WITHERED AND BURNED: Some Lessons from Texas

It’s feeding time on Don Casey’s thousand-acre patch of Texas Hill Country but there’s no hay. It’s January of 2012, and for over a year, punishing heat and clouds that pass without rain have mocked his pleas for relief.

A spry 68-year-old, Don wears baggy denim jeans, a beige western shirt, and an off-white cowboy hat, the sides folded up to reveal a head of close-cropped grey hair. A neat beard, also grey, runs across his face.

Don reaches into the back of his blue Ford pick-up and grabs a long metal apparatus that resembles the high pressure sprayer one might use at a self-service carwash. A slim hose snakes from one end to a white cylindrical tank mounted on a trailer hitched to the back of his truck. He twists a valve on the tank and cracks a metal fire starter at the tool’s tip, conjuring a long, orange flame that licks at the late-afternoon air.

Don pulls at the handle and a three-foot long arc of fire incinerates a low, dense patch of prickly pear cactus. Burly six- to eight-inch spines cover each of the green cladodes. The thorns wilt and disappear under the flames.

Columns of sunlight burst through the crowns of several desiccated oak and juniper trees, basking Don in a warm halo of saturated yellow and orange hues.

“I burn off the thorns. They wouldn’t like to eat this or that,” he says, pointing at patches of prickly pear that remain covered in spikes. A long pull of the handle and they vaporize under a blanket of flame.

Filaments of gray smoke begin to drift and swirl through the beams of glowing sunshine. The aroma of charred plant matter fills the air as the patch of prickly pear continues to glow and burn long after Don has ceased his incineration.

“You learn to stay upwind after a few times,” Don says, smiling to reveal an area of missing teeth in his lower right jaw—the result of treatment for melanoma of the gums. He pulls the tool’s handle and incinerates a second patch of cactus.

It’s feeding time on Don’s ranch and 10 black-as-night cows that have been lingering quietly nearby begin to low in anticipation.

“The first day I did this,” Don says between bursts of the flamethrower, “I poured some feed in the burn area and they figured it out.” Five other ranchers in the area are “burning pear,” he says, adding that many more out West, where grass is far less abundant even in good times, are probably doing it, too.

One by one, in a slow march, the cows approach the smoldering plants, their heads bobbing to the rhythm of their lumbering stride. And one by one the opaque bovines form a circle around the patches of cactus and begin to tug at the juicy green paddles, absent menacing thorns.

“Look at that,” Don says, “They’re eating it up.”

Not since the epic drought of the 1950s have Texas ranchers burnt pear in order to feed their hungry herds. Before the drought, when Don and abundant grass sustained a herd of a hundred cattle, he was a top seller at the weekly livestock auction in nearby Fredericksburg. Since the drought, he’s mostly a spectator, sitting quietly in the back as one emaciated cow after another passes below the auctioneer’s stand.

What few cows he sells derive their nutrition from the tip of a flamethrower and the 50 thousand pounds of cotton junk—the leftover seed hulls, twigs, and fiber from cotton production—that he feeds them. An 18-wheeler made the delivery of cotton trash just before midnight on a warm September night a year into the drought. After burning pear, Don scatters piles of the dusty material for his cows to eat.

Don finds optimism, though, amidst the hardship.

“I’ve identified 114 species of birds on my ranch,” he says, scanning the landscape as he finishes the burning. “Talk about global change: I just saw a Scot’s Oriole in a feeder here. No one’s seen one this far north in January.”

Americans think of ecological threats as occurring in places that are distant, troubled, underdeveloped: Bangladesh, India, or Sub-Saharan Africa. These geographies of perpetual woe are often viewed as societies teetering on the precipice of permanent crisis–harbingers of an escalating conflict between humans and nature driven by monsoons, heat waves, torrential rains, and drought.

Consider, instead, Texas.

