DALLAS - The most destructive wildfire season in Texas history officially ends on Tuesday, but experts caution that the fire threat is far from over.
"We see no real changes in the climate ahead," state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon told Reuters. "That means another dry, warm winter, which is worse than normal for fire danger."
But Nielsen-Gammon and other state officials said it is unlikely that the next fire season will be nearly as devastating as the season that began November 15, 2010, which spawned more than 29,000 fires, burned more than 3.9 million acres, destroyed 2,912 homes and claimed 10 lives, including those of four firefighters.
"If there is a silver lining in this, and it is a small one, it's that there will be so much less grass to fuel fires than there was going into this past season," said Tom Spencer, head of predictive services for the Texas Forest Service.
Millions of acres of grassland were lost to fires and the prolonged drought throughout the state during the past year.
"We have a sort of mosaic grass pattern out there," Spencer said. "Where there is grass, and conditions are right, fires will start but the lack of grass in many areas may prevent fires from becoming as large or destructive."
But he cautioned that cedar trees claimed by the drought could replace range grass as a major fire threat for the state in the season ahead.
"There are a lot of dead trees across the state, which present a big potential fire threat," Spencer said.
The end of one fire season doesn't automatically signal the start of another, officials said. The next fire season will begin when temperatures begin consistently dipping below freezing and grass and other vegetation becomes dry and dormant.
Warmer-than-usual fall temperatures could hold off the next fire season until early December, Spencer said.
"We normally go back to normal and then into a wetter pattern but that isn't expected to happen this year," Spencer said.
Warm, dry conditions are again predicted for this winter as Texas grapples with a La Nina weather pattern. The pattern is typically marked by low humidity, high temperatures and wind, the combination of conditions that caused many wildfires in West Texas last April, including one that devastated the popular Possum Kingdom Lake recreation area west of Fort Worth.
Drought conditions, typical in a La Nina cycle, were also to blame for another major fire outbreak in September, including the Bastrop Complex Fire east of Austin that destroyed 1,600 homes and is now considered the costliest fire in Texas history and one of the most destructive ever in the United States.
The state's drought has resulted in $5 million in damage to Texas farms and ranches and has left the state parched from rainfall amounts that are more than 50 percent below normal. This year so far, the official Texas rainfall total is 10.77 inches, Nielsen-Gammon said.
At the same time, the summer of 2011 was the hottest on record in Texas.
"I wish I could say conditions were going to change soon but it doesn't look that way," he said.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Greg McCune