Living in a natural disaster area: fire

As Texas burns, Daniel Kalder continues to mull over the implications of living in a natural disaster area…

The other night I was working in my backyard when I caught a whiff of smoke on the wind: a barbecue? I wondered. But there were no smoke trails coming from behind my neighbor’s fences; nor could I smell sizzling meat.

I checked the green belt behind my house- no tongues of flame there either. Furthermore, the odor was different, not a wood fire, but rather…. Ah that’s it! It was the same burning plastic/chemical/metal aroma that had hovered over my Austin apartment last year after an angry man had flown a plane into the local tax office, hoping to inflict a mini 9/11 on the IRS (He got there too early, before most of the staff were at their desks, and so killed only himself and one other person).

So it’s a burning building, I thought. OK, time to check the mail. But when I stepped out my front door I immediately noticed a thick pillar of chemical smoke rising from just behind the houses opposite me. Helicopters were buzzing overhead, carrying huge containers of fire retardant, which they dumped on the raging inferno below.

Since Texas is enduring its worst drought in recorded history, I wondered if I was staring at the beginnings of a brush fire that was about to destroy all my possessions and every living thing on my street, including me… you know, the kind of thing you hear about on the news all the time but never imagine could happen to you.

My neighbor was out watering her flowers. She informed me that the flames were currently devouring some houses behind the local post office:

‘They’re not sure how it started. A grass fire, and then somebody’s propane tank went up, and then it spread. They say ten houses have been destroyed so far. We should be safe though…. I just hope nobody’s been hurt.’

I knew the area she was talking about. It’s a poor neighborhood, mostly ‘mobile homes’- cheap, flimsy cabins that can be loaded on to the back of a truck and dumped anywhere. It’s also the old part of town, populated by families that have lived for decades in this formerly rural community, before it became a sleeper suburb of Austin.

Well, I still needed to check the mail so I started walking to the set of boxes at the end of my street. And immediately I noticed something strange. I live in a strange dream landscape of shiny new houses where the sidewalks are perpetually abandoned. Cars and trucks zip in and out of garages, but aside from an old man who I think has Alzheimers and myself, nobody walks anywhere. Texans are often derided for their refusal to walk, but you try going for a long stroll in 107 Fahrenheit…. Unless you carry a tank of water on your back, you’ll feel ill pretty quickly.

Tonight however the street was bustling with life. My neighbors- many of whom I had never seen before- were sitting on their patios, sipping on Cokes, calmly gazing at the uncoiling plume of smoke two miles down the road. Three teenagers were standing in the middle of the street, snapping pictures of the helicopters with their cell phone cameras. A big, fat, bald dude covered in tattoos was washing his car as he stared intently at the smoke. The atmosphere was convivial; as if we were all watching a 4th of July fireworks display and not the (possible) living barbecue of some poor people and the (certain) destruction of what little property they owned. The relaxed attitude however was belied by a spontaneous outbreak of lawn-watering; almost every home owner in the street had turned on his automatic sprinklers, as if those few miserable drops could stave off the spreading fire.

‘Hey, join the party!’ someone shouted.

Texans love a barbecue, I thought.

There was nothing interesting in the mail.

Back home I reflected upon the spectacle. The human attraction to death and carnage is profound; the news frequently amounts to little more catastrophe porn. Everybody watches it; my neighbors simply had tickets to the live floor show.

But they were so calm, as if the helicopters overhead had lulled them into the same ‘it can’t happen to me’ sleep we experience when watching something awful on a TV or computer screen. This time they were right; within a few hours, the fire was contained. Nobody died. But fires are popping up all over the place right now. The week before, another local neighborhood went up in flames, while in June a blaze destroyed 60 acres of land, and was lapping at the gates of a luxury housing development before it was extinguished. The helicopters arrived just in time to save the rich folk’s real estate investments.

The poor folk were not so lucky: 15 homes were destroyed. Time to buy renter’s insurance, I think. And to keep plenty of fuel in the gas tank, just in case I need to make a quick getaway.

