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March 28, 2006

The Fire Next Time Disasters  Environment

When Hurricane Katrina wiped out New Orleans, we got a preview of what awaits the world's coastal cities as global warming leads to bigger storms and higher sea levels.

In the interior, however, the global warming threat isn't floods, it's fire. Fire fed by drought, like the current drought in the Texas Panhandle that has led to the largest wildfires in Texas history. Texas officials say that if such wildfires were to reach Austin, they would be powerless: much of Austin would be lost. Austin American-Statesman (link via Viridian):

Authorities urged residents in six Panhandle towns to evacuate Wednesday and warned that the state's largest wildfire outbreak in history could cross into Oklahoma. [...]

Although this fire was raging in sparsely populated ranching country, Texas Forest Service Director James B. Hull warned Wednesday that such a fire striking Austin and Travis County would yield a more nightmarish fate.

"Austin is going to be the worst catastrophe Texas has ever seen," Hull said as he toured firefighting operations in the Panhandle. "The conditions we're having in the Panhandle right now, when it gets to Austin, it will be a tragedy."

Mix drought conditions and high winds in an urban-area forest like the cedar-covered hills of western Travis County and the area would be a tinder box of gigantic proportions, Hull said.

Austin Fire Department Battalion Chief Palmer Buck agreed: "It would not be what house we are going to save...it would be what neighborhood are we going to save."

The Fire Department does not have the resources to fight a major wildfire in the hills along Lake Austin or the rugged terrain of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve area, Buck said. [...]

The 1,800 volunteer fire departments with 40,000 firefighters are the backbone of protection in rural communities. But almost half those departments have budgets of $10,000 or less. Hull said volunteer departments often have old equipment and are not equipped to battle blazes that last days or weeks. [...]

When Sunday's 55-mph winds first fueled the Panhandle fires, the state at first could offer only minimal backup to local fire departments. The Texas Forest Service had a management team in Amarillo and, luckily, had been able to get five large air tankers from the U.S. Forest Service to fly from Albuquerque, N.M., and Ardmore, Okla., to drop fire retardant.

Typically, those planes would be fighting fires in other parts of the country, and Texas would have to rely on eight National Guard helicopters to fly large buckets of water to the fires. The war in Iraq, however, has reduced that option.

"There have been times when none of the helicopters were available," Hull said. [...]

Although state firefighting officials were able to predict the threat of the Panhandle fires because of the projected wind speeds, drought conditions and low humidity, they had no firefighting equipment on the ground to back up local operations. [...]

Part of the problem is the sheer size of the state.

"We're fighting fires all the way from Laredo to East Texas, through the Hill Country, to here in the Panhandle," Hull said. "We're stretched very thin." [...]

A study done by the Austin Fire Department in 2003 showed that about 50,000 homes in Travis County are in either extreme- or high-risk fire zones. [...]

"Texas still has a rural mentality," Hull said. "But with 22.5 million people, we are an urban state, and we have to plan for that urban catastrophe." [Emphasis added]

Sooner or later, it's really going to dawn on us what we've set in motion. Outside, a wind is rising.

Posted by Jonathan at March 28, 2006 07:27 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb


It's almost ironic this is happening in Texas. Bush's ranch isn't in this fires path, is it?

Posted by: Jeff at March 28, 2006 08:53 PM