2011 Texas Firestorm

Spring 2011-
I am a lover of storms.  Violent poetry of nature.  The more fury filling the skies, the more blessed I feel!  Like most children in the Texas tornado belt east of the Pecos I feared storms and particularly tornado watches.  In the midlife of my teens however phobia turned to passion and ever since then I wait to hear the thunder calls.  I love it when hail freezes over.

By early spring in 2011 I was hoping for an early and if it was His will, an exceptionally severe storm season.  Though sadly w/o the threat of tornadoes, storms from the mountains can be beautifully nasty.  Both summers of 2009 and 2010 splashed the high deserts and mountains green with hard pourings of monsoon rainclouds.  Both years we enjoyed fair to midland to a few nice thunderstorms.  Yet, by April of 2011 Texas was embraced  in the dead calm of a historically destructive drought.  The blue sky was blinding and oppressive over the rain dependent mountain land.  Even though it was West Texas I still waited for an East Texas style storm.  Winter and fall are traditionally dry months in the West of the Pecos so we waited.

Saturday, April 9, 2011-
Like on 9/11 I woke up a later than I’d like to on a historical occasion.  But I got up in time to see the birthday of the biggest firestorm in Texas history.  Unfortunately the blazes were toward the Davis Mountains.  My brother and I had to get to Fort Davis to see our family in the DMR.  Before the station was evacuated the radio said that communications from Fort Davis was only between fire fighters.  We met two road blocks in our quest to see if dad’s mountains were smoked.  The first ash cloud was a stove pipe column over a fresh fire in the canyon-land below Mays Pass.*

*Mays Pass, 4,983 ft. above sea-level is the highest point on State 118 between Alpine and Fort Davis. It was self named in honor of Lt. Mays who in August 1862  led a troop of Confederate cavalry in pursuit through the region of an Apache war party that had attacked Fort Davis.  Only one soldier survived Mays Massacre, a Mexican American scout.

These small republics of fire were caused by the  rain of inflamed particles riding in front of the main storm.  These fires are like skirmish lines of a cavalry like force sweeping everything ahead.  This was the eery battle-field texture as we drove up the Davis Mountains plateau.

 

Roping from a sky like sick gold or unloved brass a fire whirl (or devil’s twister disney wind, fire vortex).

                               

The cyclone was between sixty and sixty-five meters high and moved northeast thirty to thirty-five mph.  There was an ominous warning in this sign that the wildfire over the Davis Mountain plateau horizon would be giant.  The imposing phenomena is only common in firestorms of epic intensities.

The Mays Pass devil wind…
            

The cloudless blue sky turned black as sack cloth.  Our cell phones were useless in getting a hold of dad but the cameras worked fine.  Over the pass and onto the plateau and just past the High Frontier and Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center entrances and around seven miles east of Fort Davis I met the Rock House wildfire.  At 4:30 pm I saw a storm I could never of imagined.  From the foothills northwest of Fort Davis to the gaps and peaks of the Puertacitas Mountains was flames at least twenty miles long, one fire.  You could see it bristling under the mountains of smoke that blocked the view of the Davis Mountains.  The fire light disappeared and reappeared along the hilly topography.  The iron smoke curtain also hid Fort Davis. It was like a quilt of many colors as natural and man made material and debris burned. With so many telephone poles destroyed we were unable to call our family and with flames contacting State 118 it was impossible to drive there.  Blowing in from the wind and wings of a firestorm was the feeling of being too close to a fire.

State 118 facing toward Davis Mountains and Fort Davis, Texas.

Facing southwest toward Marfa.

The snake of fire moved southwest-northwest, a side winding serpent of red and black.  The length didn’t move forward evenly.  Wind gusts and currents surged some parts of the beast faster than the rest.  Which parts would suddenly burst forward was where the wind was the wildest.  Heat from the fire was well hot enough enough by early evening to stir up its own brutal wind patterns.  Fueled by this and a unseasonably wet season the year before followed by an unseasonably dry one the Rock House fire sped neither gradually or gracefully.

The majority of fire rescue deployed defending one hundred and sixty year old Fort Davis.  On this side of the inferno Homeland Security border agents provided security from the storm.
        

