Month: October 2015

“Why Is It Important To Know Your Family’s History?”

German Lopez at Vox reflects on a young African-American’s conundrum when presented with a slightly Eurocentric homework assignment:

The answers, tweeted above by the student’s mother, are revealing. Where did your family immigrate from? Africa. When did they immigrate? Whenever the slave owners took them. Why did they immigrate? Because the white man wanted free labor. Who did they immigrate with? Other slaves. Did they know anybody here before they came? No, because they were stolen. What was life like when they first came here to live? Horrible. Do you still have family where they came from? I don’t know. Why is it important to know your family history? So that you know traditions and family values.

It is perhaps the last question and answer that’s most revealing. The point of these assignments in school is to reflect on your family’s origin and what it means to you today. And for many kids, that means reflecting on European, Latin American, or even US roots that are easily traceable.

“Her hesitation was in the way the assignment was worded. It suggested the students ‘go back as far as you can,’ but continually referred to ‘immigrants,'” the student’s mother said in an email. “That immediately made her think of relatives/ancestors that came to America from another country. And for us that would obviously be west Africa. Of course we know the history of how today’s African American came to be in America and I find it to be one of America’s dirty little secrets and this assignment is proof positive of that.”

She added, “The general assumption is made that everyone has some grand success story of families leaving their home country and coming to America in search of better opportunities. But the simple and plain truth is that not all of us have this story to tell and the ability to trace one’s ancestry is a privilege within itself — one that most if not all black Americans do not have.”

On my other blogs, Archerology and Dallas DossiersI deal with family history, which is one of my favorite hobbies. As I have worked to discover my own roots, I have gained some wisdom relating to why and how people look into this subject.

I think young people, and the naive, are primarily interested in knowing which famous people they are related to. On that account, I am liable to point out that my mother’s side of the family is related by marriage to June Carter and (by extension), Johnny Cash. Redneck Royalty, if you will.

On the other side of the family, though, there are quite a few Old Virginia families, who collectively owned hundreds of other human beings. This is not a particular point of pride, from a moral standpoint; but it’s also not much fun to talk about from an intellectual standpoint, either. The fact is that people with money and power tend to “show up” in the historical record quite a bit; social privilege extends even in death. Books are written about such people, stories are told, songs are sung, and homes and graves venerated. Although some of the finer points may still be up for debate, the fact is that most of what we know about the well-off comes giftwrapped. Accordingly, as a researcher and writer, I tend to think of these people as being rather boring and uninteresting.

The really interesting people in my family tree are the people who I know little about, and who might be easily forgotten. Spending hours digging through online databases, libraries, graveyards, etc. just to get a scrap of knowledge about them… that’s what really gets me going. Some of the most consuming enigmas in my family tree include assumed aliases, secret marriages, adoptions, criminals, children who died as infants, etc.

So altogether, I’d say that studying family history has made me more sympathetic to ordinary people, and more determined to try to tell the stories of the masses rather than the “great men” who disproportionately consume the attentions of historians.

Furthermore, studying family history has, therefore, made me more appreciative of community. Trying to help others find their own history has become important to me, and that is why I am always trying to find more opportunities to share what I find

Returning to the matter at and: Perhaps one of the cruelest injury to African-Americans today is the fact that their family histories were often abruptly cut off by slavery, and even after Emancipation a lack of documentation effectively suppresses truth.

There is of course a non-trivial possibility that somewhere along the line, Native American or African-American heritage might have been covered up. I haven’t found any evidence of that yet (and indeed, there is a strange history regarding “Indian blood” in Southern white culture), but there are certainly some people I just can’t explain very well.

Nevertheless, I must recognize that I can trace most of my family with greater ease and less trauma, than many, many people. In a sense, being able to track one’s family history is important because it is a part of having a personal identity, which is an important part of human dignity.

Heads If You’re Guilty, Tails If You’re Guilty

If we’re going to have a national conversation about criminal justice reform, we need to talk about the uses and abuses of scientific evidence.

