Texas Faces Costliest Wildfire Season on Record

This wildfire season is the worst in Texas history — with no sign of it stopping any time soon. As Laurie Johnson reports — it may take years for the state to recover from the massive economic losses.

Wildfires in Texas are nothing new, but this wildfire season has involved more fires spreading across more acres than ever before.

"Since November 15th, we've seen about 3 million acres of Texas land burn. And that's a record, we just haven't seen anything like that before."

That's April Saginor with the Texas Forest Service, which monitors and responds to fires across the state. She says the last time we had fires anywhere close to this severe was in 2006.

"We had more fires, we had more fatalities that year. It was a devastating fire season and about 1.9 million acres burned that entire calendar year of 2006. So we've already well surpassed that."

This year, three volunteer firefighters lost their lives and 1,300 structures have been destroyed. Mark Hanna is with the Insurance Council of Texas and estimates insured losses are in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

"The entire state is affected and we're seeing losses really in every corner. And the losses are not only going to be structures, but we're talking livestock. In east Texas, we're talking about forests that the wood will no longer be usable. Barns, sheds, pasture lands for farmers and ranchers that they'll have to remove their cattle, livestock, what have you for the year until the grass grows back."

Air Force dumps flame retardant over West Texas wildfires
A C-130H Hercules from the 302nd Airlift Wing, Colorado Springs Air Force Reserve, equipped with the Modular Airborne Firefighting System drops a line of fire retardant in west Texas, April 27. MAFFS is capable of dispensing 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in under 5 seconds.
Photo by Staff Sgt. Eric Harris.

Pete Bonds is a cattle raiser and owner of Bonds Ranch in Saginaw, just north of Ft. Worth. He owns and leases lands all across Texas and says he's lost about 25,000 acres of pasture.

"We were extremely lucky. We only had four baby calves burn to death that we know of, and we're about ten cows short."

Bonds says he can't remember a time when the fires burned so hot and moved so fast. He adds one of the biggest losses for cattle ranchers is fences.

"They estimate over 4,000 miles of fence has been destroyed. And to replace that fence is going to cost somewhere $10,000 to $15,000 a mile. So you're looking at somewhere between $40 and $60 million just to replace the fence."

And fences aren't covered by insurance. Bonds is an officer with the Texas Cattle Raisers Association. He and other ranchers went to Washington to ask for federal assistance for replacing fences. He says the government has been slow to respond.
And he says the damage caused by this year's fires will continue to have repercussions into the future. Because so much pasture land has been lost, ranchers are having to slaughter their cattle instead of letting them mature and breed.

"Three years from now, there will be a shortage of good meat. It's nothing that the cattlemen are in conspiracy trying to do. We're facing Mother Nature and because we do not have grass, we're having to lower our numbers."

Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...