Climate change is increasing the risk of wildfires in Texas, a danger made real this week as the Smokehouse Creek fire, the largest in state history, burns out of control across the Panhandle region.

And that growing fire risk is beginning to affect the insurance market in Texas, raising premiums for homeowners and causing some insurers to withdraw from parts of the state.

For the Smokehouse Creek fire to grow so big so quickly, three weather conditions had to align: high temperatures, low relative humidity and strong winds, said John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist and a professor of atmospheric science at Texas A&M University.

On Monday, as the Smokehouse Creek fire began to spread, it was 82 degrees Fahrenheit in Amarillo. The city’s average daytime high temperature in February is 54 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.

As of Thursday, a New York Times tracker based on federal data shows more than one million acres burning, making the fire one of the most destructive in U.S. history.

Temperatures in Texas have risen by 0.61 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1975, according to a 2021 report by the state climatologist’s office. The relative humidity in this region has been decreasing as well, Dr. Nielsen-Gammon said. It’s less clear whether the winds have changed significantly.

Climate change is likely making fire season start earlier and last longer, he said, by increasing the number of days in a year with hot and dry weather conditions that enable wildfires.

Texas is currently the state with the second highest number of properties that are vulnerable to wildfires, behind Florida, according to analysis by the nonprofit research group First Street Foundation.

In most of Texas, wildfires happen in the summer. But across the Southern Plains, including the Texas Panhandle, fire risk is highest around March when temperatures warm, strong winds blow over the flat landscape and dry grass left from the previous growing season can easily catch fire.

Only about 1 percent of wildfires in Texas happen in the Panhandle, but the region accounts for half of the state’s acres burned, said Sean Dugan, a spokesman for the Texas A&M Forest Service. “They’re not very numerous. But when they do happen, they get really big,” he said.

Normally, if there is no drought, in April the landscape starts to become green and the Panhandle’s fire risk goes down. But this year, there are “enhanced chances” of a dry spring and summer and a hot summer, Dr. Nielsen-Gammon said. As a result, he expects the fire risk to remain high in the Panhandle and it may be higher during the summer in the rest of the state as well.

As the climate changes, the very concept of a fire season is becoming blurry.

“There were clear fire seasons for Texas in the past, but fires have become a year-round threat,” said Yongqiang Liu, a meteorologist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern Research Station, in an email.

Texans are noticing the uptick in extreme weather events, said Jeremy Mazur, a senior policy adviser at Texas 2036, a nonpartisan research organization that helps fund an extreme weather report written by the state climatologist.

A top concern of residents is the rising cost of homeowners insurance, according to a recent survey conducted by Texas 2036. About 88 percent of 1,000 likely voters polled expressed some level of concern about extreme weather events increasing what they pay for property insurance.

“The real impact that we’re starting to see from this growing wildfire risk is in the form of growing property insurance premiums,” Mr. Mazur said.

Texas homeowners saw their insurance rates increase 53.6 percent between 2019 and 2023, according to data compiled by S&P Global Market Intelligence. That was the highest rate of any state save for Arizona.

Allstate, the second-largest insurer in Texas, included wildfires as one of its “greatest areas of potential catastrophe losses” in a regulatory filing this month.

Some insurance companies have begun to withdraw from parts of the Texas market. People in Llano and Burnet counties, southwest of Dallas, report being dropped by their insurers because of wildfire risk, the news outlet KXAN reported last week.

State legislators are starting to take note, but more action is needed, Mr. Mazur said. During the last legislative session, a Republican representative from East Texas introduced a bill to require the state forest service to recommend ways to mitigate the state’s wildfire risks. The bill was removed from the calendar before the end of session.


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Credit: NYTimes.com

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