As we’re learning in Travis County, Texas — scientific evidence is highly persuasive, technically-inscrutable, and yet, often completely bogus:

Criminal cases in Travis County may be soon be under review. According to the Department of Public Safety, the method used when testing DNA mixtures at the Texas DPS Crime Lab back from 1999 until August of 2015 was basically spitting out the wrong statistics. That means any case that used this testing in the last 16 years could be up for new testing and review.

Chris Perri has been a criminal defense attorney for more than 10 years.

“I have never yet seen anything like this. I think it was kind of huge news when it came out, because in my mind, that’s the hardest thing to combat as a criminal defense attorney is the scientific evidence,” Perri said.

He already has one case approved to be up for review, after the crime laboratory was found to be giving inaccurate probabilities. He said juries rely on scientific evidence.

“When the scientists came on the stand, they’re like ‘oh, this has to be true.’ So if the scientist says, if this defendant cannot be excluded from the DNA mixture we tested and there’s a one in a million chance that somebody else at random could also match that, that’s pretty powerful stuff. So if you later find out the scientific testing was wrong, I think it’s very concerning because juries were hanging their hat on that.”

Meaning 16 years of criminal cases in Travis County that used this testing could be under review.

“I think this DNA revelation is really mind-blowing. I mean you’re going to find hundreds, thousands around this country that are going to have to be retried or we are going to have to let people out if they were wrongly convicted,” Houston State Senator Rodney Ellis, who’s also a chair for the Innocence Project, said, adding we have not been willing to invest enough money into the science of making sure that we get it right. “You want to make absolutely sure that if you’re going to take someone’s liberty, it’s the right person.”

Here, at least, the scandal seems to have been carelessness and lack of scientific rigor. I was practicing law in the Houston metro area though when the Harris County Crime Lab scandal was going on. And so I am not shocked, but saddened, to see that there seems to be a national epidemic of willful wrongdoing by forensic scientists (not just snafus).

Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick makes the case:

Earlier this year, I wrote about a sprawling prosecutorial scandal in Orange County, California, involving a long-standing program of secret jailhouse snitches that had tainted prosecutions in cases almost too numerous to count. This story has only continued to worsen. One of the prosecutors at the heart of the case simply packed up and left California last month, and just this week the news emerged that Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas had been told that his office might have a jailhouse informant problem all the way back in 1999, a full 16 years before the current allegations about the misuse of jailhouse snitches had surfaced.

The problem with a scandal on this order of magnitude isn’t just that it reflects a fundamental flaw in the justice system. The problem is that, as a purely practical matter, there is simply no easy way to correct it. In Orange County, some convictions have been tossed, others have been stalled, and a call for a Justice Department investigation has gone unheeded. Even years after cases like this come to light, undoing or redoing wrongful convictions proves almost impossible to achieve, especially when the state believes someone else should be cleaning up the mess.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of a massive scandal that cannot seem to be reversed involves Annie Dookhan, a chemist who worked at a Massachusetts state lab drug analysis unit. Dookhan was sentenced in 2013 to at least three years in prison, after pleading guilty in 2012 to having falsified thousands of drug tests. Among her extracurricular crime lab activities, Dookhan failed to properly test drug samples before declaring them positive, mixed up samples to create positive tests, forged signatures, and lied about her own credentials. Over her nine-year career, Dookhan tested about 60,000 samples involved in roughly 34,000 criminal cases. Three years later, the state of Massachusetts still can’t figure out how to repair the damage she wrought almost single-handedly.

The growing number of crime-lab scandals seems to me to reflect a serious dysfunction in the character of law enforcement and prosecutors. Forensic evidence isn’t the only front in that battle. We have prosecutors withholding evidence (here, here for two recent high-profile instances in Texas). When Ken Anderson went to jail for that, it was a true man-bites-dog-story.

Furthermore, we have appellate judges who just don’t seem to care what the evidence is. There are good reasons to believe that Texas has executed innocent men – Cameron Todd Willingham’s case being only the most picked-over – and the reaction seems to be — don’t even try to gather potentially-exculpatory evidence.

