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

By Sneha Dey, The Texas Tribune

Taylor County wildfire prompts evacuations as dry conditions raise risk in West Texas” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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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, spread to nearly 10,000 acres in Taylor County as of Wednesday afternoon. At least 27 homes have been destroyed, according to Abilene Mayor Anthony Williams. 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 Thursday afternoon, 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.

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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.”

Gov. Greg Abbott said Thursday that about 250 firefighters from the Texas A&M Forest Service are supporting local officials to slow the spread of the fire. The state has also activated aerial and ground assets, as well as personnel from out of state.

Since January, more than 400,000 acres in the state have burned, according to Texas A&M Forest Service. The agency has responded to more than 800 wildfires this year.

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.

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.

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