Bastrop County Complex fire
|Bastrop County Complex fire|
|Location||Bastrop County, Texas|
|Date(s)||September 4, 2011 – October 10, 2011 (fire extinguished on October 29, 2011)|
|Burned area||34,356 acres (139.03 km2)|
|Ignition source||Sparks from damaged power lines|
|Buildings destroyed||1,645–1,691 homes; 40 commercial buildings|
The Bastrop County Complex fire was the most destructive wildfire in Texas history, striking areas of Bastrop County in September and October 2011. Three separate fires started on September 4, 2011, as a result of strong winds caused by nearby Tropical Storm Lee, and merged into one large blaze that burned east of the city of Bastrop. Two people were killed by the fire, which destroyed 1,673 homes and inflicted an estimated $325 million of insured property damage. After being largely contained in late September, the fire was declared controlled on October 10, and finally extinguished on October 29.
On September 20, 2011, fire officials reported that the likely cause of the blaze was sparks from electric power lines. 30-mile-per-hour gusts of wind on September 4 apparently toppled trees which tumbled into electrical lines at two locations, creating sparks that fell onto and ignited the dry grass and leaf litter below.
In the months before the Bastrop County Complex fire, Texas was affected by a series of wildfires amid several distinct record-breaking meteorological conditions conducive to combustion. During 2011, Texas endured its most severe single-year drought since the 1950s, received the lowest single-year rainfall since 1895, and experienced the hottest June–August period of any U.S. state at any point in time on record – exceeding that of even the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
Circumstances were further exacerbated by Tropical Storm Lee, which produced strong winds over the Labor Day weekend, creating ideal conditions for wildfires to spread. Between September 4 and September 6, reports indicated that 63 new fires were started. On September 6, the Texas Forest Service released a statement, describing the fire's behavior as "unprecedented" and stating that "no one on the face of this Earth has ever fought fires in these extreme conditions".
On the afternoon of September 4, two fires started near Bastrop State Park: one in the community of Circle D-KC Estates and the other four miles north. The high winds quickly spread the fires among the towering Loblolly Pine trees and the two fires merged, engulfing 400 homes. A few hours later, a third fire broke out on the south side of Texas State Highway 71 near the Tahitian Village subdivision and merged with the other two. Multiple areas and locales were evacuated, including the Bastrop Animal Shelter, Bastrop State Park (more than half of which was burned), and other communities near the fire. Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative relocated its operations to a backup location and cut power in the area to protect firefighters. Bulldozers and pumpers were deployed to help combat the fire, according to Bastrop County Judge Ronnie McDonald. By early September 6, reports indicated that two lives had been lost, and that the number of destroyed homes had increased to at least 600. Although the winds had calmed, the fire had no containment. Urban Search and Rescue Texas Task Force 1 was deployed to the area. By the morning of September 7, the Texas Forest Service reported that 785 homes had been destroyed, with the fire only 30 percent contained.  The fire jumped the Colorado River on at least two separate occasions.
On the morning of September 8, the number of homes destroyed reached 1,386. Texan officials also reported that they lacked the tanks and pipes necessary to load Tanker 910, a converted McDonnell Douglas DC-10 airtanker, with fire retardant, as well as a qualified aerial firefighting pilot to operate it. Air quality in neighboring Austin reportedly reached 14-year lows. In the evening of September 8, officials announced that they expected Tanker 910 to be in action by the morning of Friday September 9. However, Tanker 910 ultimately did not receive authorisation to combat the Bastrop fire, instead being used to fight a separate wildfire outside Houston.
By Sunday, September 11, the fire had reportedly been 50% contained, and some evacuated residents were permitted to return home as firefighting efforts continued. By this point, more than 1,500 homes had been destroyed by the fire. On September 16, the fire was reported to be 80% contained, and more evacuated residents began returning to the affected area. On September 17, light rain began to fall in the fire zone, and the fire was reportedly 85% contained, although Bastrop County emergency management coordinator Mike Fisher warned that complete containment would take a further 7 days. On September 27, the fire was reported to be 98% contained, with no fire burning outside of the main containment lines.
By September 30, cleanup operations had begun, although the fire was not formally declared to be contained until October 10. The cost of the removal of fire debris was estimated at $25 million, of which the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was expected to contribute $19 million.
