TEXAS VIEW: Central Texans should heed the threat of more wildfires

THE POINT: Climate change is driving longer, hotter and drier summers, making the threat of wildfires worse.

A controlled burn that flared out of control in Bastrop County earlier this year served as a frightening reminder that Central Texas is at severe risk of catastrophic wildfires. Now, state officials are adapting their tactics for fighting fire with fire.

More stringent policies for controlled burns adopted by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department last week make good sense. Fire experts and insurance underwriters warn that the Austin region is increasingly vulnerable to the kinds of wildfires that ravaged communities in California, Oregon, Arizona and elsewhere last year. In fact, Texas is second only to California in the number of homes at risk from wildfires, with counties in Central Texas comprising the bulk of our state’s threatened inventory.

Part of what makes our beautiful Hill Country so attractive can also harm us when you add to the mix persistent drought and climate change — conditions that fuel the wildfire threat. Austin’s explosive growth is pushing homes into a space where new development and the wildlands meet.

All Central Texans should heed the dire warnings and take steps now to protect their property because climate change is driving longer, hotter and drier summers, making the threat worse. Texas suffered one of its driest periods ever between August 2021 and January 2022, and experts contend it’s just a matter of when — not if — a major “megawildfire” will scorch Austin or its vicinity.

“We are one of the most at-risk areas in the nation for wildfires, unequivocally,” Justice Jones, the Austin Fire Department’s Wildfire Mitigation Officer, told our board last week. Thankfully, the city has one of the most proactive fire strategies in the country, he said.

On Jan. 18, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department was working proactively, and within existing guidelines, when it ignited a prescribed burn in Bastrop State Park to eradicate dense vegetation that could make a wildfire more difficult to manage. Unfortunately, the prescribed 150-acre burn morphed into a scary 812-acre wildfire — likely due to embers floating in the wind — before it was extinguished.

The blaze forced 250 Bastrop County residents to evacuate. No homes were damaged and no one was injured, but the fire was a grim reminder of more devastating conflagrations that destroyed hundreds of homes in Bastrop, Oak Hill and other Central Texas communities in recent years.

In the midst of a savage drought in 2011, Bastrop suffered the most catastrophic wildfire in Texas history when sparks from power a line lit a blaze that killed two people, injured a dozen, and consumed 34,000 acres and 1,700 homes. Monetary losses exceeded $200 million. In 2015, a wildfire destroyed 70 homes east of Bastrop, in Smithville. Fortunately, no one was injured.

Austin American-Statesman