   

The two- lane state highway proved no kind of good barrier against a firestorm of this magnitude of furor.  Balls of fire virtually flew over the highway.  Though the fire crossing was around a quarter of a mile from me (I seen storm chasers closer than that to f-5 tornadoes) I thought it about time to about face outta there.  My nerves had been conquered by the demonic speed the fire went forward.  It kept up with wind gusts more than forty mph.

I jogged back in scary solitude.  Then heaves of dark wind blew over the top of a ridge south of me.  Over the hill a violet and dragon blood red fire burst through the brush.  The silence was quaked by popping bark and crackling grass.  I quickened my feet running up the road easterly to the car.  Not only was it impossible to outrun a fire that fast it was coming toward coming forward on my right side.

Out running a ferocious flame coming by my side was an an unsuccessful pursuit.  And as the armada of vehicles who’d also been caught by the fire sneaking over the ridge,  rushed away I was thankfully swooped off the road  by a Border Patrol agent, the last out.  Thanks to his vigilance I did not become the one human casualty of the Rock House firestorm.

The race of civilians and emergency responders eventually stopped back at Mays Pass.  The prayer of my brother and I were answered when we finally reached my dad. He had to drive two miles to the beginning of his road to get a signal on his cell phone sense the home lines were severed.  The Rock House fire had stayed to the east of State 166, sparing their community in the mountains.  But below mountains and setting sun we saw all else burning.

My black Cat Blue Bell and Blue Mountain (7,300 ft. above sea-level).

   

A gloomy sun sat behind a fire gloom that covered all but the vanguard of the Davis Mountain Range.  In those last images of a lasting day my brother and I and Blue Bell said goodnight to the Rock House firestorm.  It, however, would keep awake twenty-eight nights.

My brother Jed’s photos of the Rock House firestorm on the outskirts of Fort Davis an hour before.
 

 

Sunday, April 10, 2011
The Rock House firestorm burnt out after blackening 318,000 acres of Presidio and Jeff Davis Counties on May 6th.  The third largest firestorm in Texas history was still a prepubescent as it roared as fast and furious the day before.  As with all storms of this magnitude the starting spark and successful destruction was bound by a series of perfect events for a perfect storm.  Again, one of the driest seasons on record following one of the wettest West Texas was the foreboding factor.   Powerful high pressure wind provided the surge to the spark that spread to a fiery fury.

When Marfa Radio came back online I learned the storm was started by a structural fire at a closed tourist shop west of Marfa on State 90.  The name of the firestorm was based on its origin, the Rock House.

My brother and I retraced our trip northwest of Alpine on rugged State 118.  The floating seas and columns of smoke and lines of fire we saw the evening before was on the 1oth an all black valley and all blue sky.  It had became a dead and long expo of ashed silence.

West of Mays Pass, Blue Mountain and Davis Mountains                     (Elevation 8,367 ft. above sea-level).

The front of the Rock House Firestorm burned along State 166 or the Jeff Davis Highway No. 3.  On the 10th it continued to the right of State 17 over Wild Rose Pass.  Nevertheless rogue sections of fire still burned on in the remote valley between the Puertacitas and Paisano Ranges.

                   

The distant mountains and hidden valleys were not the only things still smoldering…
      

Driving into Fort Davis from the east we saw the shelled ruins of several homes.  Thanks to God and hundreds of sweating responders downtown and the courthouse weren’t damaged. The Rock House fire had threatened the town limits from every direction and dozens of structures were sadly consumed.

Hill Crest Cemetery and Cemetery Road on the east side of town was burned.
  

Jefferson Davis Highway No. 3 south of Fort Davis

Bro and I drove south from  Fort Davis on State 17 toward Marfa.  Closed the day before, this road cut through a ground zero that was a dozen times greater than the Trinity Crater.

The camera I relied on last year was a gift from my brother, a phone he out-grew, the Motorola 2mpx.  The bizarre atmospheric anomalies in the afterglow of the fire was more than my otherwise nice gift could handle.   A black and white with a little graduated tent exposes the outlines of smoke and debris clouds in the sunlight…

The valley of destruction south and east of Fort Davis with fires billowing at the base of the Paisano Range and Twin Mountains (elevations 6,899 and 6,667 ft. above sea-level).
  

The river of death left  by the Rock House firestorm was in places fifteen miles wide across the valley.  There were small islands of singed antelope grass where the fire had literally skipped over in the wind.  The southern end of the Davis Mountains including Mount Livermore, Sawtooth,  Paradise Peak, and Mescalero Mountain luckily only witnessed the storm from their high perches.

