People in Texas often ask how I, an Austin native, came to work as a wildland firefighter on an elite, Type-1 Hotshot crew based on the Pike National Forest in Colorado. But when I lived in Colorado, no one asked me that question. That's because historically, while there have rarely been large-scale forest fires in Texas, in the American West forest fires are an annual summertime occurrence. And so the profession of forest firefighting is as familiar in the West as "structural" firefighting is everywhere else.
But the current extreme drought plaguing Central Texas, which has brought a record number of 100-degree days this year, has created conditions that have allowed for unprecedented forest fires that have burned over 300 homes and continue to rage here in Central Texas.
In recent months, I've had a bad case of the "fire bug" and have even emailed the crew boss of my old Hotshot crew to see if I could perhaps be hired on again next summer. Traveling the West fighting fire during the day and sleeping on the ground at night sounds like an appealing antidote to the non-profit office job I recently quit (not to mention the joy of being laid off at the end of fire season with a bank account full of fire cash and six months of free time to work on my novels and screenplays stretching out ahead of me).
Word of the Central Texas fires reached me Sunday evening as I returned to Austin from a 90-hour week working production in Florida. After a night of much-needed sleep, I woke to hear that there had been a midnight request for anyone in Central Texas with firefighting experience to call a certain phone number. Thrilled to throw on my fire boots and rush to the blaze north of town, I dialed the number. But a recorded message answered saying that all firefighting needs had, for the time being, been filled.
As I stay tuned to breaking news about the fires via television, radio and Twitter, with my fire boots and Nomex pants at the ready in case more firefighters are needed, I can't help but consider the obvious dangers of building communities in what firefighters refer to as "urban interface," places where houses and businesses are built in still-heavily-wooded areas. Owners and builders are naturally attracted by the financial and aesthetic boon of building and living in gorgeous natural settings, turning their thoughts away from the possible -- and potentially devastating -- risks that future forest fires may bring.
I remind myself that while such considerations are important when planning and building communities, what is crucial today is to both fight the fires and provide help to currently evacuated residents and their pets. Regardless of whether I am able to fight some of these Central Texas fires myself, I will certainly join in with other residents of Central Texas to try to provide much-needed support to those who have been displaced from or have lost their homes.
Mary Pauline Lowry's unsold novel The Gods of Fire has been optioned for film by Pandemonium Productions. Lowry has written the screenplay, which is currently out with directors. For more, visit marypaulinelowry.com.