As the Texas drought diminished soil moisture and dried out pastures and rangeland, wildfires reports have heated up, according to the Texas AgriLife Extension Service and the Texas Forest Service.
During one 24-hour period, the agencies reported major fire activity in Atascosa, Bastrop, Bandera, Callahan, Erath County, Garza Henderson, Jack, Kenedy, Kerr, Parker, Runnels, Walker and Wilson counties.
In Henderson County, there have only been a few grass fires so far, but conditions are such that fires can rapidly get out of control, according to Rich Hirsch, AgriLife Extension agent for agriculture and natural resources.
"Things are so dry and the humidity so low that when something does start, it just takes off. It's unbelievable how fast it can spread," he said.
Hirsch and other AgriLife Exension agents are advising their clientele to use common sense. Even normal field activities, such as dragging equipment, not to mention high-risk activities such as welding, can lead to a wildfire, he said.
Extremely dry conditions have resulted in many small and several large fires in Taylor County, south of Abilene, said Robert K. Pritz, AgriLife Extension agent in Taylor County.
"Fires (occurred) in several adjacent counties, and thousands of acres were burned. Nearly100 houses were threatened and two houses burned," he said.
One fire burned more than 1,000 acres; another about 800 acres, Pritz said. "No one knows how they started. There have been theories about welding or cigarettes, but at this time they're just that: theories."
Pritz's own house was put at risk from one of the smaller fires.
"It came within 100 yards of the house. We're still trying to get the smoke smell out."
In Scurry County, last year more than 12,000 acres burned, said Greg Gruben, AgriLife Extension agent. This year, there have been no big fires yet, but conditions are ripe.
"Our soil, range and pasture conditions are all extremely dry, and fire danger conditions are also extreme," Gruben said. "We need rainfall badly. We don't have the amount of fuel (dry grass) that we did last year, but we have enough that if things got started, we could have a real problem."
The following summaries were compiled by AgriLife Extension district reporters this week:
CENTRAL: Conditions remained dry, though some farmers were planting corn. Livestock producers were still supplying supplemental feed to cattle. Milo planting was delayed due to the extremely dry weather. Trees were dying from various diseases related to drought stress. Stock ponds remained low.
COASTAL BEND: The drought continued to worsen, with no rain forecast in the near future. Planting of row crops was delayed due to lack of soil moisture. Some wheat was plowed out because of stand failures and lack of soil moisture. Livestock producers continued to provide supplemental feed to cattle. Hay supplies were being depleted quickly as pastures were nearly bare. Stock ponds were also a concern, and alternative water supplies were being used in some cases. Some culling and selling was being done.
EAST: Some counties received rain last week, but more is needed across the entire region. Dry, windy conditions caused producer concern. Smith County had several reports of small wildfires. Despite the lack of moisture, spring planting was proceeding. Feral hogs continued to cause severe damage. Because of steadily dropping milk prices, some producers were considering getting out of the dairy business. Livestock were in fair to good condition with some supplemental feeding being done.
FAR WEST: Received 0.1 - 0.25 inch of rain. Extreme drought conditions persisted. Unseasonably warm weather and high winds continue to plague landowners. Pasture conditions were very poor.
NORTH: Soil moisture ranged from adequate to very short, with unseasonably warm weather and little or no rain. Though the winds evaporated the top-soil moisture, some moisture remained down at about the 6-inch level. The dry weather affected all sectors of agriculture. Winter pastures, especially ryegrass, needed moisture. The winter wheat crop and other small grains looked generally good since most producers were able to apply fertilizer before the last rain. Winter annual pastures were also doing very well with the warm weather and rains from about a week ago. Without any runoff water for quite some time, stock tanks were getting very low. Cool season forages were making good growth too. Range and pastures were in fair condition. A few producers planted corn, but most were waiting for a rain before beginning. Mild temperatures continued to help maintain the condition of livestock. Winter feeding of livestock continued.
PANHANDLE: Extremely dry weather was the rule across the region. Though there was no rain forecast, producers continued to prepare land and fertilize for spring crops. Many producers were playing it day-by-day as to what to plant this spring. Some were strip-tilling fields instead of conventionally plowing. Wheat held on but needed rain very badly. Desiccated top soil forced producers to irrigate where possible. Insect activity increased, with green bugs, Russian aphids and armyworms found in wheat. Some producers considered selling heifers and culling older cows; others continued to feed hay and supplements. Lice were a major problem in cattle
ROLLING PLAINS: Conditions remained extremely dry. Wildfires were a major concern to residents and landowners. In an attempt to survive, wheat pushed roots deeper to reach moisture, but it can only do it for so long. Winter grain mites were feeding in several fields. Many producers were nearly out of hay, and continued to reduce herds. Pastures began to green up, but without rain, grass will not last long. Spring field work was stopped by lack of moisture; many producers were contemplating what, if anything, to plant this spring if it does not rain. Cotton producers were at a stand-still, holding off preparing fields for this year’s crop until they get some moisture. Fruit trees were beginning to bloom.
SOUTH: The drought continued. Warm, dry, windy temperatures and no rain kept soil moisture conditions critical. Extreme wildfire danger existed in nearly every county. Winter wheat and oats were in terrible shape in the northern parts of the region. Spring planting was delayed except where producers decided to invest on pre-planting irrigation. Cabbage harvesting continued, and onions were progressing well after heavy irrigation. In the southern parts of the region, the harvesting of sugar cane, citrus and vegetables continued, and producers were irrigating grain sorghum. Row-crop planting and preparations for onion harvesting were ongoing. The forage supply for livestock was declining, while supplemental feeding increased. Some livestock producers liquidated their herds, a practice likely to increase if the drought persists.
SOUTHWEST: The region remained completely dry. The six-month period from September ’08 through February 2009, was the driest on record. Forage was almost non-existent. High, dry winds created dust storms and increased the incidence of road-side and field fires. Ranchers were providing heavy supplemental nutrition to their remaining livestock. Many stock tanks were dry. The soil profile was extremely dry. The cabbage and spinach harvest continued. Potatoes, spring onions, cabbage and spinach were making good progress under heavy irrigation. Irrigated corn and sorghum planting was completed, but almost no dryland crops were planted. Wheat yields were expected to be the lowest in many years.
SOUTH PLAINS: The region had another warm, dry week. High temperatures for four days were in the 80s. Soil moisture was very short to short. Field work continued for planting. Fertilizer was applied to irrigated fields. Winter wheat was in very poor to poor condition, but irrigation continued. Pastures and ranges were in very poor to poor condition. Cattle remained in good condition with continued supplemental feeding.
WEST CENTRAL: Extreme dry, windy conditions continued. Wildfires occurred in several counties, and burn bans were extended. Small grains have all but failed. There was no field activity due to lack of moisture. Irrigated crops were the only ones in good condition. Range and pastures were in extremely poor condition. Stock tank and pond levels continued to decline. Heavy supplemental feeding continued, but the condition of livestock declined.