Conducting wildfire risk assessments on at-risk communities in Texas is a critical component of community planning. During the last two years, 80 percent of the wildfires in Texas have occurred within two miles of a community.
Texas is experiencing “high-velocity” change through rapid population growth and development. Throughout Texas, the majority of the state’s new development is encroaching on undeveloped wildland areas. As cities, communities, and suburbia expand into what was once considered rural Texas, people and structures come into close contact with large amounts of vegetation. The junction in which homes and structures intersect with undeveloped wildland areas that contain flammable grass, brush, and trees is known as the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI).
The placement of people, homes and structures within the WUI renders them extremely vulnerable to wildfire. Texas is prone to wildfires due to development and population increases within the WUI; climate conditions; and changes in agricultural, forest and ranch land use. Wildfire occurrence statistics in Texas show that people cause more than 90 percent of all the wildfires and more than 80 percent of all the wildfires in Texas occur within two miles of an established community.
In Texas, even a moderately sized wildfire may involve two to 10 fire departments, numerous pieces of county equipment, local law enforcement, emergency medical services and resources from Texas A&M Forest Service, Department of Public Safety, Texas Department of Transportation, Texas National Guard, Texas Division of Emergency Management and multiple out-of-state cooperators. To maximize safety and effectiveness, all of these responders need to be organized before the fire starts.
Since 1996, the state has experienced significant fire seasons in 8 of the past 12 years. Both the 2006 and 2008 fire seasons consumed more than a million acres. Additionally, the majority of wildfires threaten homes. Once primarily a rural issue, wildfires are now clearly a statewide threat. In recent years, wildfires have threatened, and in some cases, burned through small towns, destroying hundreds of homes.
Land use patterns have changed over the past century, resulting in significantly more vegetation and fuels available to burn. The town of Cross Plains in North Central Texas was devastated by fire on December 27, 2005. In the early 1990s, this area was used by share croppers and farmers, and little or no vegetation remained around the homes, farms, and ranches in the community.
By 2005, a town of 1,076 people had sprung up with the typical Texas landscape - tall grass, trees and other vegetation - surrounding the homes. The devastating fire in December 2005 claimed two lives and destroyed 116 homes.
The town of Cross Plains is an example of what happens when a community finds itself in the way of wildfire. There are currently 14,506 communities in Texas deemed to be at risk to the destructive potential of a devastating wildfire. Surprisingly, many populated areas are more at risk, due to increased number of human-caused fires.