I went to Planned Parenthood once for an STD test.

They turned me into a newt…

…I got better!

The Austin-American Statesman:

Texas is gearing up for a full-fledged witch hunt.

The target is women’s health provider Planned Parenthood, and it is clear that lawmakers and state officials will not stop until the 94-year-old nonprofit is completely dismantled in Texas.

Last week ended with Planned Parenthood being put on notice that the state intended to strip the nonprofit of its ability to receive Medicaid reimbursement for health services, alleging that Planned Parenthood had “committed and condoned numerous acts of misconduct captured on video.”

Interestingly, the state has not yet produced any evidence to support its allegation that laws or policies were broken aside from the heavily edited videos taped in secret and released by an anti-abortion group called the Center for Medical Progress. The controversial fetal tissue program that has dominated the national headlines doesn’t even exist in Texas.

Even so, three days later, state health officials raided three Planned Parenthood offices and subpoenaed the group for thousands of documents, including detailed patient records.

Let me underscore this important fact.

Planned Parenthood’s Texas affiliates are not even engaged in the fetal donation program that was deemed scandalous by the con-artists at the CMP. And even if they were, that is not illegal or unethical.

Meanwhile, our benevolent federal overlords are not pleased with these recent reactionary shenanigans:

The Obama administration has warned state officials that pushing Planned Parenthood out of the state’s Medicaid program could put Texas at odds with federal law.

Officials with the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services contacted the state Medicaid director on Tuesday to give notice that removing Planned Parenthood from the program “may be in conflict with federal law” because poor women who obtain family planning services through Medicaid would be limited from receiving health care from the qualified provider of their choice.

“Longstanding Medicaid law prohibits states from restricting individuals with Medicaid coverage from receiving their care from any qualified provider,” a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services representative said in a statement. “Every year, millions of women benefit from critical preventive services, such as cancer screenings, that Planned Parenthood provides. State efforts to restrict women from using qualified providers puts these important health care services at risk.”

On a similar note… remember how the U.S. Army totally did not invade Texas and impose Kenyan muslim socialist atheist martial law?

Yeah. About that.

Thanks a lot for nothing, Obama.

SXSW ’16 Melts Down Over #GamerGate

Ever since moving to Austin, I’ve scrupulously avoided SXSW. It was cool once but now it mostly seems kinda douche-y.

I read the news today, oh boy, and nothing in it has convinced me that I am wrong. Leigh Alexander at Wired.com (itself kind of a haven for insufferable digerati) puts it gently:

GamerGate is one of the more more visible harassment campaigns in recent memory, and its fallout has emphasized the need for dialogue about online abuse and ways to support women, people of color, and other marginalized populations in a historically male-dominated digital space. And while we’d all like to know what could possess someone to send death threats over video games, you’d have to be pretty out of touch to say hey, let’s hear what the harassers think about it; it’s only fair!

Except that’s essentially what SXSW did when it allowed a panel of GamerGaters onto its 2016 program lineup. It also cancelled a panel on overcoming harassment in games—in response to threats of harassment, which no doubt came from GamerGaters (the proposed anti-harassment panel included sociologist Katherine Cross and activist Randi Harper, two of their favorite targets). In the end SXSW canceled both panels, a widely criticized decision: Not only did it suggest a false equivalency between “both sides” of a non-debatable issue, but canceling an anti-harassment workgroup because of harassment demonstrates a profoundly shallow understanding of the topic.

A long account of the process—written by Arthur Chu, one of the panel’s participants—highlights how SXSW’s Reddit-style upvote/downvote “panel picker” system was perfectly suited to GamerGate’s preferred modes of attack: comment-thread spamming, slander, and threats. More problematically, even before the controversy erupted, conference organizers barely paid attention to the warning signs, and refused to intervene. With Reddit under prolonged fire for cultivating a toxic community, it’s hard to imagine anyone thought borrowing its toolset would go swimmingly.

