Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Historic Texas Wildfires

Texas is so dry right now it is in a state of self-combustion. According to the Texas Forest Service, there are burn bans in 202 of 254 Texas counties and wildfires in all four sections of the state. Since January, 810 fires have burned more than 1.4 million acres. I have never seen winds this severe in Texas, except when the hurricane tail winds come through. I would love to see some rain, but instead the weather service is warning of thunderstorms, which could mean more fires from lightning strikes.

Twenty new fires were reported on Sunday, including one near our town, west of Austin. Governor Rick Perry asked President Obama for Federal assistance with the fires on Sunday and the response was immediate. Four 3000 gallon tankers are on the way, along with National Guard Blackhawk helicopters. There are currently firefighters from 25 states battling wildfires in Texas. There is speculation that this could be the worst wildfire season in Texas history.

Our current conditions bring back memories of the wildfires of April 9, 2009, which burned 147,924 acres, destroyed 111 homes, and killed four people. Wildfires in Texas and Oklahoma in 2005/2006 killed 25 people, including 4 firefighters. Hundreds of homes were destroyed, millions of acres burned, and 5000 head of cattle were believed to have been lost in these wildfires, which are now used as a case study on wildfire control.

When I think of the wildfires now, I try to imagine what it must have been like for the early pioneers moving into the American West. There was no Federal assistance available to replace homes, crops, and livestock, no helicopters, tankers, or buckets dumping waters on burning trees.

There are many factors involved in the start of a wildfire and how quickly it spreads, such as current drought conditions, weather, and the vegetation fueling the fire. To pioneers, though, the only concern was how to get themselves, their children, and their livestock away from fires burning an average of 10 miles per hour depending on wind speed and available fuel.

With little or no advance warning, I can only imagine how often pioneer families found themselves tossing children and belongings into the back of a wagon and racing through the forests or prairie lands in an effort to avoid these deadly fires, and losing all of their possessions in the process.

I am thankful that I live in a time and place where firefighters are willing to risk their lives to save the homes and families of Texas and in a country that is willing to sacrifice the time and money to protect its citizens.

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...