Lisa Hamblen Hood: Through the Fence 9-26-11
Texas is on fire. Bastrop is the current epicenter of the inferno. The raging wildfires there have charred over 45-square-miles and destroyed over 1,500 homes. It is reported to be the costliest fire in Texas history costing insurers over $250 million. Many other alarming records have been shattered in the last few months. In some cities, the thermometer has hit one hundred degrees over one hundred days. It seems like a thousand.
I remember the sweltering summer of 1980 when central Texas saw 79 days of consecutive 100 degree heat. I was walking to summer school classes every morning back then, and the air never cooled below 100 even at night. That seemed like a nightmare, but this blistering summer surpasses even that. Coming outside from the air-conditioning is like stepping right into Hell. And the only thing more miserable than the dead calm days are the ones where the wind blows relentlessly as if from a raging furnace. Luckily, we got a brief reprieve from the heat on our vacation to the Caribbean. Hardly anyone complained that it rained every day.
This has been the driest single year ever recorded in Texas. Record highs are being noted – 107 in Dallas on September 13. In the west central part of the state, we have watched the weather forecast in dismay as the high pressure dome sits like a Sumo wrestler on our state. We can’t get an inch of rain while many other states have been nearly washed away by devastating floods. Our creeks and ponds have long since dried up. Large lakes have shrunk away from their shores leaving clumps of grass and weeds to sprout. But after weeks and months under hot cloudless skies, they too have withered. Boating, tubing, or water skiing has been curtailed. It’s dangerous even to try and navigate a maze of exposed stumps and dead trees that were once our favorite lakes.
The struggling wild animals and livestock subsist on crispy grass that has had most of the nutrients cooked out. They drink hot muddy water from the few remaining ponds now choked with algae and dying fish. Texas ranchers have been importing hay for months from states as far away as Montana – those who haven’t already sold all their animals at auction. A friend who owns a small sale barn here normally runs about 700 head each week. He’s had several sales with over 2,000 cows as many ranchers try to cut their losses.
In other dry years, some cattlemen have resorted to burning the spines off the prickly pear and feeding them to the cows. But that would do little good now. Even the cactus are so dehydrated that they are little more than flattened yellowish pancake clumps.
The barren wasteland of dead grass and trees looks like an eerie scene out of an apocalyptic end-time movie. Churches, courthouses and city marquees have all implored their citizens to pray for rain. It’s such a horrifying situation, even the atheists are praying for rain, perhaps not even in secret. In the end, that’s all anyone can do is pray … and wait.
Eventually it will rain. And this year will pass into the history books with other unsettling memories. But those of us whose lives have been profoundly affected, and that number is in the millions, won’t forget the summer of 2011. We will all shake our heads together as we recount it to our grandkids and say, “Remember when …”
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One out of every three acres in the U.S. is rangeland. Two-thirds of these are privately owned, mainly by ranchers who graze their livestock in the open country of the American West.