BASTROP, Texas – Scorching temperatures, strong winds and dry vegetation are turning Texas wildfires into fast and furious dangers that hop from place to place within hours, even minutes, and give residents little time to flee. Now it's likely to get worse.
Another La Nina weather pattern promises to bring drier, windier cold fronts in the months ahead, setting the stage for even more destructive blazes as the state prepares for autumn — traditionally its busiest wildfire season.
"It's the perfect conditions for a fire storm that just becomes very catastrophic, very intense and very difficult to control," said Doug Piirto, head of the Natural Resources Management and Environmental Sciences Department at California Polytechnic State University.
The perilous mix has spawned a massive blaze that's destroyed nearly 1,400 homes in the Bastrop area southeast of Austin and nearly 300 others firefighters have battled nonstop since February. Their job has been made more difficult by a historic drought that is dehydrating vegetation — fuel for a fire — and a bubble of high pressure that has brought record-breaking, triple-digit heat to nearly every corner of the state.
"As long as these conditions exist, the fire forces don't get to take a day off," said Roddy Baumann, a fire behavior analyst from Vancouver, Wash., who has been in Texas since August assisting the state's incident management team. He notes even drought-resistant juniper bushes are dying of thirst, a phenomenon he has never before seen.
The pervasive threat means even places with little history of wildfires have reason to worry. Earlier this week in mostly rural counties northwest of Houston, an area more accustomed to high humidity and monsoon-style rains, blazes fueled by constantly shifting winds destroyed 75 homes.
Wildfires spread at about the rate of sustained wind speeds — about 30 mph at times last weekend when the latest round of fires broke out — and people often miscalculate the time they have to escape.
"You can't outrun the fire," said Jeremy Sullens, a wildfire analyst at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, a conglomeration of federal and state agencies that supports operations nationwide.
Greg Creacy, a wildlife biologist and fire management specialist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said the Bastrop blaze at times spit out embers that landed on dry vegetation a half-mile or more ahead. Even as firefighters made progress and tamped down hotspots Friday, concern lingered about spot flare-ups sparked by floating embers.
Creacy said when embers spark ahead of the fire, the main flame follows behind and merges before sending out more spots "so it's kind of hopscotching along and it gains ground a little more quickly."
"When it's approaching and coming into those neighborhoods, you don't have a lot of time to react. It catches people by surprise," he said. "You have to move quickly to get to your escape route and get out of harm's way, particularly with those spots — you don't want to get trapped with fire in front of you and fire behind you."
Brad Smith, a wildland fire analyst who helps forecast wildfire potential for the Texas Forest Service, said huge blazes can be like hurricanes because their potential can be predicted and a cone can be drawn around high-danger areas.
"What you can't forecast and the big unknown with wildfires is where it's going to occur exactly," Smith said. "In that regards, it's more like a tornado."
During normal years, Texas' wildfire-friendly conditions reach their peak in November and last roughly through early spring. Last October, by looking at the growing La Nina weather pattern and the large amount of vegetative fuel on the ground, Smith predicted a busy summer wildfire season.
"And we got it," he said. "Now ... with dry winds with dry fronts, if that does happen, it's gonna be another very busy winter for Texas firefighters."
It also promises to be rough for residents like Jeff Worrell, who returned to the remains of his home in Bastrop on Thursday. A foundation and brick façade were all that was left of the home he bought four years ago when he moved to Texas from Los Angeles. The strings of Worrell's precious guitars, including one his son bought with money earned sweeping floors at the age of 11, could be seen in the still-hot rubble.
Familiar with the devastation of California wildfires, Worrell had noted the fire hydrant and fire station at the end of the street when he bought his home. But he and others seemed resigned not only to rebuilding from the ruins but accounting for the reality of wildfires as an always-there risk.
"It's something that everybody has to think about," Worrell said.
Smith and other fire experts said conditions last weekend — when massive counterclockwise wind gusts from Tropical Storm Lee converged over a drought-stricken state with a clockwise flow from a northern front — were highly unusual.
But National Weather Service meteorologist Victor Murphy said it could become more common this winter as parched soil meets the dry, cold air the La Nina is expected to deliver.
Risks are already rising. Temperatures in parts of Texas will rise again next week to the mid-90s and low 100s, Murphy said, dropping already low humidity, "which puts us at risk when the next front comes through."
This year's drought, combined with the hottest June through August in U.S. history, increased the severity and intensity of Texas' wildfires. But other factors, including a massive growth in Texas' population — which has doubled since 1970 — urbanization, the introduction of non-native plants that burn more easily and fewer controlled burns that would help rid highly flammable undergrowth, all play a role in making wildfires larger, more intense and more severe.
"That's what's making this doubly severe," said James Hull, director of the Texas Forest Service for 12 years until retiring in 2008. "No longer are we just burning rural land, trees and forest pastures, but we're burning homes and, unfortunately, people."