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

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