American settlers emerged from the forests and hills of the East in the early 19th century, crossed the Mississippi River, and pushed into the continental interior. They fought for dominion over the semi-arid plains cradled between the Rio Grande and the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1830 there were 100,000 head of cattle in Mexican Texas. In 1860, 15 years after statehood, there were nearly 5 million in the great state of Texas. By the end of the Civil War, ranching had spread across the Great Plains, which had become the Cattle Kingdom of an expanding American nation. Soon would come the railroads, the cattle depot of Abilene, Kansas, and the rise of the St. Louis and Chicago meatpacking industries.

The story of the American West lies at the heart of American mythology. Settlers roamed the frontier, working the land with plow, ax, and stockade in order to redeem humanity from its fall from Eden. They heeded the call of Thomas Jefferson and Horace Greeley to move West and establish a beacon for civilizing humanity. They transformed nature, and often made nature by importing strains of vegetables, fruits, legumes, trees—and cows. Even the grass that their livestock fed upon was imported from Europe. All of these species seem an indelible feature of the West. But they are interventions in the landscape, just as much as today’s oil rigs, highways, reservoirs, suburban cul-de-sacs, or golf courses.

“One could argue,” says Texas State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, that the state “is the worldwide leader in the combined frequency and variety of severe and high-impact weather.” Hurricanes, thunderstorms, heat waves and wildfires, tornadoes, hail and ice storms visit here with a frequency and intensity that is seldom recognized.

The Galveston Hurricane in 1900 killed upwards of 12,000 people. Fifteen years later another hit, killing only several hundred. The Great Dust Bowl of the 1930s centered on the Texas Panhandle and Oklahoma. Poor agricultural techniques caused soil erosion, but it was drought that made the soil loose and light. With no water to keep it earthbound, the soil rose and accumulated in great plumes that blocked out the sun. In 1953 a tornado whirled through Waco, killing more than 100 people. That occurred during the state’s most intense drought on record, which lasted from 1950 to 1957. In 1970, Lubbock was hit by a tornado that left a two-mile-wide wake of destruction through downtown and killed 20 people. Hurricane Ike hit in 2004 and Ivan in 2008, each causing $19 billion in damages, much of it in Texas. “Everything’s bigger in Texas,” says Nielsen-Gammon.

Atmospheric and oceanographic patterns in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, and near the Arctic Circle collide and often come into conflict over Texas. Cold air from Canada sweeps across the Great Plains and into the Texas Panhandle. In the south, the waters of the Gulf of Mexico heat already warm, moist air from the North Atlantic that crosses the Caribbean and sweeps northward into Texas. These two countervailing and competing climate patterns often crash, bringing volatile weather to the landscape below.

Halfway around the globe, in the Pacific Ocean, a climate pattern known as El Niño dictates climate conditions in Texas like a tropical disease that goes into remission only to viciously reappear without warning. During an El Niño period, sea-surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean warm, causing greater amounts of water vapor to accumulate in the lower atmosphere. This moisture-rich air moves across the United States, where it often dumps plentiful amounts of rain. When El Niño switches off, as it’s prone to do every couple of years, so does that conveyor belt of moisture. This counterpoint to El Niño, called La Niña, occurs when sea-surface temperatures in the southern Pacific cool, slowing evaporation rates and leading to dry conditions that can bake the American Southwest.

The Texas drought began on September 27, 2010. On that day, a strong storm system drifted east and left the state. The drought occurred because a La Niña formation of historic intensity emerged in the Pacific at the same time that the North Atlantic warmed in a cycle called the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation.

The drought produced the most intense one-year dry spell in the state since at least 1895, when record keeping began. It was coupled with the highest annual temperatures on record, which seared the already parched landscape. Wichita Falls was hit with 100 days of 100-degree heat. The temperature in Dallas topped one hundred degrees for 70 days. Lubbock was blanketed with an 8,000-foot high dust cloud, conjuring images of the Great Dust Bowl. High school football fields in West Texas—land of Friday Night Lights—became dusty scrub. Nearly half a billion trees died.

The state’s livestock herd shrank as farmers sold off their herds. Farmers cut back on production, switched to drought-resistant crops, or cashed out their insurance policies. The Texas Agri­Life Extension Service, a program of Texas A&M University, estimates that crop insurance indemnity payments hit a record high of $2.5 billion.

