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

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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.

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

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