This has been anything but a typical year for members of the Texas A&M Forest Service, the agency leading the state’s response to wildfires.
Forest service firefighters have responded to more than 7,680 fires in 2022 alone, and are on pace to break the record for number of responses in a single year. In Fort Worth, the numbers are just as staggering: Firefighters experienced a more than 700% increase in responses to grass and brush fires in July compared to last year, according to the department.
“It has – knock on wood – tapered off a little bit,” said Craig Trojacek, the public information officer for Fort Worth’s fire department. “With the weather conditions, we’ve had a little bit more humidity in the air and some parts of the forest got some rain.”
But, even with more rainfall expected in the latter part of August, state and local officials do not believe escalated wildfire threats will disappear. A number of factors are driving the surge in wildfires, including severe drought conditions that began early this year and soaring temperatures throughout the summer season.
What is a wildfire?
“A wildfire is an unplanned fire that burns in a natural area such as a forest, grassland, or prairie. Wildfires are often caused by human activity or a natural phenomenon such as lightning, and they can happen at any time or anywhere. In 50% of wildfires recorded, it is not known how they started. The risk of wildfires increases in extremely dry conditions, such as drought, and during high winds.” – World Health Organization
Wildfires have slowed down in North Texas since the Chalk Mountain and Possum Kingdom Lake fires in July, but the state needs massive rainfall – between 12 and 15 inches – to return moisture to the soil and significantly reduce wildfire risk, said Adam Turner, a spokesperson for the Texas A&M Forest Service based in Mineral Wells.
“We were in a critical drought. Until we get a significant moisture event that’s a long duration event, we will likely not be out of fire season,” Turner said. “It’s not going to be enough to discontinue our burn bans and our habits that we’ve all gotten into. It’s not going to be enough to lower water restrictions.”
Texas is experiencing its third-longest fire season in recorded history, Turner said. Traditionally, North Texas experiences rotating fire seasons, with one lasting between March and May and the other between July and September. This year, forest service employees have been on alert since early December 2021, when aviation resources were first deployed to fight a wildfire.
With high-risk wildfire areas west of Fort Worth, the Mineral Wells office has 60 personnel staged and ready to go in an office that typically employs 16 people.
“We’ve had a fire season here in North Texas pretty much consistently since January or February,” Turner said. “It drains you when you work 14 days, and then take a day or two off, and then come back and do it again. It’s definitely a lot of time spent away from family and a lot of time spent at work.”
While wildfire risk is minimal in central and east Tarrant County – especially near Fort Worth and Arlington – the risk remains moderate to high in portions of western Tarrant County, according to Texas A&M’s Wildfire Risk Explorer map.
Most of Wise, Parker, Johnson and Hood counties are at moderate fire risk, while massive swaths of Palo Pinto, Somervell, Bosque, Stephens and Eastland counties are classified as high risk.
“Wildfire is not just a rural threat,” Turner said. “Anywhere there’s large accumulations of grass and trees, there’s a capability and possibility of wildfire. Tarrant County and Dallas County have a lot of brush (fire) capabilities.”
In Fort Worth, Trojacek said the department paid overtime to firefighters who staffed brush trucks, which are smaller than full-size fire engines and can access tighter spaces that larger trucks cannot. Brush trucks typically follow full-size fire trucks to larger incidents and can also operate independently if more calls come in, Trojacek said.
Another key element to Fort Worth’s wildfire response has been ensuring the safety and physical condition of the firefighters themselves, Trojacek said.
“Overall, we are trying to make sure that our firefighters are staying hydrated and well rested,” Trojacek said. “Specifically right now, we’re making sure we’re putting more people on it after the initial crews get on scene. We’re trying to ask for more resources quicker than what we typically do, just because they’re needed, because everything is so dry right now with the drought conditions.”
Residents can do their part by following county bans on outdoor burning, keeping yards mowed and ensuring that grass is kept short, Trojacek said. Having a second set of eyes on the mower or outdoor grill to ensure that no sparks are coming from the equipment can also prevent fires from starting, he added.
While thunderstorms will bring much needed rainfall to the region, Turner also warned that lightning strikes are also likely to cause fires. Over the past week, almost every fire that the Texas A&M Forest Service responded to in North Texas began with a lightning strike, he said.
“We’re not out of the woods,” Turner said. “We do have additional resources staged, and they’re not going anywhere. We may go do a little project work while the rain falls, go home and sleep a little early a couple days, but we’re still going to be standing by, ready to go, for when that fire call comes in.”
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter.
At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.