CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — On Tuesday, the Texas A&M Forest Service set the Wildfire Preparedness Level to level one for the first time since early Dec. 2021.
On Dec. 9, TFS moved to an elevated state of readiness, and started getting resources prepared in case they were needed. Since then, TFS and local fire departments responded to 9,191 wildfires that burned 687,331 acres of land across the state. Additionally, 4,448 personnel from 47 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico were mobilized.
Heather Gonzales - with TFS - said the fire season was worse than typical, but not unprecedented. 2006, 2009, 2011, and 2018 had similarly bad seasons. The state was at level five or wildfire preparedness, the highest level of alert, over the summer.
“There was an extended period in our summer months where we were seeing extreme drought conditions, extremely low fuel moistures, and just heavy fire activity throughout the state,” Gonzales said.
Locally, rural fire departments felt the impact of the fire season. Nueces County ESD #1 (Annaville) responded to 46 wildfire calls over the first eight months of 2022. In the same timeframe ESD #2 (Flour Bluff) responded to 137 of the same calls, ESD #3 (Bishop) responded to 160 calls.
John Davis, the Bishop fire chief, said the district has already had a record high for the number of calls they’ve responded to this year. The increase in the calls has been especially difficult for the smaller, rural fire departments, especially those that are only volunteer-based departments.
In Annaville, ESD #1 is a mix between full-time and volunteer firefighters and EMTs. Chief Michael Clack said responding to that many calls put a strain on the station’s resources.
“When we have large-scale calls, especially mutual aid, we try to make sure we always back-fill, to make sure our district is covered,” he said. “So, if we’re on a mutual-aid call, we typically have to back-fill, and ask people to work more hours, on top of their already 48 hour shift, just to cover our district, to make sure we don’t have any holes in our coverage.”
Since crews were so busy, they couldn’t afford for equipment or vehicles to go out of service.
“You can’t afford to take on out of service when it’s that busy,” Clack said. “So, they basically have to neglect them a little bit to make sure we’re ready to go.”
Now, with recent rains, and a lower fire risk, there has been some much-needed down-time for local agencies.
“So, we’ve got to make sure we use this down time productively, and make sure all the equipment is ready for the next phase of fires,” Clack said.
While the alert level is low across the state, that doesn’t mean the state is done with its fire season.
“One of the sayings we have is, ‘it’s always fire season somewhere,’” Gonzales said. “Throughout much of the state, we do have higher fuel moistures, and we have seen a lot of precipitation over the last couple of weeks, but that is still a varying degree.”
While there is down-time, and time to repair and upgrade equipment, the threat of a fire is not non-existent. ESD #1 responded to a brush fire last week, and they are always getting prepared for the next fire.
“This rain is great, but guess what? It’s going to dry out, or we’re going to hit our first freeze, and we’re going to get a huge fire load again,” Clack said.