Winter weather outlook, officials worried about wildfires
Standing at the edge of a wide open pasture, Parker County Fire Marshal Kurt Harris can vividly recall what happened in January.
Smoke stated rising dangerously close to a Willow Park neighborhood as a wildfire sparked by a downed power line began racing across a pasture.
A cluster of homes were immediately in its path.
“It went so fast,” Harris said Wednesday. “It burned right under the wood fences. In one backyard, it went right under a trampoline.”
The 1,700-acre fire would threaten two new subdivisions, Morningstar and the Walsh development in far west Fort Worth before making a sudden turn to the south. It would cause the evacuations of two Aledo schools and force the closure of both Interstate 30 and Interstate 20.
But Harris, a deeply religious man, believes the sudden wind shift saved lives and property. When it ran into the wall of concrete where the two interstates meet near the Tarrant-Parker county line, firefighters were able to get the fire under control.
“Some would call it luck,” Harris said. “I would call it divine intervention.”
On Saturday, meteorological winter officially begins and with it the wildfire season starts again.
This year’s winter weather forecast is a little confusing because a wet winter is predicted because of the expected development of an El Niño.
Forecasters are predicting an 80 percent chance of an El Niño this winter and 55-60 percent chance that it extends into spring. For Texas, the weather phenomenon that forms off the Pacifc Coast of South America typically means a wetter than normal winter.
This fall is already the wettest on record at DFW Airport with 29.20 inches falling through Wednesday, shattering the old record of 21.82 inches in 2015. It is also the third-wettest year on record with 51.41 inches, trailing only 2015 when 62.61 inches had fallen.
“We’ve already seen some impacts with DFW having a record wet fall and we’re still expecting to see a wetter winter than normal,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Huckaby.
But paradoxically, that wet fall may be the perfect recipe for another dangerous wildfire season.
The record-breaking fall rains have set the stage by prompting grasses to grow across North Texas.
In the pasture in northeast corner of Willow Park, the grasses range from ankle high all the way up to the knee. That’s plenty of fuel for a fast-moving wildfire like the one that occurred on Jan. 22.
There’s still a few blades of green grass mixed into the dead pastures but in another month or two all of that will likely be bone dry after several more hard freezes. Once all of the grass is dead, it takes only a day or two for the threat to rise after a winter rain.
Last week there were several days of elevated fire danger west of Fort Worth due to gusty winds and low humidity.
“I think it can be as bad as last year,” Harris said. “If people don’t want to have the problems like we’ve seen in California, they’ve got to create a buffer zone around their home.”
For new residents to Parker County and far west Fort Worth, Harris said they must keep firewood and other combustibles away from the side of the house. Keeping the grass and vegetation mowed is also crucial.
“Parker County is becoming a very populous area,” Harris said. “Now suddenly we are having a lot of people in the way.”
Since last year’s fire, there have been questions about what would have happened if the fire had started south of the interstates, where it could have been far more difficult to control.
“We all talk about it,” Harris said. “What if it had been on the south side of the interstates? What if it had started there because there’s creeks and woods going to Benbrook on the south side that would have been impossible for us to reach. It’s a frightening thing when you see things spread the way they did.”