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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Earth, Wind and Fire in Central Texas

Air Date: Week of September 16, 2011

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Alongside a record heat wave and drought, Texas has experienced its worst fire season in history. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Tony Plohetski, a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, about the conditions that have come together to fuel these intense fires.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Ferocious wildfires have
been scorching the earth around the United States. Fueled by tinder dry trees, and fanned
by gusting winds - a wildfire in the Boundary Waters Wilderness of Northern Minnesota
charred a hundred thousand acres of forest - sending clouds of choking smoke 600 miles
away.

In California, there were mandatory evacuations as wildfires roared near Sequoia
National Park. But hardest hit has been Texas, where heat, drought and human factors
have conspired to burn more than three and a half million acres to a crisp. Ground Zero
has been central Texas. We caught up with reporter Tony Plohetski in the newsroom of
the Austin American-Statesman. Welcome to Living on Earth, Tony.

PLOHETSKI: Thanks for having me.

GELLERMAN: So, I was reading there are about 21,000 wildfires in Texas since last
November alone and half since Labor Day. How does this compare?

PLOHETSKI: You know, certainly in this part of the country, we have had wildfires
from time to time, but the truth is, this has been an unprecedented appearance with so
many homes burned: 1,500 or more in one area alone in Bastrop County. So, it really has
been an epic event for us here.

GELLERMAN: How close are have you gotten to these fires?

PLOHETSKI: You know, the nearest one to downtown Austin, which is where I am
right now, was about 30 miles away. But, I will tell you this, immediately afterwards,
you could see smoke from downtown Austin. And, in fact, the day after the fires, smoke
really hung low throughout downtown Austin, and a lot of people were actually having
some health problems associated with it.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, I imagine the smell must be terrible!

PLOHETSKI: Yeah, it was for a time.

GELLERMAN: So, the conditions in central Texas this summer sound really intense -
very, very hot. I guess you had the hottest August on record?


A woman tries to capture a picture of the intense fire. (Photo: Flickr Creative Commons; Phil Ostroff)

PLOHETSKI: The truth is, it has been a miserable summer. I mean, here we have had
an epic drought that has, you know, taken moisture from the state. We’ve also been
incredibly hot. We’ve had, you know, 70 plus days of 100 degrees or more with high
temperatures, you know, getting into the 110/112 range and shattering records.

So, at the same time, we’ve also seen massive growth. We’ve seen homes being built
along what fire officials call "the urban wildlands interface," which is sort of the tectonic
fault line for wildfire development. And so, what experts say is that this year, you really
have had a combination of factors that have contributed to the wildfire risk, and have in
fact, made this area a real tinderbox.

GELLERMAN: So you’ve got an environmental problem: the drought and the heat, and
then you’ve got this people problem: people moving into these areas that are susceptible
to wildfires.

PLOHETSKI: Right. And, the thing about that is, you know, they’re moving into
areas that, frankly, are beautiful. In the Bastrop County fire, you know, you have these
beautiful tall pines, and you see people building at the top of hills that have majestic
views overlooking the hill country. But at the same time, you know, according to fire
experts, when you build and develop in those areas - particularly at the tops of hills -
you’re really at the top of what they call a matchbox.

GELELRMAN: Well, are there planners who say what you can and can’t put in different
places?

PLOHETSKI: Well, that is the real interesting thing. You know, much of Texas and this
region is not in incorporated cities - they are in more rural areas, and state really does not
allow counties to regulate development. So, ultimately what it comes down to is people
have to assume responsibility for their personal property, and so, that has really been an
issue.

And, so, there have been moves in different areas to get more stringent regulation in
place, but the truth is many people, homeowners and developers alike, don’t want to do
that. They want to build as much as they can on that precious property. So that has been
an ongoing issue.

GELLERMAN: What about the firefighters and all the equipment that’s needed to fight
these? Aren’t the firefighters saying ‘Hey! We need some help here?’

PLOHETSKI: Absolutely. I do think you’re going to see departments, really across this
region, taking a harder look at how they can be more prepared to go after these fires,
should they break out, and possibly seeking grants to help buy more equipment or pay for
more firefighters, as well as getting that from their local budgets.


Texas National Guard crews launched out of the Austin Army Aviation Facility to fight wild fires threatening homes and property near Bastrop, Texas. (Photo: Sgt. Malcolm McClendon)

GELLERMAN: I know that FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency,
covers - what, 75 percent of fighting these types of fires?

PLOHETSKI: That is my understanding as well, yeah.

GELLERMAN: And, families that are affected can get up to 30,000 dollars to cover
insured risks. You know, here you’ve got Governor Rick Perry of Texas saying, "We’ve
got these fires" - he rushed back from the campaign trail to go there. And yet, the federal
government, which he’d like to cut, is picking up a big part of the tab to fight and fend
off these fires.

PLOHETSKI: But, you know, local resources have certainly been used to fight the fires,
as well…

GELLERMAN: But, if there were cuts here, they bite pretty deep!

PLOHETSKI: Yeah! I mean, I guess that’s the way the cuts work - yeah.

GELLERMAN: (LAUGHS).

PLOHETSKI: Absolutely.

GELLERMAN: So, is there any push back by people? Are people now saying, ‘Hey,
maybe we need to have some better planning, or prepare better for next year?’

PLOHETSKI: Absolutely. I mean, that seems to be where the renewed focus is. But,
I’ve gotta tell you too, at the same time, people just want to get back to their property,
they want to see what’s left, and the conversation has really shifted to rebuilding, and
whether or not to rebuild. And, if to rebuild, how to do it, and where to do it? That seems

to be the focus right now.

GELLERMAN: Tony, do you think this is the new normal? I mean, you keep on having
droughts, you have these intense weather conditions, wildfires out of control, is this the
new norm?

PLOHETSKI: You know, some people would certainly say that it is. And, that, you
know, next summer is going to bring even more issues. It’s definitely kind of a tender
place to be - we’re going to have to keep watching it very closely in the months, and
possibly years to come.

GELLERMAN: Well, Tony Plohetski, thank you so very much.

PLOHETSKI: Thank you, take care.

GELLERMAN: Tony Plohetski is a reporter with the Austin American-Statesman in
Austin, Texas.

 

Links

Read more about the Texas wildfires of late

 

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