One year after the third-largest fire in Texas history ravaged Jeff Davis County, residents were hoping for the rains to replenish their burned mountains.
Instead, it’s been a year with little rainfall and fires this year as the season kicks up again, Jeff Davis County Judge George Grubb said.
The Rock House Fire – which burned from April 9, 2011, through May 12, 2011, and consumed more than 300,000 acres of land on the east side of Jeff Davis County – caused a state of emergency in the county and ushered in state and federal aid.
The fire threatened the MacDonald Observatory, burned thousands of acres of the Buffalo Trail Scout Ranch and destroyed houses and ranches.
A Type One Incident Management Team was deployed to help fight the fire, bringing in fire departments from around Texas and neighboring states.
Departments mostly fought the fire through controlled burns, or burning up a designated area of grass under the direction of firefighters so the oncoming blaze has no more fuel and cannot spread.
Grubb said since the Rock House Fire, the county received a great amount of help from people throughout the state, from furniture to monetary donations.
“It’s still an ongoing project and especially on fences,” he said. “(Donations) have helped a lot of people recover.”
But it’s still a long road, Grubb said, with about 90 percent of desired structures repaired or rebuilt and miles upon miles of fences still in need of reparations.
He also said the western part of the county still is in fire danger. Firefighters had to deal with three fires a week-and-a-half ago, one of which lasted several days.
“The storm came through threatening rain, started three fires and left,” Grubb said. “Of course they were all on the west side of the county which didn’t burn in Rock House. So we’re standing a good chance of burning down the other half of the county here.”
Stewart Billingsley, the fire marshal for Jeff Davis County, said one of the recent fires was started by lightning, which residents are always wary of when storms pass through.
When lightning strikes the ground and starts a fire, Billingsley said it is often suppressed during the storm but flares back up the next day when conditions are drier.
“We’ve all lived in this country long enough to know that the day after a storm has come through, we’re kind of on pins and needles until that evening,” Billingsley said.
Because of the wildfire damage that wracked the county in 2011, Billingsley said they have learned some lessons and enacted some new procedures.
Now, a reverse 9-1-1 system is in effect throughout the county so residents can opt-in and be notified when an emergency happens.
He also said the volunteer fire department is better prepared.
“The Rock House Fire just kind of brought it home,” Billingsley said. “We have had some fires recently that got us back in the alert mode that our trucks need to be in tip-top shape, all the pumps need to be working.”
Some people have left the county for good, Grubb said, still hurting from their losses with financial difficulties making it impossible to start anew.
The economy has also taken a hit in the county, with the cattle industry struggling because of a lack of grass for the cattle to eat, he said.
Only about one-third of the cattle population remains in the county, Grubb said, and it could take between three to five years for the grass to recover after the county sees substantial rain.
Worst historical fires in Texas
East Amarillo Complex Fire: It consumed more than 907,245 acres from March 12-16, 2006. Ignited by power lines blown down by high winds, the fires resulted in the death of 11 civilians and one firefighter. Seven communities were evacuated and more than 4,000 head of livestock were destroyed.
Big Country Fire: It burned 366,000 acres from March 10-15, 1988, northeast of Abilene. It advanced 60 miles to the north before turning west and threatening the town of Albany.
Major 2011 fires
The Cannon Group, a collection of four fires in Pecos County, burned south of I-10 west of Sheffield. Three days after the fire began on April 11 the four fires were burning toward each other, consuming a total of 63,427 acres.
The Wildcat Fire, which began April 11 near Robert Lee, spread south until it threatened San Angelo urban areas. The fire was contained May 2 and burned a total of 159,308 acres.
In just one day, the Frying Pan Ranch Fire in Andrews County grew from 2,000 acres burned to 80,000 acres burned. It took six days until the fire was contained April 20 with a total of 80,907 acres burned.
The Iron Mountain Fire, which started May 9 about 25 miles east of Alpine, burned 87,401 acres before being contained May 22.
The Schwartz Fire, 20 miles east of Marathon that started May 7, burned 83,995 acres before being contained May 22.
The Sutton Fire, which began April 11 about 20 miles southwest of Ozona, burned 30,814 acres before being contained. Date of containment is not listed.
The Cooper Mountain Ranch Fire, which spread from Kent County to Stonewall and Fisher counties after it started April 11, destroyed four homes in Camp Springs and threatened the entire city of Rotan. It burned 152,000 acres before it was contained. Date of containment is not listed.
Although not one of the bigger fires in Texas by way of acreage, the Bastrop Fire near Austin was the most destructive in the history of the state, claiming 1,645 homes, 38 buildings and two lives. The fire was contained at 34,068 acres on Sept. 30, 26 days after it started.
On the net:
Texas incidents: www.inciweb.org/state/45
Texas Forest Service: http://txforestservice.tamu.edu