(RIA Novosti previously published a version of this post).

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Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist. Visit him online at

8 thoughts on “Living in a natural disaster area: fire

  1. Worm
    September 6, 2011 at 16:10

    that was a great read Daniel! I’ve experienced big wildfires in africa and australia, to the extent that on both occasions the sun was blotted out for days, and everything smelled of smoke for at least a week afterwards. it’s quite a novel experience for an englishman to be caught up in a natural event that is so primally powerful

    September 6, 2011 at 16:47

    Yesterday a huge wildfire to the south of Austin consumed a large chunk of Bastrop…. 300 homes plus half a national park. It’s still burning. Meanwhile up where I live several fires broke out within a 2 square mile radius and I heard sirens throughout the day. It was all rather nerve racking. I even packed a box of essential items to save in case we were evacuated. My neighbours were still out working in their garages, however.

  3. Gaw
    September 6, 2011 at 20:24

    There’s some great stuff in Oliver Rackham’s Woodlands about wildfires. The main message is that they’re meant to be and can only be delayed rather than avoided (and the more delay, the worse they are…).

    One thing that stuck in my mind is that it’s pretty much impossible for a deciduous British wood to burn down. So we’re ok.

    September 6, 2011 at 21:57

    We do have it easy here. Drizzly summers in Skeggy, sure, but still…

      September 7, 2011 at 10:37

      Perhaps, Brit. Twice in recent years we have watched as fires, fanned by strong winds walked their way down the Eildons towards us. The Last occasion our local Pompiers, post 9/11 and now attired in full NYFD kit, had turned up in the afternoon, piled out, sat down and had a fag while discussing the problem, meanwhile the Buccleuch estate people had arrived, it’s their land, and set about the flames with witches brooms, eventually joined by the SBFDCS (Scottish Borders Fire Dept and Card School) At midnight we were becoming nervous, this fire dance if anything had encouraged the flames which were approaching at an alarming rate spread right across the hill in front of us, some 400 yards away, the intrepid Pompiers were performing a macabre dance, Pina Bausch would have been green with envy. Then the cavalry arrived, more of the Dukes footmen / flunkies / butlers / parlour maids complete with VLBs (very large bowsers) some very interesting steam appeared almost like alpine brocken spectres.
      Did this extinguish the flames? did it f..k, the wind changed direction and aided by a small firebreak in the whin, back up the hill went the flames, as did the Buccleuch people panicking like crazy, their Dalkeith house estate is over the hill, worth a few bob.
      My neighbour and his wife had joined us in the evening, they had grown tired of watching a new batch of the SBFDCS these ones ‘the technical people’ who were attempting to extract the contents of his curling pond via ‘high specification pumps’ which had ceased to operate when blocked by high specification pond weed.
      We sat there, all four of us, oblivious to the danger, sipping glasses of cooling Kölsch, discussing life in general and insurance policies in particular as the night wore on and danger passed away we became sombre, the Kölsch had ran out. It’s those surreal moments in time that make life worth living.

      Nothing like as serious as Daniels fires, we do however, now and again, have near misses.

    September 6, 2011 at 22:12

    Indeed. I’d grown used to the presence of snakes and poisonous spiders and am not remotely bothered by the ubiquity of firearms, but the close presence of fire introduces a man to an entirely new level of existential hopelessness/terror. It’s like you’re just sitting here to maybe lose everything, maybe not, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

    In Scotland on the other hand, it’s just a bit wet and boring and that’s it.

    September 6, 2011 at 22:13

    I meant to include the word ‘waiting’ after ‘sitting here’

    September 7, 2011 at 00:53

    You are reminded of life’s basics when fires n floods n all the other non-stoppables come to you aren’t you. I moved into a place 20 ks from the fires that raged through Australia a couple of years ago and learned a whole new kind of fear. …Now it’s a paradise again. Ain’t life grand!

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