Sunday, April 29, 2012

Texas Inferno!

What with snakes, and spiders and other nasty nail-biting ways to pop your clogs - as if we don't already have enough death risks to worry about in this neck of the woods - this morning baby bump and I were tossing and turning mulling over yesterday's firefighter visit to our vulnerable cabin.

Our fireman visitor was a perk from our insurance company - a 'free' Wildfire Hazard Assessment - to help the insurance company and the Emergency Response Services recognize weak spots, more susceptible to wildfire burning hazards.

My husband has always been incredibly vigilant on this risk, and rightly so, although not having come from these parts it was easier for me to overlook just how serious this risk is, that was until last summer, when out of control forest fires rampaged across the state, stripping thousands and thousands of acres in Bastrop, a town situated less than one hour's drive from our town in Texas Hill Country, and home to close family members.

Bastrop, Texas wildfires, 2011
Without any network TV (only NetFlix) we had been blissfully unaware of the enormity of these fires. If it hadn't been for Facebook status updates I would have been completely in the dark. After the fires had already been sweeping Bastrop for a few days, we were eating dinner at a friend's house, and live footage of the fires was playing in the background.

The aerial video coverage was stunning, but most shocking of all was the verbage rolling across the bottom of the screen. A woman and her baby had burned to death in their trailer in a different wildfire in South Texas. I couldn't get it out of my head. My mind created vivid footage of the Mom and babe's last terrifying moments together, and I tortured myself by replaying the horror over and over in my mind's eye. I cried for all that Momma and baby had lived through and lost.

That night I packed Emergency Response bags, and for the next few days I watched fearfully from our half built deck as small patches of smoke emerged and extinguished on the horizon. The world had gone mad. It was like Judgement Day had come - and I felt like Terminator's Sarah Conner, watching helplessly from behind a fence, at children playing innocently in a park, when suddenly everything and everyone is burnt up.

But it wasn't the end of the world after all, and although it took weeks to completely extinguish the fires, they eventually got control of the blaze. Thousands of homes were lost - and incredibly less than a handful of souls departed throughout all Texas!

My husband's uncle and cousin were evacuated from Bastrop, and miraculously - although their garden fence had been destroyed in the blaze - their house escaped almost unscathed. The close proximity of the flames, and subsequent heat intensity succeeded in melting the window blinds, before the fire was stopped in its tracks.  The firefighters had fought and beaten the blaze in their backyard. The line of destruction ended in their street, but the devastation beyond was unbelievable.

Before the Bastrop fires there had been a heavy drought for a number of years with barely any reprieve. Texas had reached a record dry stretch. Unfortunately last summer the dry land was hit with high winds, a lethal combination for the spread of wildfire!

Fire ban signs had been up pretty much consistently since our arrival in Texas. We'd had a chiminea fire on our land a few times, but not without the hubbie hopping around the embers on edge. He wasn't being a worry wart (like I may have misjudged at the time). Without a water source to speak of we were literally playing with fire! Even now, with our two 2500gal tanks, without any fire hydrants in the area - and no underground plumbing to source one - sufficient water for fighting any blaze would need to be trucked or flown in.

And I've seen first hand just how quickly this forbidding element can ignite and spread.

Our first New Year's shindig here had us partaking in a monster firework escapade over at our buddies' home. I think a fire ban had been lifted - although not in the suburb where we were - and that didn't stop the boys from igniting the fattest firework I'd ever seen! It blazed furiously and impressively, then died down without incident.

Once the gunpowder was spent, we chilled out indoors over a board game. I don't remember what made me go back outside. I was probably having a homesick moment - and a good thing too. The unfamiliar crackling sound behind me had me turning slowly just in time to see the trashcan and fence side erupt in flames. The fire was eating up the trashcan in seconds, the flames reaching opportunistically upwards to the large oak that was overhanging the house.

The spent firework had been placed beside the trashcan - and it's remnant heat had been sufficient to start the blaze. On hearing my screams the boys were outside battling the blaze in seconds. And a catastrophe was only just averted.

It was a fair warning though - received loud and clear. Don't mess with fire in Texas, and respect all fire bans and warnings - especially when we've been hard up for rain in so long!

That's not the only fire I've been privy to in my four years in cowboy country. A couple of summers ago, I was driving past the roadside picnic area just outside of town, when a spark erupted from a transformer on a telegraph pole, and landed in the brush below. The grass fire was instantaneous, and in seconds the entire roadside was ablaze with the arid straw grass burning up furiously like kindle ready to set fire to mass acreage of thirsty woodland beyond.

With no other witness save for my baby boy, I pulled over at a safe distance and very importantly dialed 911. Our local heroes arrived in minutes and in spite of it's ferocity, were on top of the fire before it knew what had hit it.

Yet another shocking display of the ever present threat wildfire poses here in Texas Hill Country.

So having a firefighting professional come over to hazard assess our home and surrounding land seemed like a responsible course of action (and not such a terrible hour for this stay-home-Mommy to have to endure with one of our local men in uniform).

I'm proud to say we passed nearly all the safety checks that Gary the Fireman indicated on his clipboard, save for the 'biggy' - the cedar trees hugging the back of our home. The firefighting services recommend a 100ft tree-free safety radius surrounding your house - a buffer zone for thwarting those tenacious flames that like to leap through the air in search of more combustibles.

Behind our house we've got thick, unmaintained cedar brush suffocating our remaining near four acres. The thick woodland continues across from all our neighbours' land (North, East and West of us) running right down to and hanging over our building, which sits at the bottom of our inclined plot.

Apparently down slope and upwind of a fire is as fortunate a strategic position as can be, so we're not in too terrible shape. The front of our house faces South down toward the canyon and is stripped of trees for the most part. The dominant wind direction is from the South, so the risk that our obtrusive flanking cedars presents is minimal, however, without a buffer zone we are still somewhat 'in the line of fire'. 

We're not strictly  mandated to clear all of them back to 100ft - Gary compromised -  but at the very least we should pull out the dead underbrush and cleanup the loose flammable debris.

Needless to say, Gary the firefighter got me thinking, and worrying, and it's not like I don't already lose precious Momma sleep over the prospect of our house ablaze. I repeatedly check appliances and power outlets, and our stove top for any flammable cluster or food debris. Inside, we're kitted out with four smoke alarms (I wish we had more) and a fire extinguisher in the kitchen.

But what of our neighbours, behind us up the hill? How vigilant are they? Regardless of our own fire precautionary high standards, with the cedar brush behind us connecting our home to theirs, it turns out our kids are only as safe as the 'weakest link' in the countryside. All it would take is for one careless neighbour to doze off with a cigarette in hand, and our family could be reaping the catastrophic consequences.

We've (or should I say, I've) been itching for another project to tackle since our deck project was completed last fall, and although I was hankering for something a little sexier than cedar clearing, a bit of chainsaw and chipping action definitely looks to be top of Momma's latest honey-do list!

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