PICTURE: Bastrop Complex Fire, September 2011
As the hot dry summer gets underway in Texas, firefighters are casting a nervous eye at the massive 377 square mile wildfire now burning in New Mexico, the largest wildfire ever in that state, and hoping that it doesn't mean a second straight summer of misery for a state which lost some 4 million acres to fire last year, 1200 WOAI news reports.
"We are watching that of course," April Saginor of the Texas Forest Service told 1200 WOAI news. "It appears to be a unique incident that doesn't affect Texas, but it does show that there is wildfire activity out there and it could affect Texas."
More than 30,000 separate fires across Texas in 2011 destroyed 3,000 homes, forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate, and caused in excess of $6 billion in damage to the state's farming and ranching economy. A stunning 500 million trees were destroyed by the wildfires, according to a Forest Service estimate.
"Our drought conditions have improved," Saginor said. "We are not in the same shape that we were this time last year."
Figures released by the National Interagency Coordination Center appear to back up her cautious optimism. The Daily Fire Danger Map shows most of Texas in low or moderate danger of wildfires, and the Department of Agriculture's U.S. Drought Monitor shows less than one percent of the state is in the worst category of 'exceptional drought' today, compared with 43% of Texas which was in that category one year ago.
Texas received three times as much rain in the last three months as it received between March and May of 2011, according to the National Weather Service.
The National Weather Service last month declared the La Nina weather pattern, which was largely blamed for creating last year's record drought and heat in Texas, to be over. Robert Korty, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, says the reverse, an El Nino, which often brings wetter weather to the southwest and the Gulf Coast, may be building.
"One predictor that you can use early in the year that has been very reliable is the presence of an El Nino or a La Nina," Korty said. "Several of our forecast models are forecasting an El Nino to develop by the middle to later part of the summer. On top of that, we received a couple bouts of rain during the winter."
Saginor says June is usually the month that predicts the severity of the Texas wildfire year. She points out that by this time last year, massive wildfires had already burned hundreds of thousands of acres in Texas. So far in 2012, just 46,000 acres have burned in fires which were generally blamed on local causes, like brush burning that went out of control.
"I just looked up the date June 4, 2011, and on that single day we had 18 fires for about 7,000 acres," she said. "It was a different story. What we are seeing today is smaller fires that we are able to suppress within a day or so, and the drought conditions are far better."
It was nine months ago today, on September 4, 2011, that the most destructive wildfire in Texas history erupted east of Austin. By the time that fire was brought under control, nearly one month later, 2900 homes had been destroyed, more than 5,000 people were forced to flee their homes, often with literally a few seconds’ notice, and entire neighborhoods in the town of Bastrop were turned into smoldering ruins.
"We have a long way to go, but there is green here where there used to be black," said Steven Long, a Bastrop County employee who's parents' home was one of the 2900 that were destroyed.
He says tens of millions of dollars in insurance money, as well as government and corporate grants have been pouring into the county, and new homes are sprouting among the blackened stumps of what used to be towering oak trees.
"You hear a lot of nail guns and saws, and Home Depot and hardware stores are busy," he said. "I see people being very resilient, and bouncing back."
He said it will take a lot longer for the environment to recover, with acres and acres of dead trees a constant reminder of the fire.
"We can already see beauty coming out of the ashes." Long said.
Saginor says "The Fire Year" as many are calling it, left a lot of lessons as well as scars on the Texas landscape.
"So many people now know that this can happen to them," she said. "This empowered communities, neighborhoods, and their residents to learn how to protect their homes, to clear defensible space around their homes and clear dry, dead vegetation. This got a lot of people to start doing things to take care of themselves, and that's really important to us."
As June melts into July, and the always hot, dry Texas summertime sets in for the long haul, people here will be hoping for rain, like Texans do every summer. But this year there may be a greater sense of urgency in that hope, for a state which knows exactly what can happen when things get too hot and too dry and stay that way for too long.
"We have had brush fires, we just had another fire out in the pine trees just last week," Long said. "Any time there's smoke in the air in Bastrop County now, people get a little nervous."