Sunken ships and riverboats appeared, their hulls rising slowly above the dwindling surface waters of drying lakes and rivers. Several graveyards came into sight, including one at the Richland-Chambers Reservoir in Navarro County where 20 freed slaves had been laid to rest in the late 19th century. At Lake Georgetown, near Austin, fisherman found a prehistoric skull. South of Fort Worth, authorities arrested more than two-dozen looters stealing fossils and artifacts from Lake Whitney. A cryogenic tank from the space shuttle Columbia, which exploded over Texas and Louisiana on re-entry in February 2003, was found in Lake Nacogdoches. Several dead bodies—suicides or murders, no one knows—emerged from drying lakes, too. Cases of rabies shot up and packs of abandoned donkeys roamed the landscape.

As devastating as the drought was, stupid human decisions about agriculture, urban development, and water management exacerbated its impacts. Travelling across Texas, surveying the damage, it’s often difficult to discern what portion of the disaster can be attributed to the double-barrel blow of a relentless sun and persistent aridness and what can be attributed to humans’ dissociation from nature.

The Circle D Subdivision lies on the outskirts of the city of Bastrop. Half-acre and acre-sized plots of land have been cleared out of thick pine forest. Within them, quaint homes were erected, becoming something of a wilderness escape that was less than an hour’s drive from the state capital.

Throughout the Circle D area No Trespassing signs have been hammered onto telephone poles and charred trees. At the entrance to one property, a sheet of plywood leans against a lamppost at the end of the driveway. If you don’t live here stay out, it reads in light blue spray paint. Residents have little to fear, though. Not much remains to steal after the most destructive wildfire in Texas history. The fire began on the Sunday before Labor Day of 2011. Dozens of stone and concrete foundations of once semi-secluded homes serve as relics of a recent past, a reminder of a relaxed community that once used these now burnt-out automobiles and melted mailboxes.

Rich Gray wears the faded green government-issue uniform of the Texas Forest Service. He peers through the cracked front windshield of his white Ford F150. He wears rectangular gold-wire glasses, and a goatee frames his mouth. Bringing the truck to a halt at a T in the road, Rich looks puzzled. “I’ve been all over this area and you recognize landmarks. You turn here, turn there, or at a road sign. Post-fire, man, just trying to drive through the area—the fire’s changed the human environment so much you don’t recognize a turn here, a turn there. The environmental landmarks all look the same: blackened trees.”

Rich turns and accelerates down the bumpy dirt road. A construction crew works to rebuild a home to the left. On the right, a new home sits in the middle of a quarter-acre clearing. Fliers for contractors of all sorts—carpentry, roofing, moving—hang from roadside poles and dead trees. Plywood, two by fours, roofing shingles, portable cement mixers, and bulldozers sit on several properties. Dump trucks bring in landscaping material and haul out the detritus of the fire. These are the early signs of Bastrop’s resiliency and a healthy local economy in contract work, both helped along by millions of dollars in state and federal disaster aid.

When Tropical Storm Lee bore down on the Gulf Coast over the Labor Day weekend, Texans anticipated a reprieve from the heat and the drought. Instead Lee turned east. Rather than drenching these parched hills, the storm whipped up 30-plus miles-per-hour wind and pushed the humidity down to extraordinarily low levels.

 At 2:20 p.m. on that Sunday, a Bastrop resident phoned 911-dispatch to report that a downed tree had snapped a power line and ignited a grass fire. The flames quickly spread to thick underbrush that had accumulated for decades, becoming bone dry after months of drought. The fire grew, engulfing groves of loblolly and shortleaf pines. 29 seconds after the call came in, the Forest Service dispatched trucks to the scene. 15 minutes after the call, forest rangers began evacuating residents. The fire was too intense to suppress; the only course of action was to save lives. Flames towered high above the 70-foot-tall forest canopy. The pine forests were so dry and receptive to fire that nearly 100 percent of the hot embers that drifted from the fire zone and fell to the ground sparked new fires. In some areas, the energy of the flames racing through the forest canopy was so great that tornadoes of fire spread sideways—“horizontal vortex roll events,” in fire management speak—churning and rolling through the forest, sucking oxygen from adjacent areas, which suppressed fire in those places, but brought catastrophic intensity to the vortex. The inferno leaped over four-lane highways and hopped fuel breaks wider than football fields. By the time it was contained three days later, the forest fire had consumed 34,000 acres, more than 1,500 homes, most of them in the Circle D Subdivision, and killed two people.