The DMR community with its more than one hundred residents in the Lympia Creek Basin were just as blessed with good luck.  If a firestorm burned west from State 166 down Tomahawk Trail theor only evacuation route would be blocked.  And based on the phenomena that happened in the Puertacitas Mountains where combustion increased speed on the upward slopes air rescue would have to work quick.

The great landscape of the Puertacitas Mountains (elevations up to 6,344 ft. above sea-level) on the other hand, was completely pulverized from the previous day.  Even at some distance from the black domed and coned summits it was clear that the firestorm not only accelerated on angled slopes but the intensity was greater also. Waves and twisters of fire crested over the gaps and peaks then raced down the other side.

From a high point pass near the half-way point between Fort Davis and Marfa* we saw smoke drifting over the other side of the mountains.  The black cooled lava texture on the slopes, black rocks, and smoke cloud behind gave the Puertacitas range the great likeness of a group of volcanoes.  Indeed, there may have been similarities with the stormy era of the great Paisano Caldera eruptions thirteen million years ago which created not only the Puertacitas but the Davis and Paisano ranges as well.

*Giant Pass (self called in honor of epic movie filmed south of Marfa), elev. 5,220 ft. above sea-level).

The Puertacitas

 Puertacitas with Twin Mountains 6,899 and 6,667 ft. above sea-level

   

I think very few wild animals were harmed or even long displaced by the firestorm.  Lacking speed, agility, and much hope for survival the poor livestock on the other hand were either chased down by the flames or just as horrifically entangled in a Texas trap, barb wire.  2011’s largest barbeque was a terrible event.

Survivors that somehow got past the fences and ahead enough of the firestorm huddle near the one pace that can’t burn, the highway.

The Rock House firestorm burned across runway 13 at the Marfa International Airport and came half a mile of residents in north Marfa.

Facing southwest of Marfa International Airport (Chinatiti Peak, elevation 7,732 ft. above sea-level)

Marfa had a close call with the same storm that threatened Fort Davis.  It had the same potential as Hurricane Katrina to wipe out blocks of homes and businesses.  Yet, every piece of the Presidio County Seat looked well intact as we turned onto US 90 west to see the genesis of the firestorm.  About a mile past the Marfa Cemetery was the ash shelled remains of the Rock House.  I have seen it many times  yet never remembered the 70 mph blur.  They sold and traded native rocks and stone art. Roadside geology is popular with travelers in Big Bend country.

Marfa Rock House

We continued home on the last leg of the loop* east on US 90 through Paisano Pass, elevation 5,121 ft. above sea-level. (Official name actually)!  The loop was State 118 from Alpine to Fort Davis then the Jeff Davis Highway or State 17 to Marfa and US 90 back to Alpine. It is seventy-one miles.  I call it the Tri-County or Paisano Pass scenic loop.  This long tour only covered half the area destroyed by the Rock House firestorm.

By a twist of fate, a second firestorm, east of Alpine, also started on April 9th.  It also began unnaturally.  The Roper firestorm began with the littering of a smoldering cigarette butt on Highway 67. It burned 25,000 acres east and northeast of Alpine.  Near the west face of Hancock Hill I could see and smell the tall tower of smoke on the other side less than two miles away.  The fires came home for many West Texans.  Yet, thanks to the army of emergency responders the inferno was stopped before burning black the hearts of the communities threatened.

Roper Fire east of Alpine, TX.

Monday, April 11, 2011
Every year on 4/11 is a time of reflection and motivation.  I revise and recite Live and Die with Wings a poem from youth

for God, freedom and an guardian angel .  The attitude of gratitude on 4/11/11 was with me and I took some time off to take a trip to Hancock Hill, a good place to walk Blue Bell.  The eleventh’s last light pinched in the west but to the northwest a dull mean glow refused to simmer.  The Rock House firestorm had moved further north down the front range of the Davis Mountains.  Yet,  a cluster still burned defiantly in the rugged and unreachable country close to Mitre Peak and Twin Mountains.

 Blue Bell

Mother Misery

West face of Hancock
  

Mitre Peak, elevation 6, 189 ft. above sea-level.

Sunday, April 17, 2011
A week after the start of the Rock House firestorm we went to Jeff Davis County to hike.  To the northwest the fires continued in the northern part of the county.  We didn’t hike up there.  Instead we photographed the torched West Texas scene which hadn’t changed its sterile black completion.

The first stop was the Pioneer Cemetery, a seldom visited historical landmark a half mile east of downtown Fort Davis. Two homes nearby laid destroyed nearby.

Entrance to cemetery path…

I hadn’t lost anything in the fire like so many others.  Yet, the burnt out cemetery gave a good sadness to me when I saw the seriously burned headstone of the cemetery’s lone Confederate States veteran.  As a passionate student and interpreter of the War between the Confederate and United States I’m also an ardent voice in the preservation of grave sites of Southern veterans.  I’ve photographed dozens of Confederate plots from Texas, Virginia, and even Maine.  It is not uncommon to see the stones of our unpopular countrymen that fought for the South maliciously vandalized.  But here nature played the part of the unapologetic Yankee!

Private Joseph Granger was a New York Yankee who married a daughter of the Texas Revolution and so defended his new state during the Confederate American War.  He served in the 12th Texas Infantry Company F.  Granger was an example of the root of the phrase, the brother’s war.  When Joseph’s generals surrendered the Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas department at the end of May in 1865 the private’s brother Maj. General Gordon Granger led Yankee forces into Texas at Galveston.  Having come close to stories like these it was a gnaw to the heart seeing the Texan’s monument in such a shape.  The irony is that a dead and dried wreath and flag fueled the blaze against the white stone.  Not long after contacting the Jeff Davis County Historical Society I returned to the sacred place and found the stone restored.  My heart is so grateful to them.

Pioneer Cemetery and grave site of Private Joseph Granger

We revisited the black mileage along State 17 to take images of the destruction on April 9th.  It was black as the scorched footprints of Sherman’s terrorism through eastern Georgia in 1864.

Davis Mountains, Twin Mountains, and the Puertacitas Mountains.

Being in the valley between the Puertacitas and Davis Mountains was like being in the middle of an endless charred bowl of pulverized earth.  Alas there were signs, up close, of tedious tenacious survival.  They were like the survivors of the hop and miss rampages of a tornado. Yuccas and cactus, migrates from the Chihuahuan Desert when this valley began warming over 10,000 years ago, were able to live for the most part in spite of the epic storm.  Born to live long w/o water the stalwart stalks and pads of spines were gifted to live through a wave of fire.

Devils Walking Canes, Prickly Pare Cactus, and yucca ‘tree’

   

Sunday, May 8, 2012
It was almost a month to the day that the Rock House and Roper firestorms began their wild blazes through Presidio, Jeff Davis, and Brewster Counties.  They were no more.  After bellowing across 313,000 acres and howling a period of twenty-eight days the record burning Rock House firestorm finally hissed to a stop south of Balmorhea.   Yet, across t Texas,  parts of Arizona and New Mexico the firestorm season continued spawning fires wherever the drought, wind, and spark gods combined.

May 8th, 2011 a firestorm started north of US 90 a few miles northeast of Paisano Pass.  By midday it spread through the steep and bushy Paisano Pass Canyon  along the railroad to the eastern slopes of the Paisano Mountains.  Police closed the highway on the town limit, a little over a mile from the fire’s easterly flank.   Helicopters with giant buckets of retardant swooped over the smoky slopes.  A full range of attention was blasted at this fire because of the immanent threat to Alpine, the Alpine Border Patrol Station, and the Texas royalty community of Sunny Glen.

 Alpine facing west

Like the bulging debris cloud when tornadoes hit large structures a firestorm produces a signature shade and thickness of smoke when it turns something man made into weightless ash.

The abandoned parking lot for the abandoned Mountain View dorms overlooks the Paisano Mountains and Alpine from the west face on Hancock Hill.  I lived very close and regularly walked my cat to the scenic area self called Gray Fox Park.  On this night several cars came here, people just as interested as I in the pageant of flames.  The May 8th fire was mostly contained by the 9th.  It burned 25,000 acres of mountain land.  Pyramid Peak, a beautiful butte on Highway 90 west 0f town was scalded completely.  In the deepening dark the fires could be seen growing, sitting, and moving.

In less than a month Alpine was threatened first by the Roper fire east of town and then by the May 8th wildfire to the west.  By the next evening the fire was off the ground and the smoke out of the sky.  I don’t know what they called it or how it was started.

