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The inferno before the storm

Grass fire on RR 1431 in Marble Falls

A grass fire on Aug. 16 caused a traffic jam on RR 1431 east of Marble Falls. Fire crews are responding to fires on a daily basis. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

As of Thursday, Aug. 17, the Highland Lakes area has suffered through 41 consecutive days of 100-plus-degree temperatures and no rain. The dry, hot weather has contributed to hundreds of acres being consumed in wildfires and plummeting lake levels. 

The end is near. 

Experts predict a wild, wet winter despite the fact that 2023 has been one of the hottest and driest years in decades. A powerful climate pattern known as El Niño is building in the Pacific Ocean and could soon douse the horrific heat.

El Niño patterns develop as a result of temperature changes in the eastern equatorial part of the Pacific Ocean, which, in turn, impact most of the planet, including Texas. The effects vary depending on location, but it usually means lower temperatures and more rain for the southern United States. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the current El Niño active on June 8. Its predicted strength, duration, and certainty have only grown since then.

El Nino 2023 impacts
Graphics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration give a simple depiction of the possible impacts of El Niño around the globe. Texas is expected to see cooler, wetter weather later in 2023 as the climate pattern builds in strength. The last time El Niño was active was in the fall of 2018, when torrential rains flooded the Highland Lakes. image

An Aug. 10 report from the NOAA and the National Weather Service stated that strong El Niño conditions would persist from December 2023 through February 2024 with over 95 percent certainty. El Niño’s impacts usually aren’t felt in the summer but typically grow stronger in the fall, winter, and spring. A strong El Niño does not completely guarantee wet and cool weather with which it is associated, but chances for those conditions do skyrocket.

The weeks-long hot streak in Central Texas began on July 8, when the high jumped to 102.5 degrees in Marble Falls, according to data from the Lower Colorado River Authority’s Hydromet. Temperatures are expected to continue to crack 100 degrees until at least Monday, Aug. 21. The NWS is predicting possible showers and thunderstorms on Aug. 22-23, which could cause highs to dip below the century mark.

The average high temperature in Marble Falls across the 41 days has been 105.61 degrees. The hottest day in the streak was July 18 at 109.6 degrees. It hasn’t cooled off much since then. Monday, Aug. 14, was 108 degrees. 

Moore Peak Fire in Llano County
Smoke from the Moore Peak Fire in Llano County on July 13 signaled the beginning of wildfire season in the Highland Lakes. Since then, temperatures have remained above 100 degrees and local reservoirs have been significantly depleted. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

The extreme heat has contributed to a chaotic wildfire season that began with the Moore Peak Fire in Llano County on July 13. That blaze burned over 700 acres near Kingsland. 

Since then, dozens of fires have consumed hundreds more acres across the Highland Lakes. Fire crews in Burnet and Llano counties have been battling blazes daily, including small grass fires and a bizarre off-road vehicle-induced inferno

Even small fires that are quickly contained can have a major impact. On the afternoon of Wednesday, Aug. 16, a grass fire ignited by sparks from a dragging chain on a vehicle caused a nearly mile-long traffic jam on RR 1431 just east of Marble Falls. The fire was under control within an hour but severely hampered travel and first responder resources.

Llano County Park boat ramp at Lake LBJ
Lake Buchanan is at an eight-year low and the Lower Colorado River Authority has implemented Stage 2 drought restrictions for the first time since 2015. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

In the intense heat, the area’s water supply has also become a point of concern. Lake Buchanan is at an eight-year low, the Lower Colorado River Authority has implemented Stage 2 of its drought contingency plan, and the only water flowing into the Highland Lakes is coming from the Llano River at 2 cubic-feet per second

Also, the Central Texas Groundwater Conservation District, which manages groundwater in Burnet County, is at Stage 4 of its drought management plan and has imposed mandatory restrictions for the first time in its history.