Ostensibly, the cancellations were due to security fears; there have been threats made on both sides; and to be sure SXSW has caught flak from the City of Austin over security costs. But Brianna Wu and others have disputed that violent threats justified the response. Cancelling panels was not going to make anyone happy.

Arthur Chu’s conclusion pretty much sums this up:

SXSW’s actions throughout this whole ordeal have been unprofessional, self-serving, and mendacious. They have never really taken seriously the idea of actively working to curb harassment or keep people safe; their one consistent motivation throughout has been the opposite—exploiting people’s abuse for drama and clicks.

And now the backlash over the panel cancellations has begun:

South by Southwest Interactive is facing a growing media backlash over its decision to nix a pair of panels on gaming and online harassment.

A day after organizers for the Austin-based media festival announced that it had canceled the panels after receiving threats of violence, BuzzFeed and Vox Media both said that they plan to withdraw from the annual event.

It looks like the anti-harassment panel “Level Up” may still happen, as of now.

Maybe some day, when Ken Burns makes a documentary about the Great Internet Civil War that is #GamerGate, we’ll look back at this as a moment when corporate America decided it couldn’t abide cowering to trolls.

I wouldn’t bet on it, but it’s nice to dream.

Pros Blow Prose on MoDo’s Beau No-Nos

I wrote earlier this month about Maureen’s Dowd in promoting Bidenmania. On one hand, I’m glad that questions are being asked about the column, but on the other, I’m annoyed because they’re the wrong questions. TPM:

But in an interview with the CBS show “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday night, Biden said that his son’s request wasn’t what it was made out to be.

“Beau all along thought that I should run and I could win,” Biden said. “But there was not what was sort of made out as kind of this Hollywood-esque thing that, at the last minute, Beau grabbed my hand and said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to run, like, win one for the Gipper.’ It wasn’t anything like that.”

Margaret Sullivan, the public editor for The New York Times, wrote on Tuesday that she looked into the matter after hearing from readers who wondered whether Biden’s comment conflicted with Dowd’s column. She asked Dowd to respond.

From Dowd’s email to Sullivan:

The Vice President confirmed on CBS that he often talked to Beau about running for president, and that Beau thought all along that his dad could run and win. Mr. Biden said what never occurred was a “Hollywood-esque thing that at the last minute” there was a deathbed request where Beau “grabbed my hand and said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to run.’ ”I never reported a last-minute deathbed scene where Beau grabbed his father’s hand. In fact, my column recounted a conversation they had seated at a table after Beau knew his prognosis was bad. He was terminally ill for some time.

Ultimately, Sullivan decided that Dowd was in the clear. But Sullivan wrote that the news staff took Dowd’s column “a step further — in fact, a step too far.”

Got that? Maureen Dowd is absolved because, to the extent anyone thought that her column portrayed a maudlin death-bed scene, that was a mischaracterization!

As I noted, the real problem is that, regardless of the exact details of the story, Maureen Dowd did her readers a dis-service by not being candid about the source of her information. Margaret Sullivan deals with that with hand-waving:

Opinion-side columnists have a lot of leeway, and they should. Ms. Dowd took full advantage of that freedom in this column by reporting something newsworthy without describing her source (though, frankly, it wasn’t hard to figure that out, given the paucity of choices)

Well, duh.

But if Dowd had been fully forthcoming about her sourcing, it probably would have spared the body politic quite a bit of Biden drama. The sub-text of Sullivan’s dismissive response is: “look readers, you should expect that our columnists have hidden agendas, and if you were fooled, it’s your own damn fault.

The Times shouldn’t get to dodge the hard questions about journalistic ethics by casting them as nontroversies over literal accuracy.

They’ll get away with it though.

They always do.

Boehner Does America One Last Solid

Sort of like crazy drunk Randy Quaid in Independence Day (played by crazy drunk Randy Quaid), outgoing Speaker of the House John Boehner appears to have saved the day by negotiating a budget-and-debt-ceiling agreement with the White House. Per CNN:

(CNN)Congressional leaders and the White House reached a major deal Monday to avoid a potential fiscal calamity, but not before many Republicans were left fuming that their party leadership had given too much away to their Democratic adversaries.

