Record winter heat, dry air helped drive Panhandle fire risk

Smoke hangs in the Canadian River Valley south of Stinnett, Texas after multiple days of wild fires Friday, March. 1, 2024. (Justin Rex For The Texas Tribune, Justin Rex For The Texas Tribune)

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Meteorologists at the National Weather Service office in Amarillo saw signs of possible danger in the Panhandle days before the first fire sparked. The previous week was dry and hot for February — the cities of Amarillo and Borger broke records for high temperatures as they respectively hit 83 and 85 degrees. Then a breezy cold front followed.

Forecasters on Sunday expected the days ahead to bring low relative humidity, which dries out grass and other vegetation in the Panhandle region that was already browned by winter. With a cold front blowing in, strong winds would soon gust as high as 50 to 60 mph, which could fan flames and cause them to spread. The weather was hot again. Borger tied another record high.

On Monday, their fears were realized. The first fires started as temperatures again set high records. And on Tuesday, as the front blew in, winds that had been blowing to the east shifted and pushed those long fire lines south.

By Friday morning, more than 1.25 million acres had burned, most of them north of Amarillo. At least two people died. And while the snow and rain brought in by the front temporarily slowed the fires’ spread, firefighters worry that the return of strong winds and dry air over the upcoming weekend might allow more fires to start.

It’s not unusual for there to be fire risk in the winter in Texas, when vegetation is dead, dormant or dry. Most of the area that has burned is not in a drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

But scientists know that the hot, dry weather that set the stage for the spread of the Panhandle falls in line with the type of weather that climate change is making more likely. Drier and warmer air dry out vegetation that fuels fires. (There isn’t clear scientific consensus yet on how or whether climate change affects wind.)

“If climate change had a role, it was in the fire weather itself, having record-setting temperatures on Monday combined with low humidity and then strong winds on Tuesday and low humidity,” Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said.

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy and professor at Texas Tech, describes this effect as climate change loading the dice in favor of extreme weather. She noted on X, formerly Twitter, that worsening climate change would grow the risk of winter wildfires.

Wildfire seasons have already been getting longer and more intense, according to a May 2023 report from Climate Central, a nonprofit that aims to communicate the effects of climate change. The researchers traced an increase of 32 more fire weather days per year in the Texas Panhandle from 1973 to 2022— one of the sharpest increases in the country. On average over that time, the area saw 62 fire weather days.

“There’s a lot of these really hot dry windy days, but we’re seeing a huge increase,” said Kaitlyn Trudeau, a senior research associate with Climate Central.

Climate change attribution science — or the process of saying to what extent human-caused climate change fueled an extreme weather event — is an evolving field. It typically takes researchers time to parse out how much of the greenhouse gasses pumped into the air as humans burn fossil fuels have contributed to the severity of one storm or another.

But Climate Central has developed a tool for assessing day-by-day how much climate change is affecting temperatures. Their method found that the heat on the day the fires started was at least three times more likely than it would have been if human-caused climate change weren’t occurring.

And, of course, more bad fire weather means more risk, said Dylan Schwilk, an associate professor in the department of biological sciences at Texas Tech University.

“If you get more warm, windy weather for a longer period, then there’s a better chance of that lining up with ignitions,” Schwilk said.

Schwilk studies how climate and weather alter how much plant material there is for fires to burn. The Panhandle fires are tearing through warm-season grasses, which good rain early last summer helped to grow. Hot weather later dried everything out, but that grass would have gone dormant anyway, he said.

The weird weather caught the attention of meteorologist Matt Lanza, who lives across the state in Houston and built a reputation for his even-keeled forecasting on the website Space City Weather during Hurricane Harvey. He saw how the changing winds fueled the fire and brought what he called “chaos.”

By Thursday, the weather finally gave firefighters a chance to gain some control. But Amarillo meteorologists were staring down another spell of what they considered “critical fire weather” this weekend because it would be warm, windy and dry, making it easier for fuels to ignite.

The weather experts worriedly watched for new fires to start and urged people to be careful as they celebrated Texas Independence Day on Saturday. Even after some precipitation, vegetation was already starting to dry out. It didn’t take long.

“There are still a lot of areas that have plenty of fuels to burn,” said National Weather Service meteorologist in Amarillo Samuel Scoleri.

Disclosure: Texas Tech University and Nature Conservancy have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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