“Obviously looking through here, there’s 100 percent mortality,” says Rich, indicating the patch of forest to his right, where burnt trees rise like black skeletons from soil the color of burnt charcoal. Unlike the resiliency of Bastrop’s residents, these trees will not rebound. Once the needles of a pine tree have been burned off or its roots destroyed, it has no chance of survival.

“Fire in this ecosystem is a natural process—and it’s not just a one-time event,” Rich says, as he steers out of the Circle D area and steers back toward downtown Bastrop. “It’s a natural process that, on average, occurred every five to seven years. The more we take out the frequency of those natural processes the more catastrophic the overall fire event can be.”

As Bastrop’s population exploded, nearly doubling since the 1970s, a contiguous forest became a patchwork of individually managed plots, an ecosystem-wide dynamic interrupted by the landscape management strategies of thousands of independent households. With human settlement comes fire suppression. The fires that used to visit Bastrop every few years, consuming low-lying brush and thinning the density of tree populations, have been suppressed since its century-and-a-half-long transformation from wilderness to suburb. In the absence of fire, that brush and the fallen debris of a forest’s upper canopy accumulate and small trees that might have been eliminated by periodic fires thrive. Add to this mix record-breaking drought conditions, high winds, low humidity, and the spark of a power line, and a catastrophic conflagration becomes inevitable.

“I’ve seen lots of changes over time,” he says of his own 15-year residency in Bastrop. “I’ve seen it grow from a sleepy little town that had a distinct separation from Austin to this urban sprawl reaching out all over. And that sprawl results in some difficulties from a ecological standpoint.”

Rich steers the truck off of the highway and into Bastrop State Park—the 7,000-acre crown jewel of the Texas State Park system. He pulls up to an area of trees where fire has clearly spread through the forest floor but the trees remain largely intact. It’s burned, but it will grow back.

“This area here—in the last 10 years—has had two prescribed burns. Those prescribed burns mimic that natural fire frequency and fire currents. So when the fire pushed through this area its intensity was greatly reduced and it mimicked the more natural fires that this ecosystem evolved with,” Rich explains.

Prescribed burning is a technique used by forest service workers to burn away accumulated brush and thus reduce the fuel load of the forest, which has evolved with frequent, low-intensity fire. With the accumulation of low lying grasses, fallen tree branches, and a thick understory of young trees, fires burn hotter—and higher—reaching the canopy and burning the crowns of older trees, ensuring their demise. Rich says some plants, trees, and animals in Bastrop have adapted to fire or even require fire to reproduce.

Cruising through the park at the speed limit of 20 miles per hour, Rich explains how Bastrop State Park is itself a manipulation of the landscape. He points out several wooden cabins built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. They offer splendid views of a nearby artificial lake. Rich, who’s been working in forestry since 1985, explains that if the Forest Service hadn’t conducted prescribed burns in this area, the cabins would have been destroyed and there would have been near total mortality in this area of forest. Just across the road another patch of forest offers a stark contrast: hundreds of acres are scorched. As far as one can see there is a high level of forest mortality. There were no prescribed burns in this section and it resembles the scorched earth of the Circle D Subdivision.

Humans intervene by constructing cabins and lakes, Rich says, but they also intervene by removing fire from the ecosystem. When they put fire back into the landscape it more closely resembled the dynamics of the ecosystem. “This whole area here back in the late ’30s and ’40s,” says Rich “was basically a heavily grazed area. Most of the larger land owners—this is a very agricultural—dependent county—grazed in the bottomlands and turned the cattle out. They used to call this ‘The Hills.’ When they had a fire in the hills, they didn’t go in and suppress the fire. It would burn for days, or weeks, doing its thing up here.”

