No. 8: Wallow and Bastrop Fires

On May 30, an abandoned campfire became the largest wildfire in Arizona history. The Wallow fire raged under severe drought conditions, and spread rampantly through the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, burning 500,000 acres in Arizona and New Mexico before it was contained on July 8.

The record drought conditions that fueled this fire were widespread, causing fires across several states as well as dust storms in Phoenix. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Arizona suffered its fourth driest June in 2011, while New Mexico had its driest. In Texas, which also had numerous wildfires, 91 percent of the state was in extreme or greater drought.

The fire had a large impact on the local economy, which depends on recreational tourism. Woes were also felt in neighboring areas where livestock were displaced due to the burnt terrain. Local farmers banded together to donate hay to ranchers who lost grazing land in the fire.

While the long-term effects of the fire are hard to pinpoint, recovering from this enormous fire will take many lifetimes.

Relief efforts:

The Bastrop Fire
On September 4, winds powered by Tropical Storm Lee knocked trees into electric power lines, causing sparks that propelled themselves into the most catastrophic wildfire in Texas history. By the time the Bastrop fire was extinguished 34,068 acres of land had burned, 1,649 homes were lost, and two people were dead. The firestorm destroyed 10 times more homes than the previous record of 168 set recently in April.

A strong year for La Nina brought record-breaking drought and blistering heat. It was the hottest summer on record for Texas, as well as many other states. Thirty-four percent of the nation’s wildfires this year have been in Texas, which has seen the lowest rainfall since 1895.  In some areas, man-made lakes have completely dried up to reveal rather shocking historic finds including a graveyard and space shuttle debris.

The Los Angeles Times reported that since November 2010, 45,359 homes have been destroyed. Since last year, nearly 4 million acres have burned in Texas.

Firefighting heroes
Three-quarters of Texas fire departments are run by volunteers. These brave individuals, sometimes ill-equipped for the job, are on call 24/7 to serve their communities. They are the heroes who helped to finally put this fire out, even as some of their own homes were consumed by the blaze.  As well as gaining respect and admiration from residents, those who diligently fought the blaze were commended in a resolution by The Texas Forestry Association.

Also, amid the chaos, was the heart-warming story of a couple who stayed behind to help save hummingbirds.

Relief efforts
In mid-October, Willie Nelson headlined Fire Relief: the Concert for Central Texas, which raised $725,000. The event famously featured the first reunion of the Dixie Chicks since 2008. Local organizations also helped raise money, including the Austin City Limits Festival.

The damage estimates have reached $250 billion. FEMA has already provided millions in disaster assistance, fire debris removal, and temporary housing, and other relief efforts are still under way.

Bastrop resident Dave Harmon aptly describes the scene: “The spooky, postwildfire quiet of the Lost Pines has been replaced with the buzz of a nascent recovery.”

How to help:

Becky Uline is an editor and musician living in San Francisco, where she enjoys digging into Yahoo! data as a sidekick to trend-finding sleuth Vera H-C Chan. Most of her writing is of the musical variety for her band, the Northerlies.