Texas Fire Season: In-Depth Guide

Explore details regarding the Texas fire season from the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA). Learn when is it, how long it lasts, risk factors, and more.

Published:April 26, 2023
Edited:
April 17, 2024

Table of Contents

    Explore details regarding the Texas fire season from the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA). Learn when is it, how long it lasts, risk factors, and more.

    Texas is the second-largest state in the U.S. in terms of both size and population, and it contains a huge range of environments and terrain. Wildfires are a rising concern in the state as they grow in intensity and impact. Learn about Texas’ wildfire season and the risks that residents may face in the future.

    When is the Texas Fire Season?

    Climate change has extended fire season in Texas to run year-long, but wildfire risk is more severe in the winter (February through April) and the summer (August through October).1 The winter fire season, also called the dormant fire season, is caused by cold fronts bringing dry air to the state, while the freeze-cured grasses and high winds increase wildfire intensity.2 The summer wildfire season is due to high heat and extended drought conditions.

    Risk Factors for Wildfires in Texas

    Drought

    Wind, the dryness of the ground due to drought (also called surface dryness), and low humidity all create wildfire risk conditions in Texas. High winds cause wildfire to spread faster and further, and can contribute to drought conditions as they dry out air and fuels in an area. Texas is at risk of wildfires any time there are three to four consecutive weeks of high winds and drought.3

    Weather

    Weather patterns are a major factor in determining Texas’ yearly wildfire risk. In the Pacific Ocean, trade winds follow the equator and travel west, taking warm water from South America towards Asia. Two climate events break this pattern: El Niño and La Niña. These events take place approximately every two to seven years and usually last 9-12 months, but they do not have a regular schedule and can last for years.4

    During La Niña years, winter conditions in Texas are warmer and drier than normal. This increases the risk of extreme wildfires, especially in the Southern Plains area of the state. A Southern Plains Wildfire Outbreak (SPWO) occurs when there are west-southwest winds across an area with low humidity, higher than average temperatures, dry vegetation, and clear skies. Wildfires in a SPWO event often grow quickly and are difficult to control; 18 of the 30 largest wildfires in Texas occurred under SPWO conditions.5 High winds create dangerous wildfire growth and contribute to extreme fire behaviors.

    Fuel

    While droughts create an obvious fire risk as they dry timber, brush, grass, and surface vegetation, there is also risk when growing seasons are wetter than average in Texas. Persistent drought limits the amount of grass that grows and leads to a reduced fuel load (the amount of debris available to burn). When wetter weather is followed by drought, the fuel load is higher and there is more risk of an intense fire season.6 Areas of Texas are also at high risk for wildfire due to fuel load because approximately 94% of the land is privately owned, and therefore managing vegetation is the responsibility of individual owners.7

    Human Activity

    Nearly 90% of wildfires are started by humans.8 The largest cause of wildfire ignition in Texas is when people burn debris. Other human-caused fires result from discarded smoking materials, sparks from welding and other industrial equipment, vehicle exhaust systems, and arson. To reduce wildfire risk, Texas residents can avoid burning debris on windy days, monitor any fire or flammable material until it is completely out, wet down the surrounding area before welding or using equipment that could spark, and take extra care when using equipment or driving/parking a vehicle in tall, dry grass. It is also important to keep fire extinguishing tools on hand.9

    How Wildfire Season in Texas is Changing

    Texas is divided into 10 climate regions, from high plains and forests to the Gulf Coastal Plains’ marshes and humid marine prairies.10 In the semi-arid environments of the Southwest and the Great Plains, climate change is contributing to rising hot temperatures and decreasing precipitation.3 A 2020 report from the Texas State Climatologist’s Office predicts growing droughts and wildfires in the eastern area of Texas.11 Central Texas now experiences year-round wildfire risk.12

    Texas’ increasing population, shifting weather patterns, and changes in land use are raising the risk of extreme wildfire damage impacting Texas communities. Over 85% of all wildfires ignite within two miles of a community and this number will grow as more people build homes in the wildland-urban interface.5 The high risk of wildfire damage to single-family houses in Texas is often because of dense foliage near homes.12

    Recent Texas Wildfires

    The largest fire in Texas in the 21st century was the East Amarillo Complex Fire during the winter fire season of 2006. It started in the Texas panhandle and burned 907,245 acres before it was contained.13 According to the Texas A&M Forest Service, the 2011 Texas fire season was the most devastating in terms of both the number of fires, acres burned, and the damage done. Nearly 3,000 homes were destroyed and nearly 4 million acres burned across the state.7

    Texas experiences an average of 9,000 wildfires per year, though most burn only a few acres before they are contained.5 Below is a list of recent wildfires in Texas.

