On Monday, February 25th, for only the second time this year, the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center issued an “Extremely Critical” fire weather warning for parts of Texas.  

The National Weather Service predicted gusting winds up to 50 mph for areas around Lubbock, with wind gusts from 35-40 elsewhere in the western and central part of the state. Low relative humidity will be in the single digits from the Snyder/Abilene area to Midland/Odessa to far West Texas south of Guadalupe Pass.  Red Flag Warnings and fire weather watches are in effect for most of the state pending storm showers from the Tuesday night/Wednesday morning cold front.

The cold front which had currently stalled on Monday morning over the coastal waters was expected to washout later in the day as a surface high slid down into northeast Texas by afternoon. The good news for Texas, winds slightly relaxed from Sunday’s blustery 20 to 30 mph and higher gusts. Wind speeds late Monday into Tuesday ranged around 10 to 15 mph north of Midland through the noon hour, lighter elsewhere. Winds will continue to relax with speeds dropping to around 5 to 10 mph for most of the state during Tueday afternoon. Temperatures warmed into the high 70s to lower 80s at the beginning of this week which combines with wind speeds to form a breeding ground for unexpected and difficult to contain wildfires.

The Governor of Texas certified that 184 counties in Texas are currently threatened by extreme fire hazard. Windy conditions and a lack of precipitation have dried grass and other vegetation across the state, posing significant fire danger, which is expected to continue.

This threat exists in the regional and local counties in Texas including but not exclusive to: Hemphill, Houston, Liberty, Orange, and Zavala.

With the existence of such threat, the Governor has directed that all necessary measures, both public and private, as authorized under Section 418.015 of the Texas Government Code, be implemented to meet that threat.

The Texas Forest Service (TFS) has initiated the Southeastern and South Central Forest Fire Compacts. These Compacts provide a system for obtaining resources and providing for reimbursement for fire related activities. The compacts are basically the wildland fire version of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC). They are mutual aid agreements between state forestry agencies with predetermined dispatch procedures, operating guidelines, fee schedules, and more. State forest fire programs are reinforced through forest fire compacts between the states. Established under the Weeks Law and other specific legislation enacted by Congress, State Forest Fire Compacts reduce wildfire suppression costs for local, state and Federal jurisdictions by allowing states to share personnel and equipment and by minimizing the fire fighting burden on any single state during periods of high fire occurrence.
To provide an effective response for fire suppression operations, several actions have been taken. The Governor has activated 10 aircraft from the Texas Military Forces. Ten National Guard helicopters will remain in parts of central Texas. A Texas Forest Service Incident Command Post remains operational.

“Conditions similar to those we are facing have directly impacted, threatened and caused the loss of whole communities in the past three years’ fire seasons.  We will see California Santa Ana-like winds…” said Les Rogers, assistant chief regional fire coordinator with Texas Forest Service.

Grasses and vegetation are extremely dry in many parts of the state, and as such, with the predicted winds, any fire that starts can travel up to 1,000 acres in 30 minutes – equal to a football field per minute.  And, while the trees and larger vegetations are not as dry, even East Texas could see significant fires started in grassy areas.

“Citizens must be aware that they may have to self-evacuate to a safe area if a wildfire threatens.  This is a dangerous situation and fires burning in these conditions will progress faster than a human can possibly run,” said Mark Stanford, chief of fire operations for Texas Forest Service.

Recently, federal agencies spent a total of $9,127,325,600 on aid after wildfires. In 2004 alone, a total of 6,790,692 acres were burned in wildfires in the United States, and Federal agencies spent $890,223,000 on recovery assistance. Wildfires also affect America’s farms and ranches, damaging and destroying homes, barns, agriculture production facilities, crops and livestock. Much of this damage can be avoided, or at least minimized, if a few precautions are taken to minimize the risk and spread of wildfires.

Precautions should be taken long before a fire threatens your property in order to minimize costly damages after a fire. All farm and ranch family members and farm workers should be able to identify potential fire hazards and understand the basic fire response techniques to eliminate or minimize personal and property damage.

If a wildfire threatens your farm or ranch, always remember that human life must be the first priority; property comes second. Keep in mind, however, that when firefighters arrive, they may ask which to save first, second, third, etc, so determine beforehand the order of importance: livestock, machinery, or feed.

Wildfire can strike home if you have not taken some steps to protect your house and property. The actions and precautions listed below are designed to help you prepare your home and lessen the threat of wildland fire damage to you and your property.

A few things you should be aware of during these dry, warm periods…
    1. Know if there is or is not a burning ban in place for your town, city, or county.
    2. If you burn, clear a large area on the ground; burn only what you want to burn.
    3. Do not leave your burn pile unattended and have a hose at the ready.

Here is a list to prevent warm, dry weather fires:
    1. LPG tanks should be far enough away from buildings for valves to be shut off in case of fire. Keep area around the tank clear of flammable vegetation.
    2. Store gasoline in an approved safety can away from occupied buildings.
    3. All combustibles such as wooden picnic tables and boats should be kept away from structures.
    4. Clear roof surfaces and gutters regularly to avoid build-up of flammable debris.
    5. Remove branches from trees to a height of 15 feet or more.
    6. Have fire tools handy such as: ladder to reach roof, shovel, rake, and bucket for water.
    7. Place connected garden hoses at all sides of your home for emergency use.
    8. Assure that you and your family know all emergency exits from your home and neighborhood.

For more up-to-date information from The Texas A&M University’s Texas Forest Service, go to http://tfsnews.tamu.edu and click on Fire Danger/Advisories.

For local fire services response, call 9-1-1 or you local fire authorities. In the case of a non-emergency fire related situation or to inquire about current burn bans, call The Orange Fire Department at 883-1050, The Bridge City Fire Department at 735-2419, The Groves City Fire Department at 962-4460, The Mauriceville Fire Alarm at 745-1636, McLewis Volunteer Fire Department at 882-9488, Pinehurst Volunteer Fire Department at 883-3331, Orange County Rural Fire Protection District Fire Marshall at 769-9940, West Orange Fire Department at 883-3468, or West Orange Volunter Fire Department at 886-0944.