The New Normal?

As we recover from a rain-soaked weekend here in Austin, it’s worth noting how remarkable the preceding 150 days (give or take) of mini-drought have been, as well as the major floods that have book-ended it.

In an average year in Austin, we’d expect about 6.6 inches of rain in July, August and September. It’s undoubtedly a dry part of the year, but this year was extraordinary: The entire month of rain got only a trace amount of rain, and August and September together were slightly over 2 inches.

Note, that we are actually likely to finish about 20 inches above normal for the entire year due to a wet winter, spring and fall. So this year’s summer drought sticks out like a sore thumb. Note that the state was basically drought-free in May; by October 20th, this is what the state drought map looked like (darker colors = more extreme drought).

20151020_tx_none

For those of us suffering through the bone-dry heat of this year’s Texas summer, it was of course no surprise when wildfires broke out, again, in Bastrop County, just to our southeast.

The Texas Observer takes note of this, and argues that this is representative of the “new normal” of extreme summer drought in Central Texas, thanks to climate change:

Experts say wildfires in Bastrop County are happening with greater frequency and intensity — a troubling trend for an area that’s grown more than 30 percent since 2000. A combination of factors is at work, they say. Rising temperatures and worsening drought — effects of climate change — are exacerbating natural conditions that make Texas prone to wildfires.

Making matters worse is population growth among the pines. Not only does more people mean more lives and property at risk; it also means that fire prevention and mitigation becomes more challenging. The task of removing excess brush, grass and trees — the fuel for wildfires — falls in large part to increasing number of individual landowners, requiring a tremendous amount of coordination and expense.

According to the Texas Forest Service, only one fire burned more than 5,000 acres from 1985 to 2000. But in the last 15 years, Texas has seen fires of that size almost every year. In 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2011, there were 10 or more fires that damaged more than 5,000 acres.

“We see our rainfall patterns shifting and increasing risk of higher temperatures, which exacerbate our already frequent dry conditions,” Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, wrote in an email to the Observer. “Texas has always been vulnerable to wildfires. With our rapidly expanding population, and our changing climate, the risks posed by wildfire are not going away any time soon.”

Fire has always been a natural hazard in Texas, but an apparent increase in extreme dry periods followed by extreme wet periods has exacerbated the problem. Wet growing seasons fuel lots of plant growth and then drought kills off the vegetation.

“There’s no checks and balances,” said Justice Jones, manager of the Wildlife Fire Mitigation division of the Austin Fire Department. “Fuel grows, it dies, and it waits for the wildfire season.”

In 2011, the state’s worst single-year drought contributed to the Bastrop County Complex Fire. This year, a wet spring and early summer was followed by a very dry spell that plunged the Bastrop area into a severe drought, said state climatologist John Nielson-Gammon. For the past 110 days, Smithville has had just 1.19 inches of rain, eight times less than the average amount  and the lowest ever recorded for that time period.

I hope to buy a home in the near future, and I am seriously considering moving to Bastrop County because it is close to Austin without being “too close” to urban blight. However, the increasing wildfire threat is already playing havoc on property values and insurance rates:

According to a KXAN Investigates analysis of Bastrop Central Appraisal District records, property market values dropped by nearly 35 percent in the fire area between 2011 and 2012. By 2015, the values had improved, but were still below 2011 levels by about four percent.

Majors fires can also impact other areas, such as insurance.

“You can’t have a catastrophe like you had in Bastrop where you had $400 million in losses and 1,600 homes destroyed with it not having some effect on homeowner insurance rates, specifically in Bastrop County,” said Mark Hanna, a spokesperson for the Insurance Council of Texas.

To add insult to injury, the rains this weekend (which might finally put out the drought) caused flooding that is already expected to cost billions of dollars.

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