Hell and High Water Stoke Texas Blaze: “No One on the Face of This Earth has Ever Fought Fires in These Extreme Conditions”

Here is irony befitting a Shakespearean tragedy.  Gov. Rick Perry finally got what he called on all Texans to pray for — some rain — but it was almost entirely dumped elsewhere and the winds of Tropical Storm Lee merely served to stoke the most brutal wildfires anyone had ever seen.

This unprecedented climate impact is, indeed, Hell and High Water.  Time‘s headline is, “Texas Burns as the Rest of the Country Drowns.”  But, of course, they have no mention of climate change whatsoever.

How bad is it in Texas?  CBS reported this morning:

Since December, wildfires have consumed 3.6 million acres of Texas — an area the size of the state of Connecticut.

Unfortunately, there is no rainfall in the forecast for the foreseeable future.

The Texas Forest Service put out statement saying, “This is unprecedented fire behavior. No one on the face of this Earth has ever fought fires in these extreme conditions”….

Tom Boggus, director of the Texas Forest Service:  “It’s historic. We’ve never seen fire seasons like this. We’ve never seen drought like this. This is  that we’re living in, and so people know and understand they’ve got to be extremely careful.”

So much for the standard denier claim that the weather extremes we’ve been experiencing now are nothing special.

Mr. Boggus obviously has one of the hardest jobs in the country, particularly working for a governor whose dual adaptation strategy is prayer coupled with cutting the budget of the Texas Forest Service.  So I hate to be the one to disappoint him — BUT this is going to be the briefest “historic time” in history.  In a few decades, assuming we keep listening to people like his Governor, this will be a pretty average summer for Texas (see here).  Heck, next summer could be worse!

If only scientists had warned us decades ago it would get hotter and drier with ever worse heat waves, droughts, and wildfires if we kept burning all that Texas Tea…..

Actually Andrew Freedman of the WashPost‘s Capital Weather Gang has a nice run through of the climate science.  But first Freedman directs us to yet more jaw-dropping statistics of just how grim things are down in Perry-land, courtesy of state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon on his too-aptly named Climate Abyss blog:

The preliminary numbers from the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) are in: the Texas average temperature in August was 88.1 F, 2.4 F above the previous warmest August (1952).  This also breaks the all-time record for hottest month in Texas history.  The records go back to 1895, but the previous record, 87.1 F, was set just last month.  Whatever the contribution from urban warming and poor station siting, it’s quite small compared to the temperature extremes we’ve been seeing this year.

Combined, the three months June-August averaged 86.8 F.  This sets the all-time record for hottest summer in the lower 48 states.  Oklahoma was running neck and neck, but came in at 86.5 F.  Both shattered the previous record, 85.2 F, set by Oklahoma in 1934.  Oklahoma can be consoled by the fact that it still owns the record for hottest individual month, 88.9 F in July 2011.

I call it a Pyric (rather than Pyrrhic) victory because the drought and heat have turned the Lost Pines of Bastrop into their own funeral pyre, the Bastrop fire being the largest of several fires that continue to burn out of control.  The drought has produced the necessary fuel conditions, and the combination of T.S. Lee and the first strong cold front of the season provided the strong winds and low humidity needed for rapidly-spreading wildfires.

The most commonly-used drought index, the Palmer Drought Severity Index, is now at -7.75 according to NCDC.  This is the second-lowest monthly value in Texas history, exceeded only by the -7.80 calculated for September 1956.  This index is most sensitive to drought on a 6-12 month time scale; water supply impacts were generally worse in 1956 because that drought began in 1950.  The present drought is the most severe one-year drought on record for Texas.

By comparison, the PDSI in the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl spiked briefly to -6, but otherwise rarely exceeded -3 for the decade (see here).  Yet Texas’s shocking PDSI is actually the projected PDSI for much of the U.S. by the 2060s (See NCAR analysis warns we risk multiple, devastating global droughts even on moderate emissions path)!

No, it’s not too late to prevent that almost unimaginable catastrophe.  But again, it would require the political system to reject everything Gov. Perry and the Tea Party stand for, and it would require the media to actually inform the public what is going on and how bad it is going to get if the disinformers triumph.  As if.

Here’s Freedman schooling the rest of the media on how to talk about this:

A hotter drought because of global warming?

The drought, extreme heat, and wildfires are intertwined. For example, the dry conditions that help create dangerous fire weather conditions also make it easier for air temperatures to rise into record territory, since most of the sun’s energy can be directed towards heating the air, rather than evaporating soil moisture and raising temperatures.

