Looking Back on the Labor Day Wildfires

Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)

Coppell firefighter Lin Whetstine walks through hot spots with a chain saw as on September 7, 2011 in Bastrop, Texas.

No Texan needs reminding of just how bad last year was. For months, Central Texas received only trace amounts of rain. It was the driest– and hottest — summer in the area’s history.

How a ‘Perfect Storm’ Led to the Worst Fires in Texas History/audio]

Chris Barron, Executive Director of the Fireman’s and Fire Marshals Association of Texas, remembers that the 2011 wildfire season got off to an ominous start with the Possum Kingdom Lake fire in March.

“And I’ll never forget talking to Chief Steve Purdue of the Mineral Wells Fire Department,” Barrons says. “And I asked him what he’s up to. And his immediate response was, ‘I’ve got fire all around me, I gotta talk to you later.’ And that kind of set the tone for the rest of the season.”

The rest of the season was a scorcher. As the summer of 2011 wore on, temperatures broke records and the earth cracked. Vegetation died.

Then in the week before Labor Day, officials began to caution that Central Texas was beginning to look like a powder keg.

A tropical storm off the coast of Louisiana began blowing high winds into the area.

“The conditons, I mean you almost can’t make that up,” remembers Robert Abbott, Assistant Fire Chief with Lake Travis Fire and Rescue. “The fires that start like that are historic, obviously. They’re not that common here in Central Texas.”

On Sunday, September fourth, the fires came. Nearly sixty of them on that day alone. But while extreme heat and devastating drought have held much of the blame for the fires, there’s a bigger picture.

“Everything was lining up for the perfect storm,” says Barron with the Fire Marshalls Association. “And not only the perfect storm in the fact of the weather, but aslo the fact that it was the perfect storm for the fire service, because our funding for fire protection drastically got cut last year.”

Barron says that one of the state’s fire grant programs went from 25 million to just 7 million dollars in one year. State and local firefighters found themselves cash-strapped and understaffed.

“I’m listening to all these fires going on at the same time, and they’re calling me, asking for air resources or other resources from across the states,” Barron recalls. “And I call our state coordinator and I said, hey look I need a strike team from wherever you can get it from. The firefighter calls me back and he says I’ll do the best I can, but they’re pretty much strapped for resources at this point.”

Compounding the problem was the sprawl of residential development into what is known as the “Wildland Urban Interface.”

As people built homes further and further into woodland areas – places where brush and undergrowth can light up in seconds – the danger of widespread fire damage grew with it. These are places that used to be rural, agricultural land. Just like some homes within water live in a “flood plain,” many of these new communities are in what fire officials call a “fire plain.”

Today, some communities have made efforts to extending clearance around their property and making upgrades to their homes. But there has been no additional funding for the forest service or firefighters. And even with extra preparation and precaution by individuals and communities, that’s no guarantee of safety.

“This will always be on the horizon,” says Abbott with Lake Travis Fire and Rescue. “As we see people move into the parts of Travis County out of the city, and the city buts up into the wildland-urban interface, they gotta remember that this is an issue.”

Texans who live in woodland areas will always have to deal with the possibility of wildfires. And while there are ways to mitigate that, the threat will never completely go away.

A year ago next Sunday will mark the first anniversary of the wildfires that tore through Central Texas, burning more than 1600 homes, leveling whole swaths of land and causing firefighters, county officials and homeowners alike to rethink how they manage their land.

While Texas has been blessed with above average rains so far this year, this time last year the state was in very different shape. All this week we’ll be returning to the fires of 2011 as part of a special project with KUT, Forged in Flames.

On Tuesday, September 4 at 3 p.m., KUT 90.5 FM will air a special one-hour documentary telling the story of the fires. It will air again Wednesday, Sept. 5 at 7 p.m. You can listen on air and online, and stay tuned for more this week. 

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