White Christmas not likely, but cold blast expected to add to fire danger across West Texas

Forecasters and fire officials were hoping a white Christmas - or at least moisture from this weekend’s expected Arctic cold blast - would ease the growing wildfire danger across West Texas and the state.


But that’s looking less promising, with updated forecasts for the powerful cold front now showing little to no chance for snow or any precipitation but, instead, an elevated fire danger Saturday as frigid, dry air and strong winds blow into the region.

“It just looks like we’re going to continue seeing things dry out,” Jason Jordan, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Lubbock, said Tuesday evening.

Weather service and Texas A&M Forest Service officials hosted a webinar last week, warning of an ominous outlook for elevated wildfire conditions this winter across the state - especially on the South Plains and Panhandle - as dry conditions mix with an excess of parched vegetation produced by heavy rains earlier this year.

“Current indicators are pointing to a potential active winter and early spring fire season for the state,” said Tom Spencer, a department head with the forest service. “There’s a lot of grass out there … “and we’re looking at below normal precipitation and above normal temperatures.”

The concern is statewide, but the forest service is especially looking at West Texas and the Panhandle, where fire crews have already battled numerous large grass fires this month.

Any moisture the area sees from this weekend’s front would help, he said.

“If we do get these rains, great, but the impact of those, in our thinking, would be short-term because of the long-term forecast,” he said.

The National Climate Predication Center says conditions in the Pacific Ocean favor a La Nina weather pattern through at least the winter, which typically means warmer, dry weather across the southern United States.

That comes after West Texas and much of the state saw above average rainfall for the year - mostly falling in the spring in summer when grass and other vegetation was growing.

“When you have abundant fuels like we have, it’s a real concern,” Spencer said.

During the webinar geared toward state officials and media, Sam McCalip with the forest service focused on strategies and tips to mitigate wilfire threats on property.

Those include creating a defensible space around a house - planning ahead and maintaining trees and other large plants and keeping vegetation moist. Gutters should be kept clear of dry vegetation like fallen leaves. Even the type of shingle, and what condition they’re in, can make a difference in exposing a property to danger from wind-blown embers from distant grass fires.

“It’s just about being ready, and being in the fire season, the time to be ready is now,” Spencer said.

He suggested property owners visit the National Fire Protection Association’s firewise.org website for tips and ideas to keep properties safe.

As for this weekend’s Arctic front, Jordan said any hopes of a white Christmas have been vanishing with updated forecast models showing snow and significant precipitation chances staying to the north of the Texas Panhandle, although areas like Plainview and points north have a “slight” chance for snow on Sunday.

“But we will definitely get the cold,” Jordan said.

An initial cold front late Thursday is expected to drop daytime highs from the 60s and 70s Thursday in the region to the 30s and 40s on Friday. The stronger cold front will move through Saturday afternoon, bringing with it 36-plus hours of consecutive below-freezing weather in Lubbock, Amarillo and the region starting Saturday evening.

“Probably the biggest concern we’ll see is the windchill readings behind the front,” Jordan said of Saturday and Sunday evenings. “Windchill readings could get into the single digits and low teens.”

Expect highs in the teens and 20s in the Panhandle, and in the 20s and 30s on the South Plains Sunday. Christmas day will start a slight warming trend, but temperatures aren’t expected to rise above freezing until at least noon Monday.

Forecasters have been fielding questions from the public this week asking about the chance for a white Christmas, which Jordan said is pretty minimal across West Texas. Not everyone is disappointed.

“It’s been a mixed reaction,” Jordan said. “You’ve got those that think Christmas means it’s supposed to snow and you’ve got those who are glad it’s not snowing because they can get out and do something.”