Thoughts on the West Texas range fires

I woke up Saturday morning in my little corner of God’s Country in Marathon, and did what people do in the high country desert region of big bend – looked at the weather report. Dire warnings of fire danger had been growing more shrill by the day, and apparently today was to be the day.

By mid-morning, the winds, blowing from the south-southwest, had picked up until they were howling along at 25 mph or so – not really outlandishly high for springtime in that area, but coupled with last year’s high rainfall totals and resulting high grass, and the subsequent drought and cold winter guaranteeing all that grass was dead and dry, it was a recipe for disaster.

By noon, the fire conditions were all anybody in town wanted to talk about, and right on schedule, several range fires popped up simultaneously just West of there – in the Marfa and Alpine areas.

Fueled by the high winds and dead grass, one of the fires raced North to Fort Davis – even reportedly out-running, and presumably incinerating, the local audad herd. Audads are wild mountain sheep originating from Northern Africa, which have taken up residence in the region. As any local will tell you, they’re nimble.

By mid-afternoon, highway 90 West between Marathon and Alpine had been closed, and at the Marathon grocery store, two little old ladies in a mini-van called me over to their vehicle. They were parked outside the store, trying without much success to maintain their composure. They had small children in the back seat, and had been trying unsuccessfully to get home to Fort Davis. I read them the latest fire warning reports off my phone, and nothing I found online calmed them – the news was all bad (and got worse later).  I asked what I could do to help, but they were content to hang out at the store until the roads re-opened. I don’t know if they made it home, or if they have a home left to return to. Marathon was noticeably filling up with people such as they, people who could make it no farther West.

Smoke from area range fires obscures mountains West of Marathon

By late afternoon back in Marathon, 40-50 miles away from the worst danger, the smokey dusty haze hung in the air, almost obscuring the mountains to the West. A few hours after sunset, the electrical power was cut to the entire town – the fire had apparently crossed a major line somewhere Northwest of us.

I returned to Austin Sunday morning, as roads behind me were apparently being closed as new fires popped up. Back in Austin, it’s still unclear from news reports whether the Fort Davis-area fire is fully under control, but meanwhile other fires have started in the region. In Fort Davis, an absolute jewel of a town, an estimated 30-40 buildings have been burned, including, ironically, the water department. After the town ran out of water, volunteer fire fighters continued to protect the town using dirt. Accurate news is still hard to come by, but thankfully, there are still no known human casualties.

Most people I talk with in the Big Bend/Davis Mountains region of Texas love their lives. They chose them specifically – many aren’t originally from there – they displaced themselves from wherever they were in the first place, moved there, and wouldn’t live anywhere else. While some of their lives are precarious in some way – because of finances, advanced age, or lack of available health care – it seems like most of them wouldn’t have it any other way. I think for some, the precariousness of it all even adds to the experience. In that regard, not much has changed for a century.

I’ve always loved this region of Texas, and the people who live there, but perhaps no more so than when things they’ve worked hard for are in acute danger of being lost. As they always do, right now they’re pulling together to help each other – the region’s hotels and resort rentals are throwing open their doors to those displaced by the fire, and the Red Cross, FEMA, DPS, Forest Service, Border Patrol, and countless local and regional agencies and non-profits are doing what they can.

Here’s how you can help, if you’re so moved.

UPDATE: According to the Associated Press, the fires are indeed not under control. But at least they’ve brought in the big guns to fight ’em.

UPDATE #2: Marfa Public Radio continues to lead the pack on frequent fire updates, and their most recent update seems to indicate that firefighters are making some progress.

UPDATE #3: A ton of people keep coming to this post, so I’ll keep updating the post.  Here is a very useful Facebook page set up specifically to share information on the Big Bend/Davis Mountains fires.

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