It’s unclear exactly what role global warming may be playing in the current Texas drought, but it’s difficult to dismiss it as a contributing factor to the drought’s severity. La Nina, which is a natural source of climate variability, is the primary suspect for reducing precipitation in Texas during the past year. (La Nina was declared “dead” by the end of May this year, but suggestions that La Nina conditions may return this winter aren’t exactly good news for Texas).

Many climate change studies point to an increased likelihood of droughts in coming years, particularly in the Southwestern U.S. As air and sea temperatures warm, there is an increasing amount of water vapor in the air, which can be wrung out in the form of more intense rainfall events in some areas, but that water vapor is also wrung out of the soil through evapotranspiration, and those regions already at the margin of arid conditions are left high and dry, triggering a self-feeding cycle of drier soils and higher temperatures. In general, with precipitation and climate change, a good rule of thumb is that extremes will become more extreme – heavy rainfall and flooding will be exacerbated, but so too will drought events. Another way it is often explained, wet regions are likely to become wetter, dry regions drier.

Indeed, studies have shown that some of these trends are already evident. Given the extreme heat that has accompanied it, the Texas drought has the characteristics  of global warming-influenced drought, even if – as always – it is hard to unravel the human and natural factors causing the particular conditions.

The bottom line is that as average temperatures increase due to climate change, drought impacts are likely to get worse, and we may be seeing this play out in Texas and other hard-hit areas. As NOAA researcher Marty Hoerling told the media in July, drought plus heat “is just going to make a bad situation that much worse,” since higher temperatures dry soils out much more rapidly. “We haven’t necessarily dealt with drought and heat at the same time in such a persistent way.”

Actually, there are a great many studies that show some of these trends are evident — see here:  Two seminal Nature papers join growing body of evidence that human emissions fuel extreme weather, flooding that harm humans and the environment

And there is a considerable amount of research on how we are already drying out.  I have been reviewing much of it for an article I was asked to write and will be discussing some of the key articles in the weeks to come.

The bottom line:  Hell and High Water is here but since we potentially face 10 times as much warming this century as we saw in the last half-century, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

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35 Responses to Hell and High Water Stoke Texas Blaze: “No One on the Face of This Earth has Ever Fought Fires in These Extreme Conditions”

  1. Wes Rolley says:

    Well, Perry could admit that we have changed the climate and give up all hope of getting a nomination. That might not be a bad thing.

    In the mean time, rumors have it that Dr. Jill Stein (CoChair, Rainbow-Green Party of MA) is considering a run for President. If she does, that will make 2 Green Parfty candidates who can legitimately put Dr. in front of their names. The other, Dr. Kent Mesplay has his PhD in BioMechanical Engineering.

    The point here is they both understand science.

  2. Peter Mizla says:

    The events in Texas as bad as they are have changed few minds in the ongoing global warming debate. The media still is afraid to make a ‘connection’.

    I may be naive- but why is the word ‘climate change’ or ‘Global warming’ such poison?

    At this point the large question we all can ask ourselves here is; When will global warming catastrophes become so bad that people like Perry, the republican anti science troglodytes, and the media finally admit ‘something is wrong?’

    At the way things are in fact progressing, would 2020 be too optimistic? Or 2030 when Hell and High Water finally begin to effect us to a point our society begins to fall into chaos.

  3. Pangolin says:

    In July 2008 over 2000 fires were started on a single day in California due to a series of thunderstorms that passed through the state. For three weeks most of the state lived under a haze of smoke as crews from around the country struggled to contain the blazes. Many fires were simply allowed to burn out because they were away from towns and cities.

    When half of Texas doesn’t see blue sky for a week talk to us.

    See:wiki Summer_2008_California_wildfires

  4. Shaheer says:

    Good thing global warming is just a hoax, otherwise these droughts and fires would be so much worse.

    Of course, these events will give those money-grabbing scientists more ammo for their global warming conspiracies. We better make sure to audit those scientists and instead devote our funds for prayer groups.

  5. Interesting Times says:

    You may intend that as sarcasm, but were you to post it on any right-wing blog, it would be taken seriously and cheered.

  6. The Texas Forest Service, like others in the country, has spent decades following misguided fire suppression policies in the backcountry, largely to protect the inventory of timber corporations.

    During normal times, such mismanagement goes unnoticed except by ecosystem scientists, and often has little discernible consequences as perceived by the public.

