Texans Get Stronger Warnings about Wildfires

That's the sound of Forest Service firefighters cutting fire lines near Joplin in northeast Texas. It was just one of the massive wildfires that hit the region in April 2009. Those fires consumed dozens of homes and thousands of acres.

National Weather Service forecasters say they've now been able to identify components of the weather system that came together ahead of those fires: the winds were warm; the air was dry; humidity was in single digits and temperatures were in the 80's.

"And on top of that it's burning on cured fuels, cured grass fuels, during the winter which are usually readily available to burn anyway. But you throw extreme weather on top of very dry fuels, you have a really critical mix there for potential fire severity."

Predictive Services Director Tom Spencer with the Texas Forest Service says forecasters can now see these systems four to five days before they move into a fire-prone area. They can use that information to put local fire departments on alert about potential firestorms: huge, destructive systems that are extremely difficult to control. Forecasters can also warn homeowners there's a very real possibility they may have to evacuate.

"They might issue a red flag warning, but amp it up with a statement along the lines that this is a potential wildfire outbreak system with the potential for large and destructive fires."

Spencer says homeowners can clear brush and debris to protect their property but in some cases the fires are so powerful there's not a lot firefighters can do.

"If local government officials come to you — if the county sheriff or constable or DPS — someone says 'you've got to evacuate'—to not take it lightly. It's sort of like living along the coast. If someone says you've got to evacuate if a hurricane's coming, we want them to take it that serious."

Spencer says we're moving into the time of year when people need to be on alert. He says most destructive wildfires in Texas happen in late winter and early spring.
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