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Texas prepares to respond to elevated wildfire threats

Ronnie Driver
Todd Wiseman/Ed Scipul
Fire officials check smoldering hot spots and check damage in Lake Tanglewood, a small community southeast of Amarillo, Texas, where several homes were destroyed by wildfires are seen Monday, Feb. 28, 2011. Firefighters have contained wind-driven wildfires that burned about 121,000 acres in West Texas and the Panhandle, but there is a danger of blazes breaking out in the south.

High winds, unseasonably warm temperatures and dry conditions prompt concern about potential wildfires across Texas this week.

Governor Greg Abbott’s office says the Texas Division of Emergency Management and other state agencies have deployed staff and resources in response to an elevated threat of wildfires across Texas this week.

The National Weather Service on Tuesday forecasted unseasonably warm temperatures, dry weather and high winds posing dangerous fire conditions for much of the Texas Panhandle and South Plains, including populated areas near Wichita Falls, San Angelo, Lubbock and Amarillo. The NWS also warned that critical fire conditions are possible in West and South Texas later this week.

"The State of Texas continues to monitor weather conditions and is fully prepared to respond to any potential wildfire activity that could impact our communities," said Gov. Abbott in a statement released Monday.

Those include three strike teams of approximately 75 firefighters and 15 fire engines from the Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System. According to the press release, “two large air tankers, three single engine air tankers, two type 3 helicopters, two air attack platforms, and two aerial supervision modules” are also pre-positioned in areas where fire risks are greatest. Two medical field teams are on standby to deploy as well.

Meteorologist Glen Kendrick with the NWS office in Lubbock explains the chances of dried out grasslands igniting will increase significantly as relative humidity in the region drops below 10%.

"Along with the dry conditions, we are looking at wind speeds around 30 mph, gusting up to 45 mph for today.” High winds could also bring blowing dust to the South Plains and southwest Panhandle, he said.

The Texas Forest Service listed three relatively small wildfires in North and Central Texas as almost completely contained as of Tuesday afternoon. That included the Valentine’s Day fire in Wise County, northwest of Fort Worth. Local news reports showed dramatic aerial footage of more than a dozen horses fleeing amidst smoke from the fire that also consumed a vacant house.

The NWS urges residents in fire-prone areas to exercise caution during any outdoor activities that could produce sparks or flames, due to the high risks of starting a blaze.

Colder weather with the potential for precipitation is forecast to arrive in Texas starting Wednesday night and will help reduce chances for fires through the end of the week.