    But in abnormal (or extreme) times like the present, those mismanagement chickens are coming home to roost with a vengeance, with consequences everyone can see.

    But will the public get the message that these fires have been exacerbated by entrenched logging practices, or will politicians call for increased logging levels to once again allegedly reduce future fire risks?

  7. Satan Called. He wants his Governor back.

  8. Mark Shapiro says:

    OT, but I think PIOMAS Arctic ice volume update just came out, and set another record low, with about 2 weeks of melting yet to go.

  9. David B. Benson says:

    Sudden climate change?

  10. What Texas needs right now is some serious budget cuts.

    Oh, and also completely unrestrained hosing of extreme-weather fuel into the atmosphere.

    There. Problem solved.

  11. Mark Shapiro says:

    More OT: Does anyone know how Obama raised CAFE standards so high? No, they aren’t high enough, soon enough, or certain to be met, but I am still astonished that he got them.

    I remember no complaining from the auto industry, no Obama-bashing from any of the usual suspects, no huge ruckus in the press or in Congress. Is my memory completely faulty?

    My suspicion is that the auto industry is actually realizing that they made a 70-year strategic error. They thought that they and Big Oil were BFFs — they had always cooperated to get roads and car friendly policies at all levels of government. But now oil supplies have tightened forever, so Big Oil gets huge profits while the Big Three are on the skids. Maybe now they (and their many friends) see that their interests are not those of the oil industry.

    Could it be that they are seeing at least that much light? Does anyone else here see any signs of the auto industry divorcing Big Oil?

    If so, it’s huge, and an opportunity.

  12. I know this is just shocking, but according to L.A. Times Governor Perry is hopping mad because Obama won’t shovel as many federal taxpayer dollars into Texas as Perry wants.

    excerpt: “a Republican presidential hopeful who’s made his mark blasting federal spending, asked Washington for help…Perry and other Republican lawmakers have recently argued that federal disaster relief — such as aid for states hit by tornadoes and hurricanes — must be offset by federal spending cuts, but they have yet to make that argument in fire-ravaged Texas. The state recently cut funding for volunteer fire departments by 75% as a cost-saving measure.,0,2309971.story


  13. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Does anyone know of any survey of just what has been burning in Texas ? Forests are widely reported as the fuel, but presumably the 3.6M acres burnt actually include pasture and rangeland with scant tree cover?

    This aspect is a major factor in the scale of the fires’ GHG emissions. A further uncertainty is the fraction of outputs emitted as unburnt methane and carbon monoxide, plus that of the significant volumes of nitrous oxide emitted by exceptionally hot fires, with its CO2e value of 289 (IPCC AR4).

    For what its worth, the CO2 output from 1.0M acres of mature forest with around 202Ts dry wood per acre would be as follows:

    100TsC x 3.667(CO2) x 1,000,000 acres = 366,700,000 TsCO2 or 366.7 MTsCO2

    However, if just 1.0T CH4 and 1.0 Ts NO2 are emitted per acre off one million acres the 20-yr value CO2e output is as follows:

    1.0 MTsCH4 = 100 MTS CO2e
    1.0 MTsNO2 = 289 MTS CO2e
    100.0 MTsC = 366.7 MTs CO2

    In sum these amount to 755.7 MTs CO2e or 0.756 GTs CO2e.

    These rough projections of possible Texas widlfire GHG emissions are intended only to highlight their scale relative to anthro-CO2 emissions – of around 30 GTsCO2/yr, and to the natural carbon sinks’ annual intake – of around 8 to 15 GTsCO2/yr.

    Several conclusions can tentatively be drawn:

    – That wildfires with high volumes of very dry fuel burning in good natural or self-generated winds at high temperatures will emit volumes of nitrogen oxide making their CO2e output disproportionately high per acre burnt.

    – That the notional 0.756 GTs CO2e from Texas wildfire would wholly offset a global cut in anthro-CO2 output of just over 2.5%.

    – That the Texas wildfires are a rather small proportion of global wildfire area, indicating that, after subtracting the natural pre-AGW average annual burn area, wildfire emissions globally are already a serious and well advanced feedback loop on AGW.

    If anyone finds links to further info on the wildfire feedback, please post it.



  14. Joe Romm says:

    Post coming today!

  15. John McCormick says:

    Lewis, nice piece of analysis. Makes me wonder what the frequent fires in peat bogs of Borneo, Indonesia, Malaysia, Russia contribute to global warming?

