By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - The wildfires that have roared across Texas in the past nine months have caused $152 million in direct losses to the state's farmers and ranchers, economists at Texas A&M University estimated on Wednesday.
The losses will continue to stack up, said Andy Vestal, director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Programs at the Texas Agri-Life Extension Service.
"Structures, equipment, livestock, fences, pasture, and timber continue to be lost on a daily basis, as fires continue to break out during this prolonged drought," Vestal said Wednesday.
The most significant loss for most has been the destruction of nearly 6,000 miles of agricultural fencing, enough to span the continent from the Atlantic ocean to the Pacific more than two and a half times.
Fencing is one of the biggest expenses of the farming and ranching industry.
The Agri-Life extension service reported the average cost of a four-to six-wire fence with steel posts, the most common type for plains ranchers, is about $10,000 per mile.
More than 1,500 horses, cattle, sheep, and goats have been killed by the wildfires, Vestal said. Some 198 agricultural structures have been destroyed, as well as assorted pieces of agricultural equipment, and 2.9 million acres of pasture land.
Some 3.7 million acres have burned in Texas since wildfire season began in November 2010, making it the most destructive in state history.
The losses cited by Texas A&M are those caused directly by the fires and are in addition to the $5.2 billion already suffered by the state's agricultural producers due to the year-long drought. The drought has dried up crops and forced the sale of entire herds of cattle because no grasslands still exist where they can graze.
As the losses continue to mount from the wildfires, the Texas Forest Service reported on Wednesday that the extreme wildfire danger that covers nearly the entire state will not ease any time soon. Firefighters will remain on hair-trigger alert at least through the end of this year, and possibly right through until next summer.
Justin Musgraves, regional fire coordinator for the Lubbock Region of the Texas Forest Service, told Reuters that was the news he was hoping not to hear.
"Typically there's a break between the spring, summer, and fall fire seasons, and this year it looks like we are going to keep on rolling, right on through the winter," he said.
Officials said wildfires in the winter have a tendency to be far more destructive, due mainly to dead vegetation. A record drought also is killing more and more trees, and the winds are stronger.
"With the winter comes the wind," Musgraves said. "With the wind will come bigger, more aggressive fires."
(Edited by Karen Brooks and Greg McCune)