More than 1,500 homes destroyed, two fatalities and perhaps $150 million in insured losses. That’s the latest toll from the Bastrop County Complex fire, just one of the wildfires that has scorched Texas for weeks. The Texas Forest Service reports that the fire is now 95 percent contained, and with celebrity visits and fundraisers, efforts are turning toward recovery and reconstruction.
Officials have declared that the fire broke out after high winds knocked dead trees onto nearby power lines. In the midst of a severe drought – the hottest, driest summer ever recorded in Texas – electrical sparks set off a series of fires that eventually spread across more than 330,000 acres. The Insurance Council of Texas estimated that the total insured losses statewide could reach $500 million; the damage to Texas’ massive agricultural industry could be over $5 billion.
Some families who lost their homes have filed a lawsuit against Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative, the company responsible for the power lines, arguing that Bluebonnet should have removed the dead trees and trimmed the branches around the power lines. The families say the company was negligent and owes them money for their damaged property, physical impairment, and mental anguish. The company denies the allegations of wrongdoing, asserting that the trees were on private property and outside its right-of-way.
Smoke Inhalation a Growing Health Concern
A 20-year-old mother and her 18-month-old daughter suffered fatal burns in their Gladewater home when flames engulfed the structure. The greatest danger to public health posed by the wildfires, however, is not burns – it’s smoke inhalation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that the gases and particles that wildfires spew into the air can cause problems for individuals with heart disease, asthma, and other chronic conditions. As homes and other buildings burn, chemicals like asbestos, arsenic, and lead can add toxic and carcinogenic elements to the smoke. Between 60 and 80 percent of fire-related fatalities in the U.S. are from smoke inhalation, and many more deaths in burn centers occur due to respiratory failure than from actual burns.
Texas is taking preventive measures to minimize the risk of smoke inhalation, including postponing or canceling school athletic events and issuing alerts to asthmatics. The state also warns that children, in particular, should stay out of cleanup areas to avoid exposure to toxic chemicals in ash and dust. With their developing airways and greater intake of air per pound of body weight than adults, children are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of smoke.
Environmental groups raised red flags regarding the state’s air quality even before the catastrophic fires, but Texas now faces an even greater public health challenge.