USA — A weekend cold front provided a brief reprieve for Texas firefighters who have fought more than 6900 fires since January in historic drought conditions.
Ask any firefighter what the State of Texas needs right now to battle the wildfires that have burned two million acres since January of this year and you will get the same answer every time–rain.
As of May 2, 2011, Texas still has 6 major fires spanning 673,985 acres and 211 of the state’s 254 counties are under burn bans. According to the Texas Forest Service Incident Management Situation Report, on May 1, 2011, the Texas Forest Service responded to five new fires on 66 acres over the weekend. In the past seven days, the Texas Fores Service has responded to 92 fires on 244, 558 acres.
Texas is suffering from historic drought and wind conditions that have not been seen since 1895, and this calls for more than a light weekend shower to control the situation. According to Holly Huffman, Spokesperson for the Texas Forest Service, the situation in Texas has moved from severe to critical.
“This is the worst season we have ever seen,” Huffman said in a recent interview. “At times, we were literally burning border to border. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Huffman explained that there are two reasons why the situation remains critical: Intense spring winds combined with dry vegetation. “Right now, we have a typical winter fire season. However, we also have an unusually large amount of dry fuels, an unprecedented problem,” Huffman said. “We had a couple of tropical storm systems drop some rain and quick vegetation growth that died back down again. We’ve had no rain to speak of this March, nothing compared to what we generally receive in the spring months, and it is unlikely that we will have more rain from here on out.”
According to Lewis Kearney, Public Information Officer for the Texas Forest Service, since January, 2011, Texas has lost 2,196,084 acres to 6993 wildfires. “Texans have also lost 1134 structures to these fires, including barns, houses, and other outbuildings,” Kearney said, “but firefighters have saved 18,061 structures with control lines, which is important to keep in mind.”
“In order to understand the significance of these numbers, one can compare them to 2010,” Kearney explained. “In 2010, Texas only lost a total of 293,273 acres to wildfires, and 100 homes.” Images Photograph of Hot Shot crews making their way to the fire line on the Rock House Fire west of Marfa, Texas. – Image by Texas Forest Service Employee Photograph of lone tree standing after the Rock House Fire burned through the area west of Marfa, Texas. – Image by Texas Forest Service Employee Photograph of April 18, 2011 night burnout along Road 1832, Rock House Fire west of Marfa, Texas. – Image by Shawn Maiden, National Park Service employee. Smoke from the Encino wildfire near San Angelo, Texas. – Image taken from the Texas Bank Sports Complex by DCBS18 on April 23, 2011.
Unfortunately, Texas has also lost two brave volunteer firefighters this season: Elias Jaquez, 49, died while working on a fire near Dumas, and 51-year-old Gregory Simmons died while fleeing a trapped fire truck in a burning field. “The loss of these two volunteer firefighers is such a tragedy,” Kearney said, “but it has strengthened our resolve to fight these fires and protect Texas.”
Volunteer firefighters are the heroes of Texas in this battle. They are the first responders in Texas. “In Texas, the volunteer fire departments have jurisdiction over wildfires, except in some parts of East Texas,” Kearney explained. “The Texas Forest Service and other organizations are brought in when there is higher acreage. We wait for the volunteers to call for help. Unfortunately, they’ve been forced to call for help quite a bit lately, and that’s why we have so many resources in Texas right now.”
“We currently have firefighters and other personnel from 40 states helping with the Texas fires,” Kearney explained. “The Texas Forest Service only has 400 employees statewide, and 200 of these employees are firefighters. We have 1107 people working on these fires, and this does not include the thousands of volunteer Texas firefighters. This number only inclues the out-of-state and Texas Forest Service employees, and at one point that number was 2000. We have 71 different air craft that we are using to fight the fires, including large helicopters and heavy air tankers, or what some people call bomber planes. We also have bulldozers on these fires, and engine, or brush trucks, from out-of-state.”
Kearney, a former firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service, now assists on major fires along with dozens of other men and women, also retirees, who have been called upon to help due to their special skills. In spite of his experience, Kearney cannot recall seeing a fire season this severe.
“We really do need a break in the weather,” he said. “We could have all the resources in the world, but they will do no good if the fire is running at 300 feet per minute. Sometimes, we have to just step back and wait for something to happen, or try to get way ahead of the fire and flank the fire. We have the resources, we just can’t get close to these fires because of the dangers associated with the erratic winds”
According to Kearney, the drop in wind speeds and rise in humidity over the past few days should help firefighters in their efforts, but he also cautions Texas residents to remain diligent in their efforts to prevent the fires from starting in the first place.
“There are so many things that can cause the spark that starts a fire,” he explained, “and 90% of wildfires in Texas are caused by people welding, pulling their cars over to the side of the road on grass during extremely dry conditions, rims that hit the pavement when a tire goes flat, campfires that are not properly extinguished–you can’t be too careful right now.”
Kearney’s assessment of the situation appears to be correct. In spite of the cool weather this weekend, according to the Texas Forest Service Incident Information System, the Deaton Cole fire in Val Verde County still remains a serious concern with 175,000 acres of wildfire that is only 30% contained. Commercial air tankers are currently assisting the numerous ground crews. The fire is thirty miles southwest of Ozona, Texas, located in rough terrain filled with tall grass and dry brush and is threatening numerous ranch houses.
The Rockhouse Fire in Presidio and Davis Counties also remains a concern. Although it is 95% contained, Saturday’s winds kicked up dust and ash that made work difficult for fire crews. The fire has burned 313, 323 acres, forty-one homes and 2 commercial buildings.
Liz Caldwell, who is the official spokesperson at the Possum Kingdom location near Fort Worth, is still working with three teams of 60 volunteers, though the fire is considered 100% contained. Caldwell anticipates that she will remain in the area another two weeks, until the last volunteer goes home.
“We still meet at 7:30 every morning at the fire station for briefings,” she said. “We have people aligned in different positions working on clean-up and watching for smoke,” she said. Caldwell said there was a brief flare-up a few days earlier, but it was quickly extinguished.
According to the Texas Forest Service Incident Information System, the Possum Kingdom West fire destroyed at least 167 homes, 124 outbuildings, and over 126,734 acres. In spite of these devestating losses, Caldwell was quick to point out the homes and acreage saved by thousands of volunteers.
“The best way for Texans to help Texas right now is to support their volunteer firefighters,” Caldwell said, and there is a website set up for donations to the Possum Kingdom Firefighter Relief Fund.
“We have had many people stopping by in the past few days to donate, and we are so grateful,” Caldwell continued. “This is the type of response Texas needs. When you see a booth at a festival, stop and donate. This is how the volunteer fire departments pay for the equipment they need to fight these fires.”