The agreement, which would raise domestic and defense spending by $80 billion and lift the national borrowing limit until March 2017, could be voted on by the House as soon as Wednesday — the same day the GOP is expected to nominate Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, to replace retiring Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, as House speaker. The deal prompted a tense session among House Republicans Monday night in the basement of the Capitol.

The final details were still being ironed out late into the night Monday. But the deal was the product of weeks of negotiations led by Boehner, who is furiously trying to take the divisive fiscal issues off the plate for Ryan before his successor takes office. If the deal passes, Ryan could have a clear path to do his job without the fiscal brinksmanship that damaged Boehner’s speakership.

Needless to say, the Tortilla Coasters are pissed that Boehner decided to shoot the hostage.

…hat-tip to my friend Lindsay for helping me keep my Quaids straight!

Jesus, Save Me From Your Followers!

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The Houston Press’s Jef Rouner, speaking as a parent, tells it like it is:

This is the scenario people opposed to the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance want me to believe is going to happen: my little girl, all pink eyeglasses, blond curls, and a sass level over 9,000, will need to use a public restroom at the park or a restaurant. Once in there she will be at the mercy of a transwoman, maybe even one with a penis, who will use the rights protected by HERO to… what? Pee within a certain amount of feet from her? Expose herself? Molest her? What diabolical she-penis monstrosity has the City unleashed on our powerless womenfolk?

I’ve got to tell you I know a fair amount of trans folks, and the idea of any of them in the bathroom with my daughter scares me way less than the thought of someone who honestly holds these beliefs being in there with her does.

I’ve got to tell you I know a fair amount of trans folks, and the idea of any of them in the bathroom with my daughter scares me way less than the thought of someone who honestly holds these beliefs being in there with her does.

First of all, let’s get something out of the way that shouldn’t need saying: exposing yourself to people in public, physically molesting or assaulting them, and raping them, will still be illegal with HERO. Whether the perpetrator is another child, a 60-year-old grandmother, or a trans person is irrelevant.

Second, I researched HERO extensively last year in a cover story for the Houston Press, and among the many things I found out in my investigation was that lists of trans people caught abusing similar ordinances to expose themselves in public were generally bullshit. Most lists are compiled by the Family Research Council and then spread through the media by regular Fox correspondent Todd Starnes without any apparent fact-checking. Equal rights ordinances that include protection for gender identity do not lead to any verifiable uptick of sex crimes involving women and bathrooms. They just don’t.

Rouner notes that anti-HERO gender-policing might make it harder for parents to help their children in public restrooms, and further notes that gender-policing is often used to harass cis-gender people as well:

Second, and this is the one that bothers me the most, what’s to stop those same absolutists from endangering my wife and daughter? I mean, if someone is dead set on keeping penises out of the female restroom and there’s no inherent legal protection in place for gender identity (note: cis is also a gender identity) what’s to stop that person from demanding my wife, or even my daughter, prove she doesn’t have a penis? Yes, my wife and daughter are both very girly-girls that fit nicely into the presumed feminine ideal of the American mindset, but so do lots of transwomen. Since the whole idea behind the fear is that dicks are infiltrating “undercover”, presumably all it would take is some yokel’s reasonable doubt to end up with the women I love searched for their secret perverted attack dongs. Don’t think for a second this doesn’t already happen.

Given the choice between an imaginary wave of trans predators or an empowered lot of bigots using the law to police gender and gender identity at their whim, I know which one I feel safer sending my kid into. She’ll need HERO in her future far more than she’ll need outdated fear-mongering. One day she may be pregnant, or a veteran, or disabled, or hopefully old, and HERO looks out for all those people. Who do opponents of HERO look out for? The sort of folk that feel they have a right to judge where you can go by your genitals. As far as I’m concerned that makes them as trustworthy as witch-hunters stripping women to search for the devil’s mark, and I prefer those people as far from me and mine as possible.

As Rouner’s citations make clear – when equal-rights protections are put into place, this doesn’t cause men to “dress up” so that they can “infiltrate” bathrooms. Austin, which has a trans-inclusive public accommodations law, has never had a problem with it. Nationally, there are exactly zero cases of this.

But, when you empower bigots, things can get ugly. In addition to the Detroit case that Rouner cites, there was of course the infamous Astrodome incident, this case in Mississippi, and this personal story.

Because cisgender and non-transgender-non-gender-conforming women are so often targeted by errant transphobia, it is obvious that any self-described feminist or LGBT ally who would oppose HERO is a special kind of stupid.

The thing is, none of this humiliating gender-policing would be legal even if Proposition 1 fails to pass. It’s the flip-side of the argument ( Rouner made earlier) that it will still be illegal to harass people in bathrooms even if you let transgender people pee.

But I think Jef Rouner does make a good point, although it’s as much subtext-as-text. To wit: the HERO debate is largely about power. Specifically, the power of transphobes and the religious right to dictate the terms of social behavior.

Don’t believe me? Just look at the mentality of anti-HERO big-wigs like Steve Hotze, who projects his totalitarian fantasies onto his opponents:

“Just like there was a communist manifesto, there’s a homosexual manifesto,” Hotze said. “The hackles will stand up on the back of your neck when you see what they have planned.”

Copies of the manifesto were sitting on every seat in the audience, although the copies Hotze distributed omitted the first line of the original, which establishes the text as a “cruel fantasy.” The “manifesto” is a satirical essay, originally written in 1987, a strange and hilarious imagining of a world in which gay men reign as oppressors over lowly straights.

“Your sons shall become our minions and do our bidding,” reads one line. “All churches who condemn us will be closed. Our only gods are handsome young men. We adhere to a cult of beauty,” the manifesto continues, concluding after many paragraphs: “Tremble, hetero swine, when we appear before you without our masks.” A legally required disclosure immediately beneath Hotze’s version reads “Reprinted and Paid for by Campaign For Texas Families PAC.”

He’s not the only one. Witness the freak-out last year when sermons (speeches which are intended to be preached to the whole world and are not exactly “private”) were subpoenaed:

  • From Andy Woods — “The recent actions of the Houston city government surrounding its passage and protection of HERO (‘Houston Equal Rights Ordinance’) borders on what one would expect of a third world banana republic dictatorship rather than what we would expect to find in the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
  • Mollie Hemingway — “totalitarianism of extremist wings of the gay rights movement.”
  • Kathy Howard — “So let’s just call this thing what it is. Christian persecution. Right here in the good ‘ole USA. Right here in the Lone Star State.”

And look how, in this current campaign, the antis are claiming that HERO constitutes “religious persecution” when in fact the ordinance would protect religion:

  • Charles Blain — “There is no doubt the mayor will use any political capital left during her term’s remaining six months to campaign hard to ensure that voters uphold HERO and her practice of religious persecution.”
  • Dave Wilson — “It was not rooted in eternal law and natural law. They circumvented the will of the people, refused to let people vote, violated the First Amendment, threatened our religious freedom, refused to follow man’s law and they violated God’s law.”
  • Ed Young — “Those of us who believe men should use men’s facilities and women should use women’s facilities—we will be discriminated against.”

Look at their own words! The opponents of Proposition One are terribly, terribly afraid of losing power — of being “persecuted” or “oppressed” or “discriminated against” — even though the law they are opposing expressly prohibits religious bias! One must conclude that either they have, collectively, lost their minds, or that what they are really saying is that they feel entitled to hold a monopoly on power, and cannot fathom having to share it with others.

Do you really want people like that, people so entitled and yet so insecure, to win this election? And do you think, if they win, that they won’t feel empowered – nay, obligated! – to leverage their newly-vindicated grip on power?

To be sure, I do not think that these folks will “go gently into the night” if HERO passes. I think they will obstruct and whine and pout. They will probably try to get the Supreme Court of Texas to throw it out, again (they do have a pretty good track record in court; it helps when the judges are politically-beholden to you).

