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Central Texas Is on Fire–Vulnerability, the Grid and the View from Space

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Not to be outdone by the East Coast, we are fighting through our own natural disasters here in Texas. Nearly two dozen large wildfires are burning across Texas. The latest batch is in and around Austin, TX.

The largest fire is in Bastrop County, only 25 miles east of Austin. Another fire in the upscale subdivision of Steiner Ranch is only several miles out of downtown Austin – on the banks of the Colorado River, no less.

The Atlantic has an amazing photo spread of the most recent blazes in Texas.

For a region starved of regular rainfall for nearly a year and breaking triple digit temperature records, the fires are one more reminder of the awesome power of nature, even as it creeps up onto the doorsteps of modern, urban environments. And that’s the thing. Austin is a modern city with glimmering skyscrapers and technology start-up companies, and yet, we are still held hostage to many of the same natural resource limitations and vulnerabilities that face even the most rural and remote communities.

The wildfires are putting additional load on already stressed water and electricity infrastructure systems. Water resources in Austin (along with the rest of Texas and the desert Southwest) are in short supply and not always available to fight intensive fires like the one in Bastrop, TX. Along Lake Travis, airplanes were scooping up water from the already depleted lake to dump on the fires.

For good measure, fire-related power outages numbered somewhere close to 6,000 at the height of the blaze, making communications difficult and life a little less convenient for several hours.

A penultimate thought: there seem to be a lot of these disasters happening lately. Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods. Perhaps it’s because news travels faster because of the Internet and social networks and we’re more aware of them occurring, or perhaps the climate is changing, and the projections of more intense weather events are correct. It’s too early to tell, of course. There aren’t enough data points, and the world is a collection of complex systems. But you’ve got to wonder.

One final thought: I use the word “awesome” a lot in conversations when it doesn’t actually apply, but the Austin wildfires really are that – awesome. You can see them from space:

Smoke from wildfires near Austin, TX, as seen from space. (via NASA)

If that’s not awe inspiring, I don’t know what is.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Lou Jost 9:46 pm 09/6/2011

    I hope everyone is ok out there. The fires there have an interesting relation to the natural history of the area. A critically endangered bird, the Black-capped Vireo, requires second-growth brush of a certain age. It won’t nest elsewhere. This brush used to be renovated by periodic fires, but fire suppression by ranchers, and expansion of Austin and San Antonio suburbs, eliminated most of this habitat. (Cowbirds also took a toll.) The best remaining populations of the vireo in Texas are in Fort Hood, where the Army still explodes things and light fires.

    Steiner Ranch, where the fire nearest Austin rages, was a focal point of the effort to save this species back in the late ’80s and early ’90s. At that time it was uninhabited, and its brush hosted one of the most important nesting colonies of the bird. Developers tried to develop it, and my friends chained themselves to the bulldozers to keep the project from destroying the habitat. But we failed, and houses sprung up. Nevertheless, the vegetation and wildlife clearly indicated that fires were a regular feature of the area. As climate warms in the coming years, these kinds of fires will probably become more common.

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  2. 2. davidwogan 11:20 pm 09/8/2011

    Thanks, Lou. It’s hard to believe how much Austin has developed. Houses and roads on many of the hills and forested land around town. You bring up a great point: as cities expand and grow, are fires and other disasters like the current one going to be more common?

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  3. 3. Lou Jost 11:33 pm 09/9/2011

    For those of us who fought for the wild lands that used to surround Austin, the amount of irresponsible development in the hills is a sad thing to see.

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