Four Years Later: Professor Remembers Bastrop Wildfires


Texas A&M Forest Service
Written by: Ashley Green (cehdcomm@tamu.edu)
Post date: September 16, 2015

This month marks four years since Bastrop County, and much of the state of Texas, was devastated by wildfires.  During September 2011, 4,064 fires burned more than 300,000 acres across Texas.

One of those wildfires, the Bastrop County Complex Wildfire, the most destructive wildfire in state history, hit close to home for Dr. Laura Stough, associate professor and coordinator of the Learning Sciences program at Texas A&M.

On September 4, 2011, Dr. Stough was at home with her daughter in Bastrop County when she got the call from her husband.  The wildfire was nearby their home.

“That’s when we turned on the TV, my daughter and I, and we knew what was happening,” Dr. Stough said.  “It was two miles from our house. What was very concerning was we didn’t know how the wind was blowing and if the fire was headed our way or not.”

Fortunately for the Stough family, the wind was blowing south and their home was spared.

That wasn’t the case for 1,660 other homes burned during the Bastrop County Complex Wildfire.  Those homes, along with 32,400 acres, were burned over 37 days.

“Once the burn had gone south of us, and I had time to think, I thought ‘Oh my gosh, we have all those Mobile TIPS,’” said Dr. Stough.  “I went down to the command center and was able to distribute them to the firefighters.”

Mobile TIPS is a mobile-based website for first responders that provides resources to help people with disabilities and special needs during an emergency.  Dr. Stough developed the tool with her Project REDD team at Texas A&M’s Center on Disability and Development.

“We were about to release it in 2011.  We had everything integrated, everything ready to go and then the fire happened,” said Dr. Stough.  “It was an incredible kind of synchronicity.”

Just a week after the fire started, there was a conference organized by FEMA, called the “Getting Real: Promising Practices in Inclusive Emergency Management for the Whole Community” Conference.  The weekend conference was full of programs highlighting promising practices for disability inclusive emergency management.  According to Dr. Stough, at the end of the conference, Mobile TIPS was one of the top practices that states said they wanted to take back and implement.

Dr. Stough spent more than a month with the emergency management team in Bastrop County, helping to evaluate the efficacy of response of the wildland firefighting group that was helping battle the wildfire.

She says she learned a lot about first responders but she also learned a lot about rural Texans that she never paid much attention to before.

“It was very important for people in the county to show and express gratitude to the visiting firefighters and support people,” said Dr. Stough.  “For rural Texans, who tend to be very independent, it is a cultural imperative that you just don’t accept assistance, you have to express thanks.  For the people of Bastrop County, that gratitude completes an interpersonal transaction even if you have just lost your home.  And for some of these firefighters, who usually fight wildfires in the wilderness, that need to express thanks was surprising.”

Since the fire, volunteers have spent countless hours helping families in Bastrop County rebuild, including students from Texas A&M who have volunteered their time planting Loblolly Pines at Bastrop State Park, many of which were completely destroyed by the wildfires.

For more information about Mobile TIPS, visit: disabilitytips.tamu.edu and for more information on the 2011 wildfire season, visit: tfsweb.tamu.edu/