Ranger Peak, elevation 6,254 ft, Twin Sisters 6, 109 and 6,127 ft, and Paisano Peak 6,089 ft. above sea-level.

Twin Mountain (south) elevation 6,667 ft. above sea-level.

Pyramid Peak, Paisano Pass Canyon, and Sunny Glenn.

May 9, 2011
On a 165 mile trip back from the closest city over 10,000, Odessa,  I had a distant view of the Iron Mountain firestorm.  Normally the drive south of Fort Stockton on US 67 gives a nice view of the Glass Mountains to the east.  They’re the easternmost range in Texas over six-thousand feet above sea-level.  The usual scenery was hindered by a smoky disaster in the mountains’ midst.  It burned 87,000 acres  twenty-five miles east of Alpine.  I don’t know what started the Iron Mountain fire.

Glass Mountains w/ Old Blue Mountain, elevation 6,294 ft. above sea level

Monday, June 6, 2011
6/6/11 was less than two months since Texas was rocked by the firestorms which came close to burning down the Brewster, Presidio, and Jeff Davis county seats.  Since then hundreds of separate fires kept emergency services and insurance companies as sleepless as Central Maine Power workers during the 1998 Maine ice storm.  Midland and Odessa were threatened several times with fires burning toward the cities.  The Iron Mountain and Schwartz firestorms around Marathon and Alpine cleared over 160,000 acres before the end of May.

Traveling the Davis Mountains Loop a lot of area below Mount Locke was burned but thank God the deep forests over six-thousand feet above sea-level remained uncharred.  We visited one of the loveliest spots on the Loop, the Lawrence E Wood Roadside Park.  It is so lovely because of its two lovely elders, a pair of Ponderosa Pines.  Yet, not far from the pull out was discovered some unattended fire.  Pine cones clicked and burst under the frying heat.  Several trees stooped and smoked and at a closer look they appeared to burn from the inside out.

The fire was isolated but it looked like it was burning for a couple of hours.  Beyond the fence, a couple hundred yards away another line of smoke rose from the ground to the sky.  We hailed a state vehicle and showed him the fires.  It was likely these were the small gasping remnants of the Rock House fire.  It could have been lightning…Going by the roadside park on New Years Eve 2011 I was very relieved to see that the Ponderosa were still there!

Continuing around the northern end of the loop from State 118 to 166 we saw dozens of other isolated fires with smoke puffing from craters of burnt out trees.

It was a hot spring in the Davis Mountains.

Sunday, July 31, 2011
The last smoke I saw in my first firestorm season rose not far from where I saw first smoke last April.  It was also not far north from the place of the east Alpine fire in May.  I hope that the royalty out there in Sunny Glenn are more careful in 2012.  The cliffy valleys under the Twin Mountains, Antelope Peak, Castle Rock, and Mitre Peak is where wild and beauty bind blissfully and it would be unfortunate to me to see it all burned away again.

Mitre Peak (6,189 ft. above sea-level)

Sunday, February 5, 2012
Before my life is past I want to see so many more super cells going like giant dark ships across late springs and dangerous early evenings.  Whenever I finally go with the angel of death I hope I can say to him that I’ve seen many times more lightning, hail, and extraordinary tornadoes than I ever hoped to see.  I want to see more of the beauty fury that God’s skies give.  Yet, when my soul is back above the clouds I can at least look back and say I truly saw a firestorm.  The fires were started by man but the scale of which they grew and continued was the strange glory work of God and the unemotional force of nature on earth.  The ranchers re-erected their miles of fences and thousands of cattle are back exploring their mountains.  As perhaps they foresaw the fire’s cleansing and clearing was beneficial to the land business in the long run.

Thank you for visiting my illustrated testament to my firestorm swept West Texas homeland.  The fires that burned Texas in 2011 destroyed almost two-thousand structures and claimed four lives.  The conditions for the storm existed state wide.  I pray that so much life will be spared from becoming smoke in years to come.  But if  nature or a careless soul does start another mega fire you’ll probably see me through that smoke photographing and writing poetry of it.

Outline (rough) of firestorm in Jeff Davis, Brewster, and Presidio Counties 2011.

Please enjoy these videos from my You Tube channel taken in between photographs of the firestorms.

         

                           Monday, January 9, 2012…Nine months after storm.                                           Half mile south of Fort Davis on Jeff Davis Highway No. 3 

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