscape is not suffering from severe drought. In fact, it received a healthy dose of rainfall in late summer and fall, which helped grasses grow tall.?

The above-normal growth upped the risk of wildfires during what is considered Texas’ dormant season for grasses, which typically runs through winter to around mid-April.

Nielsen-Gammon said the heat struck early in the season and before vegetation could green up and become less likely to burn.?

“We didn’t need a drought to get dry fuels this time around,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “We’re in the dormant season for grasses, there’s still dead grasses lying around.”?

Across the western United States, fire weather is becoming more frequent. The nonprofit group Climate Central calculated how the number of fire weather days has shifted in communities across the United States from 1973 to 2022, using weather station data and measures of temperature, wind and relative humidity.?

By the end of the group’s five-decade study period, some parts of Texas, including the High Plains and Panhandle, were seeing twice the number of fire weather days, according to Climate Central. The High Plains sees more than a month of additional fire weather days now, the report says.?

Firefighters working the Smokehouse Creek Fire, near Amarillo, in the Texas Panhandle on Feb. 27, 2024.
A fire truck driving toward the Smokehouse Creek Fire, near Amarillo, on Tuesday.Flower Mound Fire Department

Texas has a complicated future when it comes to wildfire, according to a report about the state’s future with extreme weather authored by Nielsen-Gammon and colleagues.?

However, researchers do expect dry conditions to expand the wildfire season, particularly in places like eastern Texas, where conditions are less arid. In the future, wildfire risk could begin to increase more slowly in west Texas and the Panhandle, as plants struggle to grow in a drier climate.??

Nielsen-Gammon said he worries that fast-moving wildfires could become more common in central and eastern Texas as conditions get drier, putting the Austin, San Antonio and Dallas-Fort Worth areas at more risk.?

“The risks of loss of life are greater there and it would be in places where people aren’t used to wildfires,” he said.

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