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Environment & Nature

Taylor County wildfire prompts evacuations as dry conditions raise risk in West Texas

Wildfire.JPG
Texas A&M Forest Service
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An aerial view of the Mesquite Heat Fire in Taylor County on Wednesday.

Texas A&M Forest Service has responded to nine fires across the state this week, saying they “have the potential to exhaust state and local resources.”

Large wildfires have ripped through parts of West Texas since Tuesday, prompting a disaster declaration and mandatory evacuations in southern Taylor County.

The Mesquite Heat Fire near Buffalo Gap, about 17 miles southwest of Abilene, has burned 5,000 acres in Taylor County since Tuesday. At least 10 homes have been destroyed. Some parts of U.S. Highway 277 have been closed, as well as some other major roads. Officials also issued a temporary flight restriction, instructing pilots to avoid operating aircrafts in the area.

Only about 5% of the fire had been contained as of Wednesday night, according to the Taylor County Sheriff’s Office.

Low humidity, gusty winds and very hot temperatures are contributing to critical fire conditions in the area, according to the National Weather Service. Isolated thunderstorms could also produce gusty and erratic winds, which would make the fire harder to control. More fires could break out through Friday.

Texas A&M Forest Service has responded to nine fires across the state this week. The Coconut Fire in Wilbarger County has burned an estimated 25,000 acres and was 20% contained as of Thursday morning. The Forest Service said the ongoing wildfires “have the potential to exhaust state and local resources.”

“Minimal rainfall, hot and dry conditions and an intensifying drought continue to support wildfire activity across the state,” Wes Moorehead, Texas A&M Forest Service fire chief, said in a statement. “Due to conditions, these wildfires are requiring more time and resources to contain.”

Wildfires are becoming more severe and frequent because of human-caused climate change. Record-breaking heat and worsening droughts are drying out grasslands and lengthening the fire season. More Texans are also moving to areas where wildfires are part of the landscape’s natural ecology.

The average daily minimum and maximum temperatures in Texas have both increased by 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 125 years, with nearly half the increase happening since 2000, according to a 2021 report by the state climatologist. The state just saw its hottest December on record since 1889.

Almost the entire state is considered in a drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. About 53% of the state — mostly North and West Texas — is in an extreme drought, meaning soil moisture is very low, crops fail to germinate and fire danger is high.

The disaster declaration in Taylor County means additional resources can be used for emergency procedures. U.S. Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Lubbock, said in a statement he was monitoring the fire and coordinating with local and state officials, including Gov. Greg Abbott’s office and the Texas Division of Emergency Management. American Electric Power is also working to restore power in the area.

Wildfires are Taylor County’s greatest environmental risk. About 91% of property in the area has some risk of being affected by wildfire over the next 30 years, according to Fire Factor, a property risk monitoring tool built by the First Street Foundation.

Erin Douglas contributed to this report.