Sunday, July 31, 2011

Wildfire in Dyer Mill, Texas

Just a few feet between wildfire and no fire at all
A trip deep into the forest and into typical ranch country of Grimes County just north of Montgomery County  yielded this little story of a big drought, the 2011 disaster in the little community of Dyer Mill Texas. Driving along County Road 302, also known as Dyer Mill Road, one passes through some tall pine and oak country, what I call the "country forest". It was fairly dense but not as it is here in South Montgomery County. Yes, there are many trees, but the under-story is groomed and just not as dense - but very dry and highly combustible. Most of the land is divided into small ranches and ranchettes, many of them with homes on them. Timber is contiguous from ranch to ranch, where timber was planted in rows to harvest someday. There are livestock being raised and hunting leases in this area.
"No Trespassing"
It seemed as if nothing ever occurred here as I first turned onto CR 302. Was there really a fire here?  I questioned. maybe I am lost. Suddenly my truck, cameras and I reached what appeared to be a town. As I rode into this less sparsely populated area, I found on my right a burned forest and on my left some green grass and homes, with people moving slowly about on this very steamy Saturday afternoon. Obviously firefighters had been here, busy confining the fire to the east and keeping it on the right side of the road. Now a video began playing in my head. I could hear voices, commotion, frantic movements to save these homes, which were evacuated at the time. In a couple of places, I noticed some burned areas in the forest, where no homes exist. The fire was here alright, and it jumped the fire lines on this road in these several places, but never next to the road. I could hear firefighters alarmed as they saw a new fire started in the woods nearby. They had to extinguish it before it raged further to the west. "Hold that line!", as a helicopter might have coincidentally flown overhead. Embers had been pushed up into the air, in the smoke and transported by the fire-induced wind into the forest. Response teams managed to confine the fires in town, but in places it almost got out of hand on the left (western) side. The line was to be held on the road while teams extinguished the jumps.
Some places were eerie with the feel of death & destruction
1800 families were told to evacuate this area, from the town folks to the country folks. 32 homes were destroyed and some of the residents said they could have saved their homes. Likely they could have in some locations but the evacuation was mandatory, because there would be no search and rescue teams. Firefighters had more than they could handle to fight the blaze and keep safe themselves. As it turned out, there were no casualties. It is my understanding that some livestock was lost, but on the most part, everyone managed to evacuate and almost everyone moved their livestock out of harm's way.
Intersection of CR302/CR304
I found two public businesses in town - a feed store and a general store. I do not know where people get their gasoline. I saw a few deer feeders in the forest, small service businesses and residents in the community. There was one particular ranchette home that is simply what I call "McDonalds farm" because of the diverse livestock and country atmosphere.
Typical scene in the forest on a ranch - some green tops, charred ground, dead trees
Although I had little contact with residents, I did talk to one lady who didn't want to talk about the fire but would talk about the people and area. There's been too many news reporters here, I quickly realized. She would imply just that.

Hello ma'am. "I'm just passing through to look at the fire damage and take photos of the area", I said to the lady. "Do you know where I can find some ice cream in this little ole town?" She replied, "Sir, this is no ... town. The nearest town is Navasota. And yes hun, there is a general store down the road. You can find some ice cream there." "Boy it is so hot out here, I remarked. "Hun, do you know how much rain we have had?" "None?" Nope, nothing.", she answered.

"Hun, I wouldn't do that if I were you." Taken by surprise, I replied, "Do what?" "Oh, go out there asking questions and stuff. This place is jittery. We have had some break-ins here, and people have their guns. I can tell you, I do and I am not afraid to use it!" I went on, "I get your gist. I am a native Texan and certainly understand that. I would not even approach a home here. I am just talking to anyone on the major public roads like yourself who I think might be sorta friendly. I love the forest, and so I am here to understand what happened here and picture it." "Well, just be careful. People will use those guns!" Ma'am, I certainly will. Thank you for talking with me. It's been a pleasure. I have to run now. Have a good weekend" "Hun, be careful."

So I did go down the road, got me an ice cream bar and then continued with my exploration of the area, but a bit more tense than before I talked to that lady. I was watching everyone in their cars cautiously and was fairly prepared if someone was to be aggressive with me.
In the community located at intersection of CR302/304, there are quite a few homes on small acreage and a few paved street neighborhoods. This is truly back-country, very quiet and laid back. I thought. I found the general store there caters burgers and has a few necessities to purchase. Other than that, there is a feed store across the street.  This community is fairly remote and sits deep in the woods. They know fire! They have to!
Fence burned in places, home totally destroyed

Another view of  where destroyed home has been cleared
Could not hold a line on CR302. Notice freshly bulldozed line.
Tracks of heavy equipment produce sounds of the struggle in my head

An uncanny solitude now engulfs the remains
Soot and destruction at base of trees 
Charred bark of pine evident when light strikes at angle
Beauty of remaining forest is like Fall in the north
But all of them are not careful, like one person said. "All we need to do is to get those knuckleheads who BBQ outside on their grills to stop. They don't seem to understand that fire causes fire! There was another wildfire near here just two weeks ago!" I could see obvious frustration. The drought has taken its toll here. People are selling much of their livestock, and some are even selling their property. It just costs too much to feed the livestock and find water for them in this year's harsh climate. Who is going to wait out the forest to get back to what it was? We are talking 20 years at least. The forest disaster coupled with continuing extreme drought is really pushing the nerves of the folk here. I saw some people starting to clear the charred brush out. It is a messy job. You should have seen me coming out of there with all the black soot on my legs and clothes! Yet I was told that business is just fine.

"What we need sir, is rain!" Amen, I'll drink to that !!! Good luck folks and good luck forest.

+ Google Map of area. Basically the fire was in the forest area north of the noted location.
+ Related news article from KBTX, Bryan/College Station