Reflecting on Texas Wildfires & its Domino Effect
By Natalie Renteria
I remember the intense Bastrop Texas wildfires that happened in 2011. It is a vivid image of dark skies that remained months after the event. Strong warnings circulated all around that it was not safe to stay outside for too long and there was an increased amount of health issues people in my region were experiencing. On top of all that, over 34,000 acres of open space and conserved regions were eradicated. At the time we were not aware of how the turmoil was going to affect us and for a 9-year old the uncertainty was terrifying. Although this may not be the most devastating wildfire in Texas nor in the US, it is the most striking in my memory growing up.
I distinctly remember my parents mentioning that it was because of people smoking in the area hence were the rumors that come about from assumptions and fake news. It was soon discovered that it was likely caused by sparks from electric power lines interacting with the addition of very strong winds that toppled nearby trees. During the year 2011, the southern United States was under one of the most intense drought eras since 1985.
A little recap on the science behind droughts: the hotter it is in a region, the drier it will become and evaporation occurs more rapidly in water bodies under these conditions. This process makes an area more prone to droughts as well as flooding. This is referred to as a positive feedback loop since the effects snowball and grow. A compounding issue is that southern states’ average high and low temperatures are undoubtedly rising due to the effects of global climate change. Droughts are predicted to become more frequent and severe as time goes on.
Droughts and wildfires can wreak havoc on local wildlife, including endangered species. While I was doing some investigation on the Bastrop wildfires, I was quite surprised to find out about something quite remarkable happening right in my backyard. The Houston toads were the first amphibians to be federally recognized as endangered in the United States under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and are native to the Bastrop county region. The Houston Zoo first took on the challenge to breed a bigger population out of the sparse numbers and returned them to the Bastrop area. All was going well with this repopulation project until the year of 2011. The disastrous wildfires obliterated the Houston toad’s fragile population as it destroyed their habitat. Fortunately, years later The Houston Zoo made another repopulation attempt with the tadpoles that remained in their archives. Now, there are several groups and researchers analyzing the population growth of this species. Reasons such as this- the decimation of an endangered species population- are why fire bans are enforced.
Texas is now becoming more and more at risk for wildfires and other climate-related disasters. Currently, in the summer of 2022 we are experiencing record high temperatures, making wildfires a scary reality that I wouldn’t want to experience again. Our endangered native species can’t afford to face another disaster like 2011.
Climate change has a direct impact on the occurrence of droughts and wildfires. Taking steps to address the climate crisis is the first action in a powerfully delicate domino effect that could prevent future disasters from impacting our communities and wildlife.