In the Circle D Subdivision, Rich says, setting the pine groves alight is hardly a plausible option. No property owner would tolerate the smoke or the hassle, much less the risk of the fire getting out of control. Bastrop’s patchwork of small properties cleaves out areas of forest, leaving slivers of foliage that separate each piece of property. It allows for a sense of semi-secluded living that has been a driving force of the town’s boom since the 1970s. But it makes fire management difficult, if not impossible.

Climate conditions in the Pacific, North Atlantic, and the Gulf of Mexico caused the drought and by extension the Bastrop fire. But so did the decisions of 20th and 21st century homeowners. They paradoxically sought out a “natural” landscape within which to live but they interrupted the dynamics of an ecosystem that has evolved with forest fire.

“Yeah, to look at the fire that happened in September, you have to go back to the 1930s to see what was disrupted,” Rich says.

Mayor John Jacobs stares silently from a high outcropping that overlooks the massive E.V. Spence Reservoir. An ample-sized silver belt buckle provides an ostentatious centerpiece to his outfit of denim jeans and button down western shirt. A white horseshoe mustache frames his mouth; a large, black cowboy hat sits atop his head.

The E.V. Spence supplies water to John’s town: Robert Lee, population 1,049. It lies roughly 50 miles southwest of Abilene, Texas, where the High Plains extend south through the Panhandle and meet the rolling hills of the Edwards Plateau, a place where the fauna of Hill Country—ash junipers and oaks—make their last stand before the arid conditions of the West reduce vegetation to little more than low, dry grass and mesquite.

“Four years ago I was water skiing right out there,” John says, lifting his chin in a gesture toward the muddy plain below. “Not much lake left.”

Built in 1969, E.V. Spence came with a promise that water scarcity would never again be an issue for Robert Lee as it had been many times during its 150 year history. Even bone dry, the monumental structure is a powerful reminder of the public sector’s capacity to mobilize money, compensate for missing natural resources (water, in this case), and permit human settlement to emerge from an arid landscape. Americans love changing deserts into lawns and golf courses, raising sheep and cows, and growing cotton in places where these thirsty species seem least likely to thrive. The E.V. Spence project enabled those aspirations to become fixtures on the land. But the drought has shrunk the reservoir to less than one half of one percent capacity.

At its maximum, the reservoir holds more than 6,000,000 cubic meters of water. Think of an area the size of a dozen Central Parks laid two by two and filled with 100 feet of water. That is what E.V. Spence used to look like and, given its size, it is the reason Robert Lee’s 450 households might have viewed water scarcity as a thing of the past.

“We had two big marinas and two or three bait stands and grocery stores,” John says. “All the businesses gain revenue from ’em, you know. Motel, it’d always stay full in…” John says but then trails off.

“It is beautiful with the boats up here,” he adds, holding onto memories. “With the boats going everywhere, the banks would just be lined with campers and whatnot. We had bass. It was one of the best striped bass lakes in the state—catfish and, of course, croppy and whites and blacks. Used to have lots of tournaments.”

“As bad as we had it, we’re on the edge of the desert basically,” John says. Good thing is we’re getting lots of people moving down here. Bad thing is we’re having trouble supplying their needs.”

Water might be as political in Texas as oil. State lore includes voluminous tales of battles—some in the courts, others settled by the barrel of a gun—over the rights to an aquifer, a reservoir, a stream, or a river. In the absence of a state regulatory structure, a complicated matrix of often overlapping local and regional water authorities ensures that decisions about the development of water sources, allocation of available supply, and efforts at conservation are slow, contentious, and out of step with the likelihood that droughts will become more frequent and more intense.

“We’ve got to find a better dividing—I guess that’s the word to use—between people, agriculture, industry. Everybody wants their fair share, but everybody’s fair share, they think is a little more than the next man,” John says.

