On the afternoon of April 9, 2011, a house caught fire just off of Highway 90, two miles west of the small town of Marfa, Texas. Strong winds blew the flames across the highway, and onto cattle pastureland. From there, the wildfire moved quickly north towards Fort Davis, consuming livestock and homes in its path.
Within the first two days of the fire, 50 homes were lost, mostly in and around Fort Davis, Texas. This number is shocking when considering the town’s population is about 1,000.
From the beginning, KRTS Marfa Public Radio, the public radio station for the region, was one step ahead of the blaze, announcing evacuation orders and alerting area residents to where the fire was headed, both on-the-air and on the station’s website and social media. The station is operated by staff of only three, plus volunteers and an occasional intern.
The Rock House Fire burned for almost three weeks and destroyed over 300,000 acres. It remains the largest grassland wildfire in Texas history.
The station’s comprehensive coverage of what became to be known as the Rock House Fire was cited as “life saving” by local residents, along with state and national media, including The New York Times and NPR. Even its social media outreach was cited nationally.
While this audio collection focuses on the first days of the fire, KRTS Marfa Public Radio continued its coverage daily throughout the long ordeal: alerting residents of flare ups, road closures, and containment efforts.
The public response was overwhelming. Here is a short sample of the comments the station received from area residents:
“Your coverage of the Fort Davis fire is outstanding! By far the most up-to-date and comprehensive reporting in the area.” – Peg and Dave Mattison, Fort Davis
“I cannot thank you enough for being the go-to place concerning the recent wildfire. We have remained glued to your broadcast and really appreciate the effort taken to keep the Far West informed!” David and Kathleen Walstrom, San Antonio
“I finally looked at inciweb, the Texas Forest Service’s fire report site. Their last report on the Rock House fire was posted two days ago. You guys are WAY ahead of them. You are the only consistently reliable source of information we here in Fort Davis have had about the fire. If I were giving out whatever radio’s equivalent of a Pulitzer is, I’d give one to all three of you. Thanks for your dedication and your energy.” – Lonn Taylor, Fort Davis
The station remains dedicated to the service of residents in this sparsely populated area.
The Big Bend region of Far West Texas consists of many rural communities, often 20-30 miles apart. KRTS Marfa Public Radio is a unifying news, information, and entertainment source for the entire region. Before the launch of Marfa Public Radio, there was no region-wide, real-time daily media outlet.
In fact, just a few years ago, the Big Bend region was one of the largest geographic regions in American not served by a public radio station.