Fires turn Texas drought into an inferno

Sep 9, 2011

Along with battling the worst drought in history, Texas has now added its worst fire season to its record breaking year. News of the severe Texas drought has been replaced with daily updates of hundreds of fires burning over 3.6 million acres.

The drought alone is estimated to have caused $5.2 billion in crop and livestock losses, according to Texas Agrilife Extension Service. Add to that the fires, and the estimated toll on Texas agriculture, this year, is $78.1 million and rising daily, accord ing to the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA).

Damage to ranch and industry infrastructure represents the largest portion of the fire costs, according TDA. More than 5,400 miles of fence are estimated to have been destroyed. A recent survey by the Texas AgriLife Extension Service reported four- to six-wire fences with steel posts costing an average of $10,000 per mile to rebuild.

Lost grazing for the year is the second largest financial loss, according to TDA. More than 2.6 million acres of grazing land has burned.

Livestock losses are likely underestimated at this point, as the number will continue to rise even after the fires are out, according to Dr. David P. Anderson, Texas AgriLife Extension Service. More than 1,400 dead cattle, horses, sheep and goats have been reported so far.

Since fire season began in November 2010, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and area fire departments have responded to more than 20,631 wildfires, according to USFS, which reported over 3,000 structures and over 1,000 homes have burned.

USFS said it responded to 19 new fires last Wednesday alone, totaling 1,490 acres across the state, bringing the total acreage consumed in just one week to more than 130,000 acres.

Firefighters were gaining control of one of largest fires raging across central Texas near Bastrop, about 25 miles east of Austin. This fire alone consumed nearly 33,000 acres and 800 homes, killing two people, according to USFS.

“These fierce fires near Bastrop have now become even more heartbreaking, as local officials today confirmed two deaths in the Bastrop area. To further support local efforts, I have requested that Texas Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd deploy our state’s elite wide area search team, Texas Task Force 1,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry said.

The staggering destruction has made the blaze the most catastrophic of more than 170 fires that have erupted in the past week, which have been blamed for a total of four deaths.

To the west of Austin in Travis County, at least 20 homes were lost and 30 others were damaged in another fire. More than 1,000 homes were under mandatory evacuation and 25 lost in a third fire also in the Austin area.
At least two-thirds of the 6,000-acre Bastrop State Park has burned. The park is home to endangered Houston toads and several historic rock and stone buildings built in the 1930s and 1940s that officials are trying to protect, said Mike Cox of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Mike Fisher, the Bastrop County Emergency Operations Agency’s incident commander, said the task force will do a “grid search” to “cover every square inch looking for whatever there is to find.”

“There are environmental problems, dead animals ... We need experts out there who are equipped to handle whatever is there,” he said.

Crews finally got a reprieve last week from winds pushed in by Tropical Storm Lee that whipped the blaze into an inferno over the weekend.

“Even though the fuels are critically dry, the grass is dry and the relative humidity is still pretty low, they were able to take advantage of lower winds,” USFS spokeswoman April Saginor said.

About 1,200 firefighters battled the blazes, including crews from as far away as California and Oregon. In addition, six heavy airtankers, three 1,500-gallon scoopers, 15 single-engine airtankers, 12 helicopters, and 12 aerial supervision aircraft were brought in to fight the blazes, according to USFS updates.

So far in 2011, 7.2 million acres of grass, scrub and forest have burned in wildfires nationwide. Of those, some 3.5 million acres—nearly half—have been in Texas, according to Inciweb, a fire-tracking website maintained by state and federal agencies.

Last Wednesday marked the 295th consecutive day of wildfires in Texas, according to Inciweb.

“The acreage ravaged by these fires equals more than the combined areas of Delaware, Rhode Island, Washington, D.C., and one-third of Connecticut. Our farmers and ranchers are losing their livelihoods and, ultimately, all Americans will suffer through increased food prices,” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said.

“Right now there is no pasture, no hay, and no end in sight,” Staples said. “The need for hay is dire and getting more desperate each day.”

Staples announced several updates to the Texas Department of Agriculture’s Hay Hotline, (877) 429-1998. The service is now being updated to include prices and sources for donated hay. The Hay Hotline also now connects ranchers with transportation services to deliver hay, and available grazing lands. —Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor