Updated: Historic Structures at Fort Davis National Historic Site Threatened by Major Wildfires

(Top photo): Fort Davis National Historic Site. Photo by Jim Burnett. (Bottom photo): An aerial view of the fires that raced across the area last weekend. Texas Forest Service photo.

[Update: Fort Davis National Historic Site will reopen to the public on Thursday, April 14, 2011.]

We've grown accustomed to media coverage of property threatened by raging wildfires in California, but… West Texas? Large fires that raced across the high desert last weekend caused major damage in the small town of Fort Davis. Thus far, the key historic structures at Fort Davis National Historic Site have escaped, but it's been a close call, and fires continue to burn in the vicinity.

Fort Davis National Historic Site preserves perhaps the best example of an Indian Wars' frontier military post in the Southwest, and the rugged terrain adds to the fort's appeal for modern-day visitors. That terrain, combined with severe drought and fierce winds, contributed to some of the worst fires in Texas history in recent days.

Last weekend, the Rock House Fire burned over 108,000 acres in the region, including more than 106 acres of pinion-juniper, brush and grass in the higher elevation area of Fort Davis National Historic Site. The area affected is on the west side of the park, and includes land just acquired by the NPS in January.

According to information from the NPS, the historic core of the site was not affected, and no park structures have been damaged or lost. Firefighters limited the fire's spread to higher elevation areas within the park and continue to mop up hotspots, although the rugged terrain is making that job difficult. Park staff had previously mowed the grass around historic structures to provide defensible space and firefighters and have established hose lays to provide structural protection for historic buildings.

The park closed on Saturday, April 9 and will remain closed until the fire danger has passed, perhaps later this week. The park was limited to generator power for several days, but electric and phone service have now restored. Twenty-three homes and two businesses were lost in the Fort Davis area, and much of the local community was left without electricity and water after more than 60 power poles were destroyed by the fire.

The fire started on Saturday about 22 miles south of the park near Marfa, Texas, and burned rapidly north to Fort Davis. Former Park Superintendent Jerry Yarborough retired to the area, and reported that "The flames raced twenty-one miles across the prairie and wooded landscape to Fort Davis … in only 30 minutes, precluding much preparation by anyone. It was reported that 65 mph winds pushed the fire into 40 foot flame lengths. The fire entered Fort Davis on the south side of the town and split into two sections that began to actively burn within the town."

Among the structures destroyed in the town of Fort Davis was the Yarborough's home, which was a total loss. The former park employee had taken active steps over the years to prevent damage from fires by removing vegetation from the property, but the extreme fire behavior and rapid spread of the flames overwhelmed the area and efforts by firefighters. Mr. Yarborough and his wife were out of town at the time of the fire and are safe.

At the latest report, the Rock House Fire was 60% contained. Extreme wildfire danger continues in the area due to pervasive drought conditions, (last month was the driest March in Texas history since 1895), high temperatures, high winds, and low relatively humidity. NPS resources at Fort Davis include two collateral duty park firefighters, one engine with a three-person crew from Big Bend and the Bandelier fire module.