SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Trees falling on power lines caused a massive, record-breaking wildfire that destroyed nearly 1,600 homes in Central Texas, the Texas Forest Service reported on Tuesday.
No charges will be filed in the Bastrop County Complex fire southeast of Austin, which torched more than 34,000 acres and killed two people.
According to the service, a dead pine tree that was still standing in a neighborhood broke and fell onto a power line around 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, September 4, and pulled it away from an electrical circuit box, sending sparks flying onto the tinderbox-like dry brush below.
A second fire started around the same time when high winds, which firefighters blamed for several fire outbreaks across the state that weekend, broke the top off a tree and flung it into another power line. The two fires eventually converged.
Drenching rains in central Texas over the weekend have allowed crews to bring the fire, the worst in Texas history in terms of property loss, to 95 percent containment.
But the rains will do little to end the devastating drought that has contributed to the worst wildfire season in the state’s history, and officials say the outlook is grim as Texas heads into a dry fall.
More than 3.6 million acres in Texas have been scorched by wildfires since November, fed by a continuing drought that has caused more than $5 billion in damage to the state’s agricultural industry and that shows no sign of easing.
“Things are far from being back to normal,” said Warren Bielenberg of the Forest Service.
“The majority of fuels in Texas are dry grasslands. It only takes an hour of sunshine to get them back to the level where they will burn. It is still a very dangerous situation.”
For that reason, he says the army of firefighters which has descended on Texas since a massive outbreak of wildfires over Labor Day weekend will remain on standby.
There are firefighters from every state in the nation except Hawaii, and they have worked to push back dozens of fires which have destroyed tens of thousands of acres in just the past three weeks.
Almost all of the state’s 254 counties have burn bans in place. In addition, some counties have outlawed barbecuing, and major cities such as Austin, Houston and San Antonio have banned smoking in all city parks. The Texas Department of Transportation’s “Don’t Mess with Texas” anti-litter program has been expanded to include a website where Texans can snitch on motorists who flick cigarettes out of their car windows.
At the Bastrop Complex fire, burning since September 4, command of the situation is being returned to local officials after weeks of national teams on the ground.
A wide array of agencies have descended on the area, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to help people like Duncan Black.
In Bastrop County, where thousands of acres of pine trees were scorched by the fire, Black surveyed the remains of his burned out home this week and said he is uncertain whether to rebuild.
“I don’t know,” he said. “A lot of the reason we lived here in the first place looks like it doesn’t exist any more. We’re really going to have to think about it.”
Editing by Karen Brooks, Jerry Norton and Greg McCune