Biggest question for Texans facing wildfires: Flee or fight?

Biggest question for Texans facing wildfires: Flee or fight?

25 April 2011

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USA — Wildfires blazing across Texas have at times overwhelmed the ability of firefighters to protect homes, leading some Texans to ignore evacuation orders and stand guard with garden hoses as towering flames approach.

News emerged Monday of average citizens involved in fiery standoffs and cat-and-mouse games with police, even as a break in the weather gave way to the furnace-blasts of hot air that have fueled this historic fire season.

With nearly 2 million acres burned and 350 homes destroyed by wildland fires, many residents are reluctant to leave their neighborhoods. At least a few decided to make a stand, with or without official sanction.

“In our area, the fact is that the homes that belonged to the ones who stayed behind were still standing and a lot of the homes from which people fled were burned,” says Revis Daggett, an inn owner in Fort Davis, Texas, whose home was briefly threatened by the still-burning Rockhouse fire. “That’s something people are thinking about.”

Ignoring wildfire evacuation orders “is a really dangerous game,” says Debbie Miley, executive director of the National Wildfire Suppression Association. “They’re not outfitted with all the gear and training that a wildland firefighter has to have. It’s scary to watch them [stay behind] with a garden hose and a T-shirt on. They’re really taking their life into their own hands.”

The sheer size and speed of this year’s Texas wildfires have sorely tested the Texas Forest Service, now backed by the US Forest Service. During the hottest, windiest parts of the heaviest-fire days, nearly 1,800 firefighters from 33 states must revert to playing defense as the fire “heads” raged uncontrolled.

Most are evacuating

To be sure, the vast majority of people in wildfire-struck areas did heed evacuation orders, which Mark Stanford, fire operations chief of the Texas Forest Service, attribute to greater fire awareness. At least 10 entire towns and dozens of individual neighborhoods and subdivisions have been evacuated over the past few months, usually for brief periods of time.

“What we’re seeing is more proactive action by law enforcement entities and local governments to get citizens out of the way,” says Mr. Stanford.

But police scanner chatter from places like the P K Complex fire, 70 miles west of Fort Worth, show law enforcement working to change the minds of people who had decided to stay and fight the fires.

Why they stay

In Hog Bend, a small lakeside peninsula on the reservoir, Jim Gribble faced the same predicament as many other lakeside residents in older, uninsured homes.

“I could not afford to lose my home,” he told the Fort Worth Star Telegram newspaper.

Mr. Gribble and another neighbor battled for days to protect some 20 homes, including their own, using garden hoses, shovels, brooms and lawnmowers to fight the fires and cut breaks. Five of the homes were lost, the rest saved, at least partially due to their efforts.

Alicia Whitt credits her Texas-tomboy upbringing and an “Alamo attitude” for staying behind with her partner, Jay Guy, and another couple to protect a local water plant and help firefighters find food and shelter.

“We did everything we could and stayed up incredibly long hours … to keep the fire from getting onto the water plant,” says Ms. Whitt, who stayed behind in the Sportsman’s World subdivision, where 57 homes eventually burned. “They helped save a lot of things behind where the water plant stands.”

Possum Kingdom resident Jackie Fewell, who now runs a PK fire blog to keep residents abreast of the latest fire news, said she heard of one resident sneaking in and out of the fire zone in an ambulance in order to get food to firefighters. Dozens of these stories describe residents dodging law enforcement in order to remain on the scene.

“There were some real heroes in those communities for what they did,” including saving homes, rescuing pets and livestock and assisting firefighters, she says.

Nevertheless, Texas authorities have actively tried to discourage residents from staying as wildfires continue to dog the cinder-dry state.

“The potential for loss of life is there – we would not be evacuating them if that wasn’t the case,” says Marq Webb, a spokesman for the Texas Forest Service. “I don’t think that a structure is worth anybody’s life.”

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