Two Texas National Guard CH-46 Blackhawks fly over the flames to dump their water near Bastrop, Texas, Sept. 6, 2011. Photo via Flickr user The National Guard.
GALVESTON, Texas – Flames tore through more than 550 homes near Austin this week, leaving thousands displaced and at least four dead statewide, with the number expected to rise. In the midst of a severe drought, firefighters are struggling to bring the fire under control as residents flee its path.
Bernice Drown grabbed a handful of mementos Monday and fled her home outside of Austin.
“We really didn’t know what to take, so we just threw together some stuff and loaded up the camper,” she told the NewsHour Tuesday. “Sometimes, you can’t grab everything.”
The smoke was “thick as fog” by the time Drown and her husband pulled out of their residential lane in Smithville with little more than a few pieces of clothing, some wedding pictures, and three cats.
The wall of fire — a record-setter in a state known for big things — began closing in on the Drown home from Bastrop County, after ravaging 54 square miles and displacing 7,000 people.
The Drowns looked back toward their home after the evacuation and watched the smoke rise in silence.
“It’s just numbing,” she said. “You don’t know whether your whole life is gone — everything you’ve worked for. Gone.”
In total, more than 180 fires have been reported in Texas in the last seven days and 118,400 acres have been burned. Since November, firefighters have battled nearly 21,000 blazes across the state that have destroyed about 1,000 homes and charred close to 3.6 million acres.
Even so, wildfires were one of the last things Drown expected to hit the two-acre, woodsy lot that she and her husband purchased about four years ago. Her neighborhood usually gets “plenty of rain,” she said. But when the seasonal water shortage turned into the worst drought in more than half a century, the leaves shriveled on the trees and the grass turned into brittle sticks. When winds fanned by Tropical Storm Lee kicked up, the conditions became ripe for a firestorm.
“Still, I never gave it a second thought — not until it was on the news,” she said. “And even then, I thought it would stay north and that it would never jump (Interstate) 71. You just never think this could happen to you.”
When Drown went to check on her house Tuesday, she drove past entrances to subdivisions that were completely wiped out by the flames. Red-hot embers were flying into her own neighborhood, but her house was still standing.
“We’re just praying that it stays like that,” she said.
In nearby Austin, between sets at a recording studio, musician Adam Odor said that he’s been feeling a little “surrounded” lately.
“There’s just a constant haze right now. Everybody’s on edge,” he said. “The way these fires keep popping up and jumping roads, you never know what could happen.”
Odor can see smoke rising from fires in the north, west and south from the lot of his home in Kyle. Nearly everyone he knows has an emergency bag already packed, he said, ready for a run.