Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Wildfire North of Jefferson and Marshall Texas

If you are familiar with the deep Texas forests, chances are you have been among the pines of this farming community north of Jefferson. Yesterday when these photos were taken, the fire appeared to be headed directly for Jefferson, but overnight it apparently veered off. At the time of this writing, the fire had consumed more than 30000 acres and is continuing on its trek to destroy everything in its path.
Wildfire next to I59 in the woods
Volunteer Fire Departments are very busy
As in other areas of Texas, the residents here have been facing wildfires during this awful drought and heat this summer. Tropical Storm Lee added to the frustration and fear among the people here, as it brought strong dry wind from the north to exacerbate this summer's problems. Firefighting resources are scarce as almost every firefighter and truck is deployed to a fire. The age of some of the trucks appear to be some 50 years old or more. You see tractors and people moving about and guarding homes, ready to use their equipment to save homes and lives, but not anxious to expend their precious resources to save trees or actually fight the fire.
Traffic passes by as flames shoot up within a few feet of the pavement 
Smoke and more smoke billow into the wind, especially when the fires consumes non-forest material, like a house. A distinct dark change in color from a grey will occur. Utility companies turn off electricity in the path of the wildfire to prevent additional issues. I was under a power line taking some photos when a resident warned me of the line and said that I needed to remove myself from under the line, because the fire was threatening to bring the line down. I moved, because you never can depend on the power being shut off.
Power lines above the fire
The fire develops from the dry grass in this area and then the dry limbs and pine straw catch fire under the trees. On the trees and bushes themselves, you find dry, dead pine leaves which burst into flames and will at times even reach the tops of the trees. I saw several trees on fire where the straw brought the flame to a dead limb, which in turn, became fuel for an even hotter fire.
Flames are noted on some of these trees - click to enlarge
Families were everywhere, watching the fire and hoping they would not have to leave their homes. One young girl of about 13 was watering the grass in front of their house on the other side of the highway to prevent easy kindled fire and thereby risk the loss of her home. Just a few yards away, the home was in danger if the fire would jump the highway. A fire will jump the highway and as one resident said, the winds of a fire are not predictable, because it generates its own wind. A fire can move faster than a human can run in some cases and it lifts embers into the air to fall in a location, normally downwind. That is why we often have multiple fires in an area and why a fire often crosses a fire line intended to box it in and force it to die. In the fire itself, if a wooden object above the flames reaches 572 degrees, it will flash without touching the flame. Keeping the fire cool and the air below this temperature is sometimes very challenging. Most of what I was observing did not reach critical temperatures needed for spontaneous combustion.
Helicopter helping by dropping water to cool the fire
There were no winged craft to drop chemicals on this fire, but one helicopter was deployed to drop water on the fire. There were dozens of firetrucks deployed on the fire, along with volunteers and law officers directing traffic.
Smoke can make a forest totally obscure and blinding
Visibility is greatly reduced in a fire zone. As the sun set, I could see less and less of the highway. The smell of the smoke was difficult to manage. I coughed and had a terrible headache after I finally arrived at my home in The Woodlands that night. I could smell smoke there also, from local fires in Montgomery County. 
Marshall was miles removed from the threat but not the smoke
Marshall seemed under siege by the smoke, although people moved about as normal. They were downwind and somewhat threatened by the movement of the wildfire but no direct danger unless the fire crossed highways and moved in direction. I saw many local people congregate at businesses nearby, wondering if they would be directly involved. I could tell from hand gestures that the fire was the main topic of discussion.
The silver lining - beautiful landscape from smoke as a light filter
Smoke covered the countryside and settled in valleys among the East Texas hills. It was a totally clear day - no clouds at all and no rain for sure! We were on the backside of the Tropical Depression that was moving to the east coast. 
A structure still burns after the grass fire in the wake of the wildfire
There were cattle in the fields just 1/2 mile downwind when I arrived. The were gone from the field when I left, as the fire continued its trek towards their farm. I assumed the cattle had been evacuated or at least moved to a nearby safer place.

I asked an attendant at a nearby gasoline station what she would do if the fire made it to her place of work. She said "run!", meaning of course that she was going to make sure she would be safe!

Related Links and articles:
+ How Stuff Works - Wildfires
+ Wildfire in Dyer Mill, Texas 
+ Forest under Stress
+ Jefferson Fire -
+ Texas Forest Fire Activity (map) 
+ "More Texas Wildfires" by The Atlantic  

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