If she looks really closely, Tami Faulkner can still spot the tree stumps left from a devastating wildfire in February 1996.
The first puffs of smoke from the wildfire remain vivid.
She was hanging laundry outside her Parker County home, about three miles from Poolville, when she noticed the smoke.
“It was a nice day,” Faulkner said. “I was doing sheets out on the line and I saw smoke and said to myself ‘that looks close to school.’ ”
Faulkner hurried to pick up her 5-year-old daughter and, over a matter of minutes, realized a major wildfire was spreading not far from her home.
It would be named the “Jackerwise” fire, because the flames raced along Texas 199 and parts of Jack, Wise and Parker counties. Jackerwise blackened 16,000 acres and destroyed 55 homes, 86 outbuildings and 87 vehicles before it was brought under control on the third day.
Forecasters are warning that Texas might face another difficult fire season this winter, explaining that conditions are ripe for large-scale wildfires.
The Jackerwise fire led to an awakening among state and local fire officials that a “California-type wildfire” could happen in North Texas. And there have been many more since that day, including the deadly 2009 Montague County wildfires, along with the 2011 infernos that struck Possum Kingdom northwest of Fort Worth and Bastrop near Austin.
Faulkner’s home survived but many of her friends lost everything and eventually moved away.
“It was kind of like a tornado,” Faulkner said. “It just went wherever it wanted to go.”
‘It’s a real concern’
Because of the return of La Niña, warm, dry conditions are predicted this winter.
La Niña occurs when cooler than normal sea surface temperatures develop in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Those conditions tend to bring drier, warmer weather to Texas in winter.
“It’s a real concern for the state,” said Tom Spencer, head of the Texas A&M Forest Service’s Predictive Services Department. “We’ve got a lot of grass fuel loading from west of Fort Worth to the Possum Kingdom Lake area, north into Clay and Montague counties and west all the way to the Panhandle.”
The fire threat is exacerbated by the wet weather earlier this year, fueling grass growth.
Standing in a pasture last week, George Teague, Parker County’s emergency management coordinator, was surrounded by blue stem and other grasses that ranged from 1 foot to 3-feet high.
“It doesn’t take much to get a fire started and when they do start, they are runaways,” Teague said. “They move extremely fast. A small fire can turn into multiple acres in 10 to 15 minutes.”
Since that Poolville fire two decades ago, Parker County has grown dramatically. The 2000 Census placed Parker County’s population at 88,495, while a 2016 Census population survey pegged it at 129,441.
While more homes means there are more structures for firefighters to protect, the increase in irrigated landscapes can serve as fire breaks.
“The problem is the wide-open areas where it’s not grazed extensively,” Teague said, meaning the less-developed western portion of Parker County and toward more rural areas outside the county.
The Parker County area has more firefighting equipment than two decades ago, but a large wildfire could still pose problems during weekdays when most volunteer firefighters are working.
‘You never forget’
On the state level, the A&M Forest Service can respond far faster than 20 years ago and can call in paid firefighters from larger cities.
Statewide, changes in land use play a big role. Property where cattle once roamed is being used for weekend getaways or recreational hunting ranches, so there’s nothing to stop the grass from growing tall.
“We’re expecting that the typical winter fire season we’ll see is from February through March and April,” said Spencer of the Forest Service. “But it could start sooner.”
In 2005, it came two days after Christmas in the small town of Cross Plains, 130 miles southwest of Fort Worth, where a fire raced through the middle of town, burning down 85 homes, 25 mobile homes, six hotel units and the First United Methodist Church.
That fire was a perfect example of what forecasters call the Southern Plains Wildfire Outbreak — when conditions are ripe for a major wildfires outbreak.
The Southern Group of State Foresters describes it as “a massive and destructive fire — or group of fires — that often can’t be controlled by firefighters. Much like a hurricane or tornado, it can’t be stopped. All you can do is get people out of the way.”
Already, Parker County has responded to small fires on low humidity days and Teague estimates they have three to five low humidity days each month during winter.
Faulkner said the memories of that 1996 fire remain fresh in the Poolville area and any sign of smoke is reported promptly.
“You’re asking: ‘Is it my house? Is it my friend’s house? Is it going to burn out of control, is it going to burn three counties?’ ” Faulkner said. “If you’ve been through it, you never forget.”