The great state of Texas, with its long vistas, wide-open spaces, and large footprint, is no stranger to destructive wildfires. The hot, dry weather in much of the state, combined with long summers, contributes to the risk for out-of-control blazes.
One of the most common causes of fire across the US is lack of experience with fire management when doing activities like camping or burning trash. Unfortunately, in some cases, simple carelessness causes wildfires. Intentional fire-setting, as in arson, is also a relatively common fire danger. After human causes, lightning is a secondary source of dangerous Texas fires. Wind is another natural force that can help ignite wildfires. In fact, wind was identified as the source of the largest Texas wildfire ever. In that case, strong wind caused power lines to spark and start the disastrous Bastrop Fire.
Even the best efforts of Texas governmental authorities cannot prevent all forest fires, but the state takes steps to prevent these dangerous events. Texas A&M University provides workshops to educate forest landowners and instruct the public on issues like proper Christmas tree disposal. This can prevent fires that can quickly grow into out of control wildfires, especially for people living near wilderness areas.
The state also uses the broadcast media and websites to announce fire warnings when weather conditions bring fire danger. You can also use a Texas wildfire map to stay up to date on the latest fires in your area. During these times, citizens and visitors are advised to avoid using fires outdoors, whether for burning trash, camping or other uses. The Texas Department of Agriculture also offers valuable public guidance on wildfire prevention.
The Texas A&M Forest Service monitors and uses fire suppression and prevention techniques, like prescribed burns, as part of responsible land management. These planned burns help prevent disastrous forest fires, ranch fires and more. In fact, prescribed fires were used on nearly 402,000 acres across Texas in 2018 alone. These controlled burns help rid the landscape of fuel that could otherwise become dry tinder and contribute to raging wildfires.
Now that we have provided a sense of the level of fire danger in Texas, we’ll discuss the most devastating wildfires in Texas history to date.
Burning for more than a month in 2011, from September 4th through October 10th, the Bastrop wildfire burned more than 34,000 acres until it was controlled. After it was declared under control, the fire continued burning below ground and wasn’t finally extinguished until October 29th.
The cause of the Bastrop Fire was traced to sparking from malfunctioning power lines that were damaged from winds brought by Tropical Storm Lee. The fire destroyed almost 1700 homes, as well as 40 business or commercial buildings and outbuildings. Four people died as a result of this devastating Texas wildfire.
In the Bastrop fire, multiple fires merged into an inferno. There were three different fires that flared due to Tropical Storm Lee and it’s gale-force winds. The fires soon merged and became a single, huge wildfire east of Bastrop, TX.
The fire continued to burn for so long due to extreme weather conditions in Texas that year. In 2011, the state was in the midst of a severe drought, with the least rainfall since the turn of the century. Texas also set a record for the hottest summer ever in the US, which was worse than the 1930’s Depression-era Dust Bowl.
This awful Balstrop fire made permanent changes to the Texas landscape. It seriously damaged the historically valuable Lost Pines Forest as well as Bastrop State Park. The gigantic fire made permanent changes to the Texas landscape. It seriously damaged the historically valuable Lost Pines Forest, where pine trees dated back to the ancient Pleistocene era. The Bastrop fire left less than 100 out of 6000 total acres of Bastrop State Park untouched.
Governor Rick Perry skipped a Presidential campaign rally to return to Texas to help organize fire aid and declare the region an official Disaster area. The federal government allocated funds and assistance for firefighting and recovery. The local community came together and formed a non-profit Long Term Recovery Team to rebuild 350 of the 1700 fire-destroyed homes in Bastrop County for low income or uninsured families.
Throughout the entire summer of 2011, Texas burned. Although the Bastrop fire, discussed above, is generally considered the largest wildfire in Texas history, additional major wildfires also took place that year. Taken together, over 30,000 TX fires burned in 2011, burning nearly 4 million acres in the state.
Another notable Texas fire of 2011, the Bear Creek Fire burned from September 4th through its containment on the 12th, charring over 40,000 acres. Bear Creek’s burn scars were photographed by NASA satellites in the midst of the fire on September 9th, and firefighters estimated it was not completely out until nearly two months later.
This fire was part of a larger group of nearby, simultaneous fires, called the Northeast Texas Fires Complex. During the Bear Creek fire, 200 homes were evacuated and the fire was responsible for destroying over 90 homes on the border between Marion and Cass counties, near Linden, TX. Damage estimates were $27 million, with $6 million in damage to homes and $8.5 million in damage to natural forest.
Also in summer 2011, this group of four wildfires burned almost 150,000 acres across the three Texas counties of Young, Palo Pinto, and Stephens. The group included the Possum Kingdom West Fire, which burned 90,000 acres, Possum Kingdom East burning 11,000 acres, the Hohertz Fire burning 40,000 acres and Jackson Ranch Fire burning 7,000 acres.
The four-fire complex burned more than 160 houses and threatened 600 more, along a firefighting line of nearly 300 miles. Only 10% of Possum Kingdom State Park was spared in the fire. A few weeks later, on August 30th, another wildfire burned in the same area, near Possum Kingdom Lake, which destroyed about 40 houses over approximately 2 weeks.
Also known as the Riley Road fire, this fire burned approximately 20,000 acres near Houston. Firefighters called in a jumbo jet to help douse the fire by dropping thousands of gallons of fire retardant. Burning for nearly a month, the fire spread through Grimes, Montgomery and Waller counties. The Tri-County fire burned down 75 homes and buildings.
Fire danger in Texas will continue to be high, unfortunately. Extreme weather events are on the upswing worldwide, which may be due to global warming. The state of Texas is continually working to avoid and quickly control wildfires.
The state, along with the federal government, uses wilderness management tactics like controlled burning, forest thinning, banning campfires during periods of high fire danger, and more, to help lower the risk of devastating wildfires. Texas also offers a fire prevention curriculum to schools to help begin fire awareness early. The Texas Dept. of Agriculture also provides a public-accessible map that rates your fire danger in any specific area of the state. Although the state of Texas also works to educate the public to do their part in preventing wildfires, still the battle continues.