  16. JustAnnie says:

    It must be nice to live in CA & be able to belittle the misfortunes of other parts of the country when it comes to fire and earthquakes. Did you read the article? We’ve been dealing with fire since December, way longer than 3 weeks. How about when CA grows to the size of TX & deals with burned acreage the size of CT, you call us? Good grief, can this country not come together in sympathy over anything anymore?

  17. Joan Savage says:


    It’s not a survey, but the interactive US fire map has a fuel classification system.
    Click on the Bastrop fire’s dot and others for more information.

    The Examiner ran a map a few days ago which is an overlay of fire-spotting on a topo.

  18. Mike#22 says:

    Texas 2011, Europe 2003, Russia 2010, all in summer, all over land. Blocking highs become established, with the hot dry air mass above land forcing the usual weather patterns north or south.

    Is it too soon to wonder if these giant hot air domes aren’t being reinforced by some greenhouse gases? Clear daylight conditions and the summer sun leads to maximum ground heating, but nighttime cooling is slowed a few percent by ghg, and the atmosphere above is getting heated from increased IR absorption. The next morning, the dome is bigger and hotter than it would have been, and gets an ideal start on another hot dry day.

  19. Mike#22 says:

    Lewis, my personal nightmare is what is going to happen to the eastern US forest when we get conditions like they have in Texas now. 50 years from now, 100? Giant firestorms like the Peshtigo fire, the worst fire in American history, which got so hot it melted railway cars and turned sand into glass.

    When the big forests burn, it really will be game over. –Mike

  20. dick smith says:

    Very interesting. But, the scale you’re positing borders on the incredible (to me). I’d sure like to know it’s a reasonable estimate. I’m not computer savvy enough, but could this be submitted to realclimate or skeptical science (or some other source) for a reality check?

  21. prokaryotes says:

    The 101 Ranch Fire began on August 30, 2011, south of Possum Kingdom Lake in Palo Pinto County, Texas. By September 6, the fire had scorched 6,555 acres (2,653 hectares), according to the Incident Information System.
    The Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this false-color image of the Ranch 101 burn scar on September 3, 2011. The burn scar is gray, vegetation is red, and bare or sparsely vegetated ground is tan. Water is navy blue.
    Just south of the easternmost curve of Possum Kingdom Lake is a network of residential streets, some of which lie within the burn scar. The Texas Forest Service reported that 39 homes and nine RVs had been destroyed. Although dozens of homes had been lost, firefighters saved nearly 200 others.
    As of September 6, the 101 Ranch Fire was 85 percent contained. News sources said that winds had died down, and some firefighters had been released to battle other blazes in the state. The same day, the Texas Forest Service reported that it had responded to 22 new fires in the past 24 hours, and 181 fires over the past week. The surge of wildfire in the region burned a total of 118,413 acres (47,920 hectares), and more than 700 homes had likely been lost in just 48 hours.
    The fires came in the midst of high temperatures and low humidity. Large parts of Texas have suffered from severe drought in the summer of 2011.

  22. Badgersouth says:

    “As a climate scientist at Texas A&M University, I can also tell you from the data that the current heat wave and drought in Texas is so bad that calling it “extreme weather” does not do it justice. July was the single hottest month in the observational record, and the 12 months that ended in July were drier than any corresponding period in the record. I know that climate change does not cause any specific weather event. But I also know that humans have warmed the climate over the last century, and that this warming has almost certainly made the heat wave and drought more extreme than it would have otherwise been.”

    Source: “Perry shoots the messenger on climate change” by Andrew Dressler, Houston Chronicle, Sep 3, 2011

  23. Douglas says:

    I often hear this cited by right-wingers as proof of the “government mismanaging the forests,” while dismissing any climate change component.

    The logging industry involvement is not mentioned. Funny that…

  24. Michael T says:

    Video of the wildfire in Texas:

    See how fast wildfire spreads – Texas Parks and Wildlife [Official]

  25. Solar Jim says:

    All of this (torrential rains, drought, wildfires, hurricanes, heat waves) are the quarter-century lagging effects of carbonic acid gas concentration in air, plus all other industrial greenhouse gases (today, over 400 ppm,equivalent and rising). Further, planetary responses are observed as exponential. Which means, as previously mentioned, that we are witness to the effects represented on the horizontal part of an exponential curve.

    The part up ahead in time is represented on the vertical section, often referred to as “Abrupt Climate Change.” Or, the end of “modern human civilization.”

    Historical study of collapsed civilizations indicates that a corrupt society maintains the status of elites by religious myth, lies, propaganda and state political power until their total starvation and thirst completes their arrogance, ignorance and greed.

    Petroleum is not an “energy resource” to Mother Nature. It’s a carbonic, fossil liquid stored purposely in the lithosphere.

  26. Aaron Lewis says:

    Between the precipitation events in the North-East and the drought in Texas, I think it is time to admit that the climate models have under estimated the effects and impacts of AGW.

  27. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Mike –
    this looks a highly plausible hypothesis, at least to a layman like me.

    Two further factors may add to that plausibility:

    – The dome effect of smog actively trapping GHG pollutants from ascending to upper atmosphere and being dissipated.

    – The reaction of sunlight and some GHGs (VOCs, CO, NOx, CH4, etc) to form low level ozone, which is itself a potent GHG.

    I wonder if Joe (or anyone else) can find research reports on this hypothesis. If it is proved correct, it has very strong policy implications for summertime emissions’ control measures, let alone for suing the EPA to obey the law on Ozone regs and ignore Obama’s illegal intervention.



  28. Joe Romm says:

    No argument here!

  29. Ken says:

    An interesting observation. I hope you are right. But probably not a divorce; a trial separation perhaps with the papers to be filed at a future time. Remember, the Obama administration rescued the Auto industry from extinction, and GM still depends on the government for loans, and the government is paying large subsidies for electric cars, and is not allowing Chse cars into the market yet, and disching a lot of money for research and development of more efficicent ICE, EV, HEV, auto related batteries, new flow battery technology and so on.

  30. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Dick – I’d be glad to find any serious scientific assessment of forest wildfire emissions. The notional output I posted above is not intended as an ‘estimate’ for the Texas fires, since we lack critical data, including forest-acreage burnt, fuel load/acre, species and moisture content, windspeed for each hour in each location, and, centrally, resulting combustion temperatures.

    My aim was to assemble a reasonable set of outputs for the round numbers of one million acres, using 100 TsC/acre as the primary fuel load. That load is not particularly extreme – a good proportion of forests carry more than that.

    The issue of combustion temperature and NO2 output is the wild card – I posited just one tonne of NO2 per acre, but wood contains a substantial fraction of nitrogen, so an extreme fire could emit many times that amount, giving a CO2e emission dozens of times that of the fire’s CO2 output.

    Rather than trying to estimate the Texas fires’ CO2e outputs, my aim was to provide a reasonably conservative output figure from a notional one million acres of Texan forest in order to demonstrate its scale in proportion annual anthro-CO2 outputs.

    Given the scale of the fires in Russia and Canada in recent years, it has to be said that in terms of the wildfire feedback on AGW, the Texan events are actually rather small beer.



  31. Colorado Bob says:

    “No One on the Face of This Earth has Ever Fought Fires in These Extreme Conditions”

    This is a variation on the theme :
    “We’ve never seen this before”.
    I first made note of this quote 4 years ago watching the fire season in 2007. Every new set of fire fighters that come up against these new conditions, makes a the same remarks. Someone may want to fill in the author of that quote, Black Saturday comes to mind, as having worst conditions.

  32. Colorado Bob says:

    There are no deniers on any wild land fire fighter crew.

  33. Colorado Bob says:

    By the way our three driest years on record in the Houston area occurred in 1917 (17.66”), 1988 (22.93”) and 1901 (27.09”). In a normal year the Houston area will typically receive around 45.00 to 50.00” of rainfall, so you can see in 1917 we had a little more than third of the normal rainfall while in 1988 we had roughly half. This year we have currently tallied 11.00” for the year, while we should be at 32.58”, meaning so far this year we have received only about a third of our normal rainfall and are on a pace to tie or unfortunately surpass the all time 1917 record.

  34. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Pangolin, I’d nominate the February 2009 fires in Victoria, too, for the unwanted title of most Hellish, only it’s probably not a competition any wish to win. Record drought for ten years, record dryness, record run of above 40 degree days (104 F)and then the hottest day in Victorian history with ferocious northerly winds. Plus the oil saturated eucalyptus forest, including mountain ash, the tallest hardwoods on earth. Apparently the clouds of volatile oil that surround the mountain ash canopy, and allow canopy fires to spread at ferocious speed, can spontaneously combust at around 50 degree Celsius, and they’ve gotten to 46 or 47 on occasions recently.