Watching Texas Burn: Arson Hits Close To Home

Texas Wildfire burnos out of control in the summer of 2011
Out of control
At first I thought it was a rain cloud that would bring relief from the summer’s scorching heat wave.

But as I neared the giant gray cloud hovering over Texas Highway 71, I realized it wasn’t a thunderhead but a billowing cloud of smoke. I drove right past it, totally unaware that I’d just driven through the heart of what would soon become one of the biggest wildfires in Texas history. More than 35,000 acres have been destroyed, along with 1,400 homes, and the fire in Bastrop, Texas, is still going. There are so many active fires in Texas right now that the smoke clouds are visible from space.

Texas is just one of the many states battling Mother Nature this summer. Besides fires, we’ve seen drought, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornados. Some regions—such as the mid-Atlantic—have faced multiple hits. It’s made for quite an eventful summer, with people everywhere drawing comparisons between the sort of apocalyptic events we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in movie theaters, and real-life events happening right in our backyards.

After driving through the Bastrop fire, I got home to find a smoke cloud—literally—in my own backyard. A haze hung over my street as wind brought smoke over from blazes in the neighboring subdivision. I walked to the end of my block and saw plumes of smoke reaching up into the sky. People gathered along the roadside, gaping at the spectacle and snapping pictures with their cell phones. Rumors started to swirl about homes engulfed in flames and streets being evacuated. People called friends and relatives to try to learn what, exactly, was going on.

The strange thing? Nothing on the local news. It was amazing. People were being evacuated all around me and all I could find was the typical Sunday lineup of TV drama, with a little scroll along the bottom of the screen giving brief snippets of news. Where were the cameras? The reporters? How would we know where the fire was moving and whether to get out? Questions were everywhere with seemingly no official answers. So like everyone else around me, I turned to Twitter.

Twitter on Fire
Twitter is always afire with information.
The Twittersphere was abuzz with information. Rumors, too, but at least I was getting something. People were tweeting calls for volunteer firefighters, announcements about evacuations, and details about shelters being set up at local schools and churches. People were tweeting requests for work gloves, bottled water, and PowerBars for beleaguered firefighters. All this was on Twitter, and my local TV station didn’t even have a reporter on the scene. I went to sleep that night with a cell phone by my side and woke up in the wee hours to check Twitter to make sure we didn’t need to evacuate.

By late Monday (Labor Day), the local news stations had discovered the story. Their reporters were on the scene giving breathless updates about emergency efforts. But I couldn’t help but wonder, where were they yesterday when we desperately needed info?

Who knew that something as seemingly silly as Twitter could be a major source of help during an emergency? I was completely surprised.

Could arson be responsible?
A less pleasant surprise was the headline I saw on the Internet the very next day: “Investigators suspect arson in Texas wildfire.” I read the article, amazed to learn that police were seeking four teenagers in connection with one of the local fires.

After days of monitoring smoke plumes from the end of my block, and dropping off relief supplies, and seeing the faces of people whose homes had been reduced to cinders, this news came as a blow. Who could do such a thing? The fact that the suspects are teens makes it even worse, somehow.

For many across the country it has been a tumultuous summer, but there are some silver linings. Communities ravaged by flood are coming together to rebuild. Fundraisers are being held for hurricane victims. News organizations in Texas are running stories about the ways to help fire victims by fostering pets, donating clothing, and giving cash.

Many will be glad when September 23rd arrives and we can officially put this disastrous summer behind us. Hundreds of thousands of people across the country are still in recovery-mode, but the good news is that there are ways to help. To find some, just turn on your TV or open up a newspaper.

And if that doesn’t work, try Twitter.

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New York Times bestselling author Laura Griffin started her career in journalism before venturing into the world of romantic suspense. Her books have won numerous awards, including a 2010 RITA (Whisper of Warning) and a 2010 Daphne du Maurier Award (Untraceable). Visit Laura on Facebook  or on Twitter @Laura_Griff.

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