Thursday, January 31, 2008

30 January 2008: Wildfire

As I mentioned yesterday, there's not a lot of rain here in rural north Texas. And that can cause problems.

Incidentally, for those of you with maps, you might like to know where we are: if you find the USA and go to the big state right in the middle at the bottom, that's Texas. Houston is at the bottom-right, but we're closer to Dallas, which is kind of near the top and central as you look. Just to the left of Dallas you'll see Fort Worth (the airport here is called 'Dallas-Fort Worth' and sits between the two cities) and if you have a detailed map, you might be able to spot the names of a few towns to the north and north-west of Fort Worth. Denton is the big city just north of the DFW area. Directly west of that is Decatur, and a little further west along that road is the town of Bridgeport, where I sit as I write this blog. Slightly south-east of Bridgeport is the 'city' where we were married, named Paradise. (A city, it seems, is not determined by the existence of a cathedral or by appointment by the Queen, but upon the existence of a municipal water system. Paradise is therefore a city, despite having a censused population of only 459.)

Yesterday, however, the population of Paradise dropped a little, albeit only temporarily. The lack of rain and the incoming Siberian cold front pushing towards us from Colorado meant there were very dry conditions, very low humidity, very high sunshine figures and very high winds (sustained winds around 40mph for a while, gusts touching 60mph). This means if somebody throws a cigarette stub out of a car window without making sure it's extinguished first, there is going to be trouble.

Three major wildfires (and several minor ones) raged through the day yesterday in the area north-west of Fort Worth. Two were in more rural areas, but the most destructive in terms of personal loss was in Paradise. We had no idea that fire had broken out until Gloria's great-uncle called at 3pm to check if we were ok as he had heard there were wildfires in our county. We were, we said, and flicking on the TV we found that it was Paradise rather than Bridgeport that was being consumed, where the fire had been going since around 11am.

Now, although we don't live in Paradise, we have a connection there beyond just being married at the little church in the centre of town. We have a lot of stuff - two garages full - in a storage facility on the south side of town, by the school. Although there's no way we'd be able to get it all out into our little Toyota-with-orange-indicator-lights, we thought we should go and try to rescue some irreplaceable things such as photos and Tunnock's caramel bars. So off we went, down the five miles of Highway 114 towards Paradise, spotting a few odd things like the occasional uprooted tree (that wind was strong) and, off to the west, a huge smoke cloud coming from another of the wildfires. Then there was a line of traffic, a flashing light at the front end and a policeman walking from car to car, talking to drivers. We slowed, and crawled forward as one by one the cars were released to go onward. As we did, several drivers decided to cut up the inside, driving on the shoulder of the highway in a perfectly illegal manner, presumably unaware there was a policeman waiting for them up ahead.

"Where are y'all headed?" drawled the cop.
The storages by the school in Paradise.
"OK," he replied, "turn right by the Pecan orchard and go round the back way."

We didn't. We went the regular way, through the centre of town. Another police car at the main intersection in town, blocking Highway 114. We turned right towards the school, past our little wedding church, out to the school and, briefly, on past the school, back on the road towards the closed Highway 114. Over the crest of the hill and all we could see were people standing round, no shortage of vehicles with flashing lights, and clouds of smoke rising in the near-distance. We U-turned and went back to the storages, took out the valuables and noted that the strong wind direction was blowing the fire away from the main part of the town (indeed, the school was still in, they hadn't evacuated the pupils). Feeling more confident about the security of our own stuff, we headed back on 114 towards Bridgeport, past the policeman and his now-lengthy queue.

As we approached, however, we saw him turn and race towards his car, just as we drove past. He spun it around, lights flashing, heading in our direction, back towards Bridgeport. Along the queue of cars, we quickly saw why the policeman was heading this way. Yet another fool had tried to cut up the inside and by-pass the queue, but rather clumsily had run their car into the back of a massive articulated lorry. We crawled past the wreckage and back towards Bridgeport, commenting on how it was the strangest trip to Paradise that either of us have ever had.

Turning on the TV on our return, we watched as the local news began to relay the details from the scene. 15 homes destroyed, about 30 buildings in total, all just to the south of the main part of Paradise. No fatalities or even any reported injuries. Gloria didn't know any of the residents interviewed on TV but certainly knew a few people who live around that area. One man on the TV said it was the third time his home had been burned down, and he'd only just moved back in to his house back in October. You might say that perhaps nature was telling him to move somewhere else, or at least build his house out of something other than wood, but he seemed to be a good ol' local boy who wasn't going to let a little fire stop him living in his home town.

The winds dropped overnight and the fires were contained. The wind picked up a little today, but a cold front came through and there is even a small chance of a little rain tomorrow, so that should solve the issue - for now. But it's another of those differences between living in Southampton and living in rural north-central Texas - here the weather forecast and the smoking laws are more than just a matter of community moaning, they can combine to mean life and death in a matter of hours.

Paradise lost? No, just slightly damaged this time.

No comments: