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Witness: Texas Wildfire ‘Just Like Driving Into a Volcano’

September 7, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
In Texas, Bastrop County's emergency coordinator said that a huge wildfire southeast of Austin is now 30 percent contained. Ray Suarez speaks with Kate Galbraith of the Texas Tribune about efforts to combat scores of fires, which have destroyed more than 1,000 homes and killed at least four people in the Lone Star State.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the latest on the wildfires in Texas. It’s part of the worst fire season in that state’s history. More than 1,000 homes have burned in just a week and four lives have been lost.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: Hard-pressed fire crews in Texas finally seemed to catch a break today. In the last week, they have battled more than 170 fires, fed by drought and whipped by winds from Tropical Storm Lee. The largest was the Bastrop fire southeast of Austin, 24 miles long and 20 miles wide.

But the wind has finally died back some, and Bastrop County’s emergency management coordinator, Mike Fisher, said today the big blaze is now 30 percent contained.

MIKE FISHER, Bastrop County emergency management coordinator: We’re making pretty good progress on getting around the perimeter. We’re hoping by — that, at the end of shift today, that we can say that we’re comfortable and the fire is not going to get any larger.

RAY SUAREZ: In all, fires have spread across much of eastern Texas in recent weeks, scorching about 3.5 million acres, an area the size of Connecticut. Firefighters have managed to come near containing many of them.

And improving conditions mean crews can set back-burns to rob the flames of fuel and stop them from spreading. But the damage has been done. The Bastrop fire has already devoured nearly 800 homes out of more than 1,000 lost across the state.

One belonged to Charles Billingsly.

CHARLES BILLINGSLY, fire victim: It was just ashes. There’s — it’s almost like every other house. It’s just the winds were erratic.

RAY SUAREZ: And while some residents know what’s happened to their homes, others, like Mitzi Carrara, were among 5,000 evacuees still waiting for news.

MITZI CARRARA, evacuee: It’s tough to think about what we’re going to see and if we see anything. Is it going to be — from the news we have seen, you know, it could be just a foundation with a bunch of debris over it.

RAY SUAREZ: Even with progress on containing many of the fires, tinder-dry Texas is not out of the woods yet. The state forest service says it responded to 19 new fires just today.

We get more on the fires now from Kate Galbraith, a reporter for The Texas Tribune in Austin, Texas.

Well, Kate, you have been in the area that’s burning. Give us a sense of what it’s like to smell it, to see it, to feel it on your skin.

KATE GALBRAITH, The Texas Tribune: That’s right.

Well, I drove down earlier this week. And, you know, driving into Bastrop was just like driving into a volcano, I mean, huge amounts of billowing smoke. And the governor at a press conference on Monday, Gov. Perry, said that it was — he’d seen a lot of wildfires, but it was about the meanest-looking he’d ever seen.

And, indeed, we have been experiencing some smoke here in Austin this morning from some of the fires in the area, very smoky air.

RAY SUAREZ: What are these landscapes like? It’s kind of hard to know from television exactly what kind of land we’re talking about — 34,000 acres sounds like an awful lot of area. Is it heavily wooded? Is it farmland? Is it residential areas? What’s on fire?

KATE GALBRAITH: Well, one of the areas that’s substantially burned is Bastrop State Park, which is an unusual area in central Texas. It’s a lot of pine trees, which have been very, very dry. We’re in 11 months into the worst one-year drought in state history.

And a lot of people want to live near that beautiful area. So they have — the area has expanded, Bastrop County, in recent decades. And so they have moved into maybe rural subdivisions close to nature, close to the beauty. And that’s what’s gone up.

RAY SUAREZ: So there are homes amidst areas where there’s plenty to burn.

I heard in a briefing earlier today the elected officials and appointed officials in Bastrop County dealing a lot with homeowners. Are there a lot of people to get out of the way?

KATE GALBRAITH: Well, they have said 500 — the county judge said this afternoon 576 homes are known to have been burned. And he said that number might double. So it’s a very fluid situation. A lot of people are looking for information. They’re really not letting folks back, because, as you said, this fire is 30 percent contained.

RAY SUAREZ: Have people been complying with the orders to evacuate? Have they been cooperating with law enforcement?

KATE GALBRAITH: I would think to the — for the most part. I mean, the state officials from Gov. Perry on down have very much emphasized obey evacuation orders, do not cross barricades. That message has been very clear.

But it’s obviously a difficult time for a lot of people. And state officials are also emphasizing, don’t throw a lighted cigarette butt away, and take other fire precautions, because it’s a very serious situation, not only here, but around the state.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, it sounds like, even as firefighters sort of get this big fire under control new ones are starting all the time?

KATE GALBRAITH: Well, there have been a number of fires right around Austin. And, as you said, 19 started in a day.

And this is the — not the beginning for Texas. We’re — we have been seeing fires since early spring because of this horrendous drought we’re having. And the state climatologist told me this afternoon that it seems likelier than ever that La Nina, which is the cause of this drought, might come back soon, and so we will continue to be dry for quite some time. And that’s quite frightening.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, for a time, it looked like that big storm over the Gulf of Mexico was heading for that area that we saw on the map of Texas with all those fire little symbols on it.

Did Texas get any rain from that tropical storm that smacked Louisiana?

KATE GALBRAITH: I think there may have been a few drops in Houston, but, really, that tropical storm was a big tease for us here in Texas. It sent us no moisture, and a lot of wind, which kicked up the fires this weekend. And, thankfully, those winds are now calming down. But there’s very low humidity right now, which contributes to the fire hazard that is ongoing.

RAY SUAREZ: Does it make the fire and its eventual path more unpredictable, this lack of moisture? What have people fighting it been telling you about the challenges involved?

KATE GALBRAITH: Well, I think it’s — it’s — these high winds make it very hard to contain a fire, to fight a fire. And that’s what these firefighters have been dealing with.

I saw a group of men the other day who were clearly coming off a long shift. And they looked — you know, they looked exhausted, but they also looked resolute. And so, you know, I think it’s very — this fire is three or four days old and only 30 percent contained. That kind of tells you a lot.

RAY SUAREZ: It looks like from the maps from the Texas State Forest Service that the fire zone starts just north of Houston and runs, well, all the way to the border with Arkansas. It must really complicate things to have such a large part of the state involved.

KATE GALBRAITH: Right.

Well, I mean, 251, I believe, of 254 Texas counties are under burn bans right now. This drought is — again, it’s the most intense drought we have ever had. And so a fire can really start just about anywhere, in a city or in some of the big rural areas.

And complicating matters, sometimes, the stock ponds that firefighters use to combat some of the rural fires are drying up because of the drought. So, in some places, it’s difficult to get water.

RAY SUAREZ: Kate Galbraith from The Texas Tribune, thanks for joining us.

KATE GALBRAITH: Thanks for having me.