West Texas Faces Severe Wildfire Threat As Dry Conditions Continue

By Diana Nguyen

Fire officials in West Texas are warning of a potentially severe wildfire season as dry conditions persist across the region. 

In 2018, the McDannald Ranch Fire — which is believed to have been started by a lightning strike — lasted nearly two weeks and burned over 19,000 acres in Far West Texas. (Photo courtesy of Katie Smither)

Fire season started early this year in West Texas due to a lack of precipitation in the winter and early spring. That means the dry grasses, shrubs and trees are under constant threat of igniting.  

The region has already seen large fires break out beginning in April. Most recently, the now-contained Arroyo Grande Fire started by sparks from a welding operation burned over 6,000 acres in Sutton County. The McDaniel Fire in Coke County, northwest of San Angelo, is now 90% contained and has burned over 4,200 acres.

Further west, dry conditions are some of the worst in the state, according to an online dashboard provided by the Texas A&M Forest Service that uses the Keetch-Byram Drought Index, which assigns values based on precipitation and soil moisture, and ranges from 0 to 800. As of Wednesday, Brewster and Jeff Davis Counties has surpassed 500 on the index, and Presidio County is the driest in the state, nearing a value of 600.

“Last year we were a little better off than we are this year,” said Marfa Fire Chief Gary Mitschke. 

“After 575 [on the index,] it’s just water under the bridge,” Mitschke said. “We know it’s bad and it’s just gonna get worse, the way it seems.”

Robyn Griffith, a specialist with the Texas A&M Forest Service, said the agency is preparing for potential wildfires by staging resources across West Texas in Fort Stockton, Alpine, Ozona and San Angelo.

“We’re getting more resources into these areas so that way, if a fire does break out further west, we have resources that are close to be able to respond to those,” said Griffith.

In order to help mitigate fire danger, Mitschke said residents and tourists should use “common sense” and be cautious of anything that causes sparks like smoking, campfires, outdoor cooking and driving in tall grasses. Permits are required for outdoor burning and can be obtained from the respective county. 

There are currently burn bans in place for Brewster, Jeff Davis and Presidio Counties, with limitations on fireworks.

Griffith says residents should prepare their property by taking measures like clearing out dead vegetation around structures and pruning trees. She also says residents should prepare a bag in case they might need to quickly evacuate. 

With the extreme fire conditions, Mitschke said it’s important for residents to be vigilant and prepared. 

“When conditions are as dry as they’re getting now, just about anything can set off a fire,” Mitschke said. “If we have the hot days, the low humidity, and we have any wind at all, it’s gonna be off and running in a heartbeat.”

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About Diana Nguyen

Diana Nguyen is a reporter for Marfa Public Radio. Previously, she was the host and executive producer for West Texas Talk. Her work explores the forces that shape the people and places of Far West Texas.
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