E.V. Spence is dry because of the drought. But E.V. Spence is also dry because Big Springs, Midland, and Odessa, located 100 miles to the west, are pulling off the vast majority of water from the reservoir. Those three cities, combined population of 300,000, sprouted up in the 1950s when oil seemed to be gushing from every hole punched in West Texas’s flat, dry plains. In the last few years these towns have undergone an economic boom reminiscent of that first rush for fossil fuels, acted out as an epic battle between tradition and innovation by Rock Hudson and James Dean in Giant. It’s near impossible to find an empty hotel room on a weeknight in those towns. Parking lots are filled to capacity with the welding trucks and the Ford F150s of the roughnecks and roustabouts who build and maintain the natural gas wells that are beginning to pepper the landscape. Driving at night along Interstate 40 east of Odessa, one sees the lights from dozens of drilling pads, their luster cutting through the pitch-black evening like a glistening rhinestone necklace. Crews work night and day to fracture the shale rock that lies a mile below ground and contains much sought-after natural gas. It’s a David versus Goliath endeavor, pitting tiny towns like Robert Lee against the big cities of the West.

John points off to the southwest: “When the town was built, it was originally in the Hayrick Mountains, the mountain you see, kinda like a hayrick there? The city was originally there in the 19th century, way back when and they ran out of water. They put what few buildings there were on skids and they put ‘em to mules, brought ‘em to Robert Lee, cause it was on the river.” He pauses: “So I mean, even that far back we’ve been sufferin’ water.”

Texas has become, once again, America’s frontier. It was once wide-open terrain, the spot from which the Cattle Kingdom spread, but in 2011, it became the place where drought and wildfire forced people—and cattle—to confront the physical constraints of the landscape and the built environment.

The extremes that hit Hill Country and the plains of West Texas in 2011 foreshadowed the even greater summer of fire and parched soil that rolled across the continental United States this year. In June, a dome of hot air hung over much of the nation for weeks, bringing successive days of 100-plus-degree heat to areas from the Great Plains to the Ohio Valley, the Rocky Mountains to Louisville, Kentucky and Athens, Georgia. The scorching heat stunted corn pollination, a setback that no amount of late summer rain could repair. Barge traffic along the Mississippi River slowed to a crawl—and at times halted as ships ran aground due to record low water levels. By August 1st, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had designated half of U.S. counties natural disaster areas and therefor eligible for federal relief. Corn futures shot up 40 percent, pitting ranchers, bio-fuel refiners, and food commodity producers against each other and auguring food price hikes in 2013.

Roughly 10 million acres of forest burned, the most since record keeping began in 1960. The extreme drought—the worst since the 1950s and comparable to the Great Dust Bowl— was to blame. But temperatures in the West have warmed more than elsewhere in the country since the past decades, which has given comfort to swarms of pine beetles whose blue stain fungus has transformed millions of acres of forest to dead wood awaiting a spark. Human settlements amidst these desiccated trees mean more human-wilderness interface fires, greater property destruction, and greater chance of loss of life.

As of October 2012, nearly 68 percent of the continental U.S. remains in drought. A nascent El Niño formation in the Pacific Ocean has petered out and with it the promise of a reprieve. Summer sea ice cover in the Arctic hit its lowest amount ever recorded in September, fully 16 percent below the previous record of 2007, which was fully 40 percent below the lowest level recorded before then. Scientists once thought that by century’s end we might see an iceless Arctic in the summer. That projection has been revised to 2030. One Cambridge University ice expert predicts the Arctic will be ice-free by 2014 or 2015. What that means for the Earth’s climate system is yet to be determined.

Anthropogenic climate change cranks up these extremes. Think of a runner breaking the four-minute mile by one second, then a month later a second runner breaks the 3:59 mile record by 10 seconds, then a week later a third runner shatters that record by 30 seconds. Imagine that this sequence of events occurs when the four-minute mile had gone unbroken for a generation. That’s the scenario under climate change. It’s a probability distribution function where the mean shifts and events fall more frequently in one of the tails. It’s the unbelievable occurring often, the unlikely becoming quotidian.

September became the 331st straight month that global temperatures exceeded the 20th-century mean. And October, alas, marked the first time since 1988 the issue of climate change was never mentioned during a U.S. presidential debate. 

Contributor

Robert S. Eshelman, art by Andrea Lauer

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