    Smokehouse Creek Fire (2024)22
    Start Date: 02/26/2024
    Location: Hutchinson County
    Acres Burned: 1,078,086 
    Cause: Under Investigation
    Bent Willow Fire (2023)
    Start Date: 4/4/2023
    Location: Potter County
    Acres Burned: 8,118
    Cause: Unknown
    Loma Desert Fire (2023)14
    Start Date: 4/4/2023
    Location: Hudspeth County
    Acres Burned: 1,946
    Cause: Unknown
    Eastland Complex Fire (2022)15
    Start Date: 3/15/2022
    Location: Eastland and Brown Counties
    Acres Burned: 54,513
    Cause: Under investigation
    Borrega Fire (2022)
    Start Date: 3/30/2022
    Location: Kleberg County
    Acres Burned: 51,566
    Cause: Unknown
    Texas Copper Breaks Fire (2019)16
    Start Date: 8/16/2019
    Location: Hardeman County
    Acres Burned: 7,206
    Cause: Unknown
    Mallard Fire (2018)17
    Start Date: 3/8/2018
    Location: Armstrong County
    Acres Burned: 75,530
    Cause: Unknown
    Perryton Fire (2017)18
    Start Date: 3/6/2017
    Location: Ochiltree, Lipscomb, Roberts, and Hemphill Counties
    Acres Burned: 318,156
    Cause: Human (downed power lines or sparks from a transformer)
    Lefors East Fire (2017)
    Start Date: 3/6/2017
    Location: Gray and Wheeler Counties
    Acres Burned: 135,000
    Cause: Unknown
    Crutch Fire (2016)19
    Start Date: 3/23/2016
    Location: Carson, Hutchinson, Roberts, and Gray Counties
    Acres Burned: 44,686
    Cause: Human (downed power lines)
    Hidden Pines Fire (2015)20
    Start Date: 10/13/2015
    Location: Bastrop County
    Acres Burned: 4,582
    Cause: Human (ranch equipment)
    A map of Texas outlining 11 environmental regions, including plains, prairies, oak & piney woods, plateaus, marshes, & brush country.
    The unique ecoregions of Texas make certain areas prone to different kinds of wildfire which maintain ecosystem health.

    Historical Texas Wildfire Trends

    Texas has diverse environments and unique wildfire mitigation challenges due to climate conditions, land use, and land ownership. Historical fire intervals in the state varied depending on terrain. For example, the pine forests in eastern Texas had late growing season fires at regular, short intervals, while the Blackland Prairies saw large burns every three to seven years, and the Rolling Plains in North Central Texas had fire intervals of 20-30 years.21 These wildfire intervals were disrupted by strict wildfire suppression practices throughout the 20th century. State organizations are working to promote revised, environment-conscious wildfire risk mitigation strategies for private landowners.

    Texas Wildfire Resources

    Utilize WFCA’s Fire Map to search for the status of an active wildfire in Texas. Users can zoom in and select each individual fire to get instant access to the latest published information.

    Sources

    1. Texas Monthly, “TM Informer: What Is Wildfire Season?” Accessed April 7, 2023.
    2. KWTX, “Texas A&M Fire Service warns of increased wildfire danger as cold front moves in.” Accessed April 10, 2023.
    3. Climate Signals, “Texas Wildfire Season 2022.” Accessed April 7, 2023.
    4. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “What are El Niño and La Niña?” Accessed April 10, 2023.
    5. Texas A&M Forest Service, “Historical Fire Statistics.” Accessed April 10, 2023.
    6. Texas Interagency Coordination Center, “2023 Texas Dormant Wildfire Season Expected to be Normal to Below Normal.” Accessed April 11, 2023.
    7. Texas A&M Forest Service, “2011 Texas Wildfires.” Accessed April 12, 2023.
    8. Congressional Research Service, “Wildfire Statistics.” Accessed February 15, 2023.
    9. Texas A&M Forest Service, “Prevent Wildfire.” Accessed April 10, 2023.
    10. Texas Water Development Board, “Chapter 4: Climate of Texas.” Accessed April 10, 2023.
    11. Texas A&M Office of the Texas State Climatologist, “Assessment of Historic and Future Trends of Extreme Weather in Texas, 1900-2036.” Accessed April 10, 2023.
    12. Austin American Statesman, “Winter wildfire risk is rising in Central Texas. Here’s what you should know.” Accessed April 7, 2023
    13. Texas A&M Forest Service, “30 Largest Wildfires in Texas History.” Accessed April 10, 2023.
    14. Texas A&M Forest Service, “Texas Wildfire Data and Information.” Accessed April 12, 2023.
    15. AgriLife Today, “Wildfire sentinel during Eastland Complex.” Accessed April 10, 2023.
    16. Texas Division of Emergency Management, “Texas Copper Breaks Fire FM-5288.” Accessed April 11, 2023.
    17. National Weather Service, “May 11th, 2018 Mallard Fire Sparks Severe Storm.” Accessed April 11, 2023.
    18. National Weather Service, “2017 Wildfires: Feb. 23rd, Feb. 28th, and Mar. 6th.” Accessed April 10, 2023.
    19. National Weather Service, “Storm Data and Unusual Weather Phenomena – March 2016.” Accessed April 11, 2023.
    20. Bastrop County, Texas, “Case Study of the 2015 Hidden Pines Wildland-Urban Interface Fire in Bastrop, Texas.” Accessed April 11, 2023.
    21. SpringerOpen, “Historical Pyrogeography of Texas, USA.” Accessed April 12, 2023.
    22. InciWeb, “Smokehouse Creek Fire.” Accessed, March 1, 2024.

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