Impact and effects
The fire caused two confirmed deaths in the Bastrop area, and destroyed 1,691 residential structures, more than any other single fire in Texas history. By comparison, the second-most destructive fire on record, in April 2011, destroyed 168 homes, while the third, in December 2005, destroyed 116. Total insured losses caused by the Bastrop fire were estimated at $325 million.
Bastrop State Park
According to Texas Parks & Wildlife officials, only 50-100 acres of the Bastrop State Park's 5,926-acre premises remained undamaged following the wildfire. The fire destroyed two scenic overlooks constructed during the New Deal of the 1930s, as well as the park's vintage Rain Shelter building.
Buescher State Park
Buescher State Park was closed for two weeks due to the wildfire threat, but later reopened. Contrary to earlier reports, a Texas Parks & Wildlife press release reported that the park was untouched by the wildfire.
Lost Pines Forest
In response to the wildfire, Governor of Texas Rick Perry forewent his presidential campaign stop in South Carolina and returned home on Tuesday, September 6, to "address the public and organize requests for more federal aid". Perry and the Texas Legislature drew criticism over their roles in substantial budget cuts to the Texas Forest Service and volunteer fire departments, both of which the state relies heavily upon for combating wildfires. Mario Gallegos, Jim Dunnam, Kirk Watson, the Center for Public Policy Priorities and others opined that these budget cuts exacerbated conditions. Perry criticized the Obama administration for delays in responding to requests made to FEMA for relief aid.
On September 7, 2011, President Barack Obama personally called Perry regarding the fires. That same day, the White House issued a formal statement, saying that "Over the last several days, at the request of the Governor, the Administration has granted eight Fire Management Assistance Grants, making federal funds available to reimburse eligible costs associated with efforts to combat the fires. FEMA is actively working with state and local officials to conduct damage assessments and to identify areas where additional federal assistance may be warranted."
Members of the community were noted for voluntarily working to save several homes from destruction by the wildfire. On September 7, a Facebook page entitled Bastrop Fire – Adopt a Family was created to help match up homeless victims with those willing to help house them or provide other assistance.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Bastrop County Complex fire.|
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- Hennessy-Fiske, Molly; Stephanie Chavez (September 5, 2011). "Texas wildfire in Bastrop County the worst ever single fire in the state". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 6, 2011. "A relentless Texas wildfire in Bastrop County east of Austin destroyed 476 homes and has set a somber state record: The highest number of homes lost in a single fire in Texas history."
- Vertuno, Jim; Michael Graczyk (September 6, 2011). "Texas wildfires still out of control as toll reaches 1,000 homes". Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Retrieved 8 September 2011. "State fire officials said the Bastrop Complex Fire has destroyed more homes than any previous wildfire on record, eclipsing April's fire near Possum Kingdom Lake that burned 168 homes. The third-most-destructive blaze, in December 2005, destroyed 116 homes in Callahan County, Texas Forest Service spokeswoman April Saginor said Tuesday."
- "Wildfires Consuming Bastrop State Park" (Press release). Texas Parks & Wildlife. September 6, 2011. Retrieved September 8, 2011.
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- "Around Central Texas, residents find some homes burned, others saved". Austin American-Statesman. September 6, 2011. Retrieved September 8, 2011. "Charred trees smolder at Buescher State Park on Park Road 1C in Bastrop County on Tuesday."
- "'Lost Pines' Experience Lives on at Buescher State Park" (Press release). Texas Parks & Wildlife. September 22, 2011. Retrieved October 2, 2011.
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- Gottlieb, Benjamin (September 7, 2011). "Obama Reaffirms Federal Assistance For Texas Fires". Neon Tommy (USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism). Retrieved September 8, 2011.
- Mortensen, Michelle (September 8, 2011). "Bastrop's spirit glows brighter in fire". KXAN. Retrieved September 9, 2011.
- Bergamo, Jim (September 8, 2011). "Social media helps recovery efforts in Bastrop". KVUE. Retrieved September 9, 2011.
- The Bastrop County Complex fire entry at InciWeb
- Coverage of the Bastrop County Complex fire at the Daily Mail
- Coverage of the Bastrop County Complex fire at the International Business Times
- Footage of the fire as seen from Texas State Highway 21
- Boston Globe photos of Bastrop fire, including view from International Space Station