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The Labor Day Wildfires, One Year Later

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the Labor Day wildfires.

As part of a remembrance of the fires, which claimed two lives, more than 1,600 homes, many pets and livestock, and thousands of acres of wildland, KUT News is debuting a one-hour special today: “Forged in Flames: An Oral History of the Labor Day Wildfires.” It airs at 3 p.m. CST on KUT 90.5 FM, and will stream online at

A year has passed since the fires broke out, but its aftermath continues to make news. Today, the Federal Emergency Management Office issued a statement noting $63 million in disaster assistance has been distributed to Texas since the fires. Over $39 million of that total was approved for homeowners and business owners; and some $23 million has gone to state and local governments helping citizens rebuild.

Looking back, KUT’s StateImpact Texas reports that 2011’s drought of record created a perfect storm for the blaze:

Chris Barron, Executive Director of the Fireman’s and Fire Marshals Association of Texas, remembers that the 2011 wildfire season got off to an ominous start with the Possum Kingdom Lake fire in March. “And I’ll never forget talking to Chief Steve Purdue of the Mineral Wells Fire Department,” Barrons says. “And I asked him what he’s up to. And his immediate response was, ‘I’ve got fire all around me, I gotta talk to you later.’ And that kind of set the tone for the rest of the season.” The rest of the season was a scorcher. As the summer of 2011 wore on, temperatures broke records and the earth cracked. Vegetation died. Then in the week before Labor Day, officials began to caution that Central Texas was beginning to look like a powder keg.

Credit KUT News
KUT News
An onlooker watches as flames consume a piece of farm equipment in Cedar Park.

Risk-elevating wind conditions were recently in effect for Central Texas, the byproduct on Hurricane Isaac. But a much wetter 2012 means less dangerous conditions.

While the fire claimed two human lives, many more pets perished in the flames. As KUT News reported this week, it was among the most traumatic loss for many wildfire survivors. Steiner Ranch resident Michelle Bielinski recounted that as the flames bore down on her neighborhood, she noticed dogs were still inside her neighbor’s otherwise empty home.

“We were going to break the window to see if we can get them out, but we weren’t able to,” she told KUT News, and ultimately, the pets didn’t make it: rescuers told her “there weren’t enough fire personnel for people.”

Excerpts of first-person stories like these — ranging from when the fires were still burning, to after the fires were extinguished and since, as residents rebuild their lives — will be featured in today’s broadcast.

An encore broadcast of “Forged in Flames: An Oral History of the Labor Day Wildfires” is scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 5 at 7 p.m. Below, a trailer for the program. 

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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