Tip Sheets

As Texas fires burn, future risk in the region is uncertain

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Jeff Tyson

Wildfires in Central Texas, including the Eastland Complex fire that killed a sheriff’s deputy and burned more than 50,000 acres, are continuing their blaze.

Flavio Lehner

Climate scientist and assistant professor of earth and atmospheric science

Climate scientist Flavio Lehner studies ways to improve climate change projections, and is an author on a new paper showing increases in both extremely wet and dry years. Lehner says the part of Texas where this fire has spread sits geographically near a dividing line between regions of the country that will experience either more or less winter precipitation in the future — making it hard to anticipate what future fire risk will be.

Lehner says:

“At first sight, a lot of the ingredients of the Eastland Complex wildfire are consistent with increasing wildfire risk in other dry areas of the U.S. and the world: higher temperatures combined with a dry winter lead to quick drying of vegetation, which, once ignited, can grow rapidly into dangerous wildfires. The key ingredient, however, are the strong winds, especially in an area with mostly shrubs.

“We expect temperatures to rise further in the future until the climate is stabilized by a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, but it is less clear what will happen to the other ingredients, namely precipitation, winds and vegetation. This part of Texas sits right around the dividing line between areas we expect to receive less winter precipitation in the future (west) and more (east), though climate models do not agree on where that line will end up exactly, which also makes it unclear what will happen to vegetation itself.

“Finally, we don’t expect the winds to change dramatically in the future. Because of ubiquitous future warming, the combination of evidence still points to a future with increased fire risk, especially if the climate models that lean towards more drying turn out to be right. But the case for grassland and shrub fires is perhaps less clear-cut than for big forest fires like we have seen in the Western U.S. in recent years. More fundamental research on changing precipitation, as well as how it connects to impacts on natural and human systems, is needed to provide more accurate answers.”

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