Trial by Fire

This year will be remembered for a terrifying series of wildfires that ravaged almost every corner of the state, from Bastrop County to Possum Kingdom, from Amarillo to the Mexican border. All told, the flames torched nearly three million acres in an unprecedented disaster—and perhaps an omen of things to come. What did it look and feel like on the ground the year Texas burned?
Photographs by Dan Winters

Here’s a pair of statistics that will singe your eyebrows: According to the Texas Forest Service, over the past quarter century there have been eighteen wildfires that each consumed more than 50,000 acres of Texas land. Twelve of those fires occurred in 2011. The Schwartz Fire. The Swenson Fire. The Wildcat Fire. The Rockhouse Fire. The White Hat Fire. The Deaton Cole Fire. The Frying Pan Fire. The Iron Mountain Fire. The Cannon Complex Fire. The Dickens Complex Fire. The Cooper Mountain Ranch Fire. The Possum Kingdom Complex Fire. And that doesn’t include the Bastrop County Complex Fire, which over the course of five weeks incinerated a relatively modest 34,000 acres but destroyed 1,649 homes. In terms of human habitation, it was the single most devastating wildfire in Texas history.

Without question, 2011 was a year like none we’ve ever experienced. Ravaged forests, miles-long smoke plumes, and exploding propane tanks began to seem almost commonplace. Dried out by months of drought and blistering temperatures, the entire landscape was reduced to little more than kindling, primed to explode into flames at the slightest instigation. The awful season began in earnest on April 6, when sparks from a cutting torch set off the Swenson Fire, which burned 122,500 acres near Abilene. Three days later an electrical short in an abandoned building started the third-largest wildfire in Texas history, the Rockhouse Fire, which destroyed 314,444 acres. Wildfires are nothing new in Texas, of course, but the pace of these fires was something different. By fall nearly 3,000,000 acres had burned.

Was this terrifying outbreak an anomaly? Probably not. Of the eighteen massive fires 
mentioned above, only one predated 2000. Four took place in 2008. The biggest occurred in 2006. And if the recent past doesn’t offer much comfort, neither does the near future. The rolling series of droughts that fueled all of these conflagrations shows no sign of letting up. The La Niña pattern, meteorologists note, is expected to stave off rainfall in Texas for at least one more year. Other experts warn that we may be in for an extended drought like the one that plagued the state from 1949 to 1956. Still others consult tree rings and evoke the specter of the twenty- and forty-year mega-droughts that struck Texas during the medieval era and the sixteenth century. And then there are those who worry that climate change has wrought a permanent alteration, that in the twenty-first century, Fredericksburg may feel a lot more like Midland.

If so, we’re going to have to start thinking differently about wildfires. Historically, we’ve regarded them as part of the cycle of nature: burning down the old to make way for the new. But as the desolate photographs taken by James H. Evans (the Rockhouse Fire) and Dan Winters (Bastrop) on the following pages suggest, that cycle may have been broken. The fires were too hot, the grasses are too dry, the forecast is too bleak for the land to spring back anytime soon. A West Texas rancher, who offers one of the eight testimonials included here, notes that his neighbors fear that the Rockhouse Fire burned so fiercely that it may have wiped out not only the leaves and stems above the ground but the root systems below, leaving nothing to grow back. They’re hardly alone in their pessimism. All across the state you’ll find farmers, ranchers, and firefighters wondering whether our world will ever look or feel the same. —Jeff Salamon

THE ROCKHOUSE FIRE, 
April 9–May 15

BOBBY MCKNIGHT, 51, rancher. My wife, Linda, had been with me working cattle down in Marathon that Saturday [April 9], and just on a whim we decided to go back to our house outside of Fort Davis. We hadn’t been there too terribly long when we saw some smoke to the south. I’ve seen a million grass fires in my life, and I knew this was a pretty big one. We’d had a lot of rain last year, but it had been historically dry lately, so there was a lot of grass that was all dry, meaning a ton of fuel. And it was a windy day. Not just breezes, but 50- to 60-mile-an-hour gusts. It was kind of the perfect storm. But still, I had no idea it was going to hit like it did. It started in Marfa, traveled 26 miles in about an hour and a half, and literally surrounded the town.

We also have a second house in Fort Davis, the house I grew up in. I’d left three horses there to overnight, so I drove over there to pen them and call our ranch foreman to come pick them up, just in case. As soon as I got there, Linda called and said the fire was getting closer, and when I got back, flames were all around our home. At some point we lost our electricity, which meant our water was gone—we’re on well water, and without electricity, the pumps went down. So you’re out there squirting with a hose and all of a sudden the water runs dry, and then you’re feeling pretty helpless. Fortunately, I’d brought a cattle sprayer home with me from Marathon. That’s a machine you use to spray cattle for lice and different things. It holds about two hundred gallons and has a high-pressure hose on it, and I had it full of water. That was big.

We used the sprayer to keep the fire line from the big trees around our house, but the heat was so great they were getting scorched anyhow. It was unbearable. We had bandanas on, but still it hurt to breathe. A few days later we had to dig up our sewer lines, which we thought were clogged, and saw that the heat had melted the heavy PVC pipe. They looked like cauliflower.

It was pretty grim there for a little bit. Fort Davis is a little town, and resources are limited. There were just too many fronts for our volunteer fire department, so a lot of

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