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Top Stories of 2012: The Central Texas Wildfires, One Year Later

Jeff Heimsath for KUT News
Scenes from the fire's aftermath in Bastrop last year.

Among the somber anniversaries of 2012: the one-year anniversary of the Central Texas wildfires.

Thousands of people were forced out of their homes on Labor Day weekend of 2011 by the massive wildfires and clouds of black smoke. Altogether, the wildfires claimed two lives, more than 1,600 homes, many pets and livestock, and thousands of acres of land and forests.

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

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.

Chris Barron with the State Firemen’s & Fire Marshals' Association recalls getting the first notification about a fire that weekend – the first outbreak in Pflugerville.

"We sent a brush truck from my fire department up there and a tender, a water tender up there, and, next thing you know, Spicewood had a major fire also and then Steiner Ranch had a major fire and so it was just back to back to back," Barron says.

When all was said and done, the fires ranked as the costliest in Texas history; the Insurance Council of Texas estimated that $325 million would be paid out to people who lost their homes.

Several steps have been taken since: Travis County spent $2.4 million on a firefighting UH-1H helicopter. Firefighters are testing a new gel made with cornstarch that may help combat future outbreaks. There’s even an American Red Cross app to help people evacuate wildfires.

Reports on what was behind the blazes emerged: A final report took a close look at the fire and why some homes were destroyed by the fire while others were spared, while fires in Spicewood and Steiner Ranch were said to be sparked by electrical lines.

But risk-elevating wind conditions were recently on display in Austin and Williamson County, which lead to three area fires. High winter winds, coupled with an exceptionally dry season, are a reminder the conditions for the fires still exist.

On Sept. 4 – the one year anniversary of the Labor Day wildfires –  KUT News premiered an hour-long program featuring first-person accounts from people who were there.

You can listen to “Forged in Flames: An Oral History of the Labor Day Wildfires” online. The site also offers an interactive timeline, audio interviews, photos, videos, maps and more. You can also view a trailer for “Forged in Flames” below.

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.