Firefighters in Texas now have the worst fires in the state's history under control, but they are keeping a wary eye on frequent flare-ups that threaten wooded areas where many people have homes and ranches. The fires have destroyed hundreds of homes and burned more than 1.4-million hectares of land. Most of the fires in recent days have been in wooded areas in east and central Texas, threatening centuries-old trees. It might take decades to restore some areas devastated by the fires.
A dark cloud is in the sky over drought-stricken Texas, but it will not produce rain.
This cloud is smoke from a fire that broke out northwest of Houston, threatening ranch land and homes. Firefighters use helicopters and planes to drop water and fire retardant on the flames, trying to suppress them as police order an evacuation of the area and residents scramble to get out.
Most will be able to return safely in a day or two. The less fortunate will return to find the charred remnants of what was once their homes.
Eric Fourniquet returned from an out-of-state trip to find his home a smoldering ruin. But his wife and children were safe. “I am just happy and thankful that they made it out without being hurt," he said.
Forest service workers are helping him clear dead trees from his lot, but Fourniquee says he is sad about their loss as well. “I am used to the trees. If I had to walk outside every day and not see a tree, I'd be lost," he said.
Trees have been one of the main victims in this part of Texas, not only of the fires, but also of the record drought that set the stage for the fires. Across east Texas, water-deprived trees are dying.
John Warner works for the Texas Forest Service. “Usually in a nice year, where we have rainfall in the spring, dry summer, rainfall in the fall, these trees can recuperate. But with a drought like we are in now, these trees are really showing stress and they are not able to adapt," he said.
Warner says signs of stress include yellow and brown leaves and pine needles as well as bark falling off tree trunks. "If the bark is already sloughing off, this tree is dead. If it has gone this far, it is beyond recovery," he said.
Warner says many such dead trees will have to be removed in the coming year for fire prevention, especially in urban areas where ecological changes have undermined the drought resistance of the trees.
"Just changing the environment the way they have by putting these homes next to the forest area, changing the way the water flows, putting ditches in, there is a lot of change going on and we are going to see that because the trees are going to start stressing out along the roadways, neighborhoods. People want to live in a forested area, but they do not take in the whole picture. They need to leave an area large enough to sustain itself. Sustainability is crucial," he said.
As hard as it might be for tree lovers, Warner says many people in vulnerable parts of Texas will need to remove some trees around their property and hope that steady rains return next year to save what is left of the state's forests.