Nevertheless, having a majority of Houston voters, on record, opposing them, ought to take a little bit of the wind out of their sails. And that, really, would be in everyone’s best interests.

On a related note, Bob McNair has walked back his donation to Campaign For Houston (the anti-HERO group). So we can go back to resenting him only for the incompetence of the Texans. Thanks a lot, Bob!

The New Normal?

As we recover from a rain-soaked weekend here in Austin, it’s worth noting how remarkable the preceding 150 days (give or take) of mini-drought have been, as well as the major floods that have book-ended it.

In an average year in Austin, we’d expect about 6.6 inches of rain in July, August and September. It’s undoubtedly a dry part of the year, but this year was extraordinary: The entire month of rain got only a trace amount of rain, and August and September together were slightly over 2 inches.

Note, that we are actually likely to finish about 20 inches above normal for the entire year due to a wet winter, spring and fall. So this year’s summer drought sticks out like a sore thumb. Note that the state was basically drought-free in May; by October 20th, this is what the state drought map looked like (darker colors = more extreme drought).

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For those of us suffering through the bone-dry heat of this year’s Texas summer, it was of course no surprise when wildfires broke out, again, in Bastrop County, just to our southeast.

The Texas Observer takes note of this, and argues that this is representative of the “new normal” of extreme summer drought in Central Texas, thanks to climate change:

Experts say wildfires in Bastrop County are happening with greater frequency and intensity — a troubling trend for an area that’s grown more than 30 percent since 2000. A combination of factors is at work, they say. Rising temperatures and worsening drought — effects of climate change — are exacerbating natural conditions that make Texas prone to wildfires.

Making matters worse is population growth among the pines. Not only does more people mean more lives and property at risk; it also means that fire prevention and mitigation becomes more challenging. The task of removing excess brush, grass and trees — the fuel for wildfires — falls in large part to increasing number of individual landowners, requiring a tremendous amount of coordination and expense.

According to the Texas Forest Service, only one fire burned more than 5,000 acres from 1985 to 2000. But in the last 15 years, Texas has seen fires of that size almost every year. In 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2011, there were 10 or more fires that damaged more than 5,000 acres.

“We see our rainfall patterns shifting and increasing risk of higher temperatures, which exacerbate our already frequent dry conditions,” Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, wrote in an email to the Observer. “Texas has always been vulnerable to wildfires. With our rapidly expanding population, and our changing climate, the risks posed by wildfire are not going away any time soon.”

Fire has always been a natural hazard in Texas, but an apparent increase in extreme dry periods followed by extreme wet periods has exacerbated the problem. Wet growing seasons fuel lots of plant growth and then drought kills off the vegetation.

“There’s no checks and balances,” said Justice Jones, manager of the Wildlife Fire Mitigation division of the Austin Fire Department. “Fuel grows, it dies, and it waits for the wildfire season.”

In 2011, the state’s worst single-year drought contributed to the Bastrop County Complex Fire. This year, a wet spring and early summer was followed by a very dry spell that plunged the Bastrop area into a severe drought, said state climatologist John Nielson-Gammon. For the past 110 days, Smithville has had just 1.19 inches of rain, eight times less than the average amount  and the lowest ever recorded for that time period.

I hope to buy a home in the near future, and I am seriously considering moving to Bastrop County because it is close to Austin without being “too close” to urban blight. However, the increasing wildfire threat is already playing havoc on property values and insurance rates:

According to a KXAN Investigates analysis of Bastrop Central Appraisal District records, property market values dropped by nearly 35 percent in the fire area between 2011 and 2012. By 2015, the values had improved, but were still below 2011 levels by about four percent.

Majors fires can also impact other areas, such as insurance.

“You can’t have a catastrophe like you had in Bastrop where you had $400 million in losses and 1,600 homes destroyed with it not having some effect on homeowner insurance rates, specifically in Bastrop County,” said Mark Hanna, a spokesperson for the Insurance Council of Texas.

To add insult to injury, the rains this weekend (which might finally put out the drought) caused flooding that is already expected to cost billions of dollars.