It takes three things to start a fire: heat, fuel, and oxygen. In Texas, it usually takes one thing to put out that blaze: the heroism of volunteer firefighters. More than 70% of U.S. firefighters are volunteers, and 30,000 of these brave men and women protect the Lone Star state, often paying out of their own pockets for supplies and gear.
So when a combination of ample vegetation, a prolonged drought, and strong winds produced the worst wildfire season in the state’s history, Texas fire teams went to work, “rushing toward the flames in tread-worn boots that don’t fit, fire suits too hot and heavy for the job, and sometimes, quite literally, in blue jeans.”
Deep budget cuts
Scenes of volunteers risking their lives with little or no equipment to protect them prompted plenty of finger pointing. Critics of Governor Rick Perry blasted his approval in April of deep budget cuts to the Texas Forest Service, which steps in when fires are too big for local departments. Many say the service was already underfunded, even though those cuts didn’t take effect until September. Perry, whose campaign for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination includes a call for less federal spending, asked for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid amid the fire crisis. Austin Republican Representative Michael McCaul said, “We should have had more [federal] assets prepositioned.”
The past year’s fires claimed thousands of homes and buildings, burned almost 4 million acres (more land than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined), and killed five people, including three firefighters.
Most destructive wildfire in Texas history
September’s Bastrop County Complex fire destroyed more than 1,600 homes, making it the most destructive wildfire in Texas history. That fire, just southeast of Austin, also burned 96 percent of Bastrop State Park and separated hundreds of pets from their owners.
Among those who lost homes, pets, and possessions in the fires were some of Texas’s volunteer firefighters. But these heroes have gained something, too. “This whole thing has fraternalized us,” Mizzy Zdroj told the Los Angeles Times. “They’re my brothers now. Anyone who goes through that kind of hell with you, you’re cast iron with them.”
Caroline Que is the D.C. editor for Yahoo! Local. Before joining Yahoo!, she worked at the Washington Post.