2011 Texas Wildfires: Two Perspectives

Issue 12 and Volume 6.

When it comes to wildland/urban interface (WUI) fires and wildland fires, 2011 will go down in the history books as one of the worst years on record for the state of Texas. According to media reports, at one point in the year, fire spread from one end of the state to the other. On December 21, 2010, Texas Governor Rick Perry declared a State of Disaster and renewed the proclamation every month in 2011. By July, the Texas Forest Service (TFS) had responded to a total of 12,512 fires. And by Sept. 6, Texas had suffered through 294 consecutive days of wildfires. At that time, the total acreage of grass, scrub and forest burned in the United States had reached 7.2 million—almost half of which was located in Texas.

With crews heavily fatigued, resources pushed to their limit, persistent high winds and the worst drought conditions since the 1950s, it’s highly unlikely that there is a single department left in the state that hasn’t been directly involved in and/or affected by the extreme wildfire activity. In this article, I’ll take a look at two fire agencies in Texas and their responses to some of the WUI/wildfires that have ravaged their state.

The TFS Responds to the PK Complex
The stage was set for major wildfire activity in Texas by November 2010, after west Texas received a significant amount of rainfall, which allowed fuels to grow. Fires broke out in the fall, but by mid-November, activity had increased significantly. “Up until Nov. 15, the TFS was able to handle the situation with our internal resources,” says Paul Hannemann, department head of incident response for the TFS and a 36-year veteran of the fire service. “But on that day, we requested aerial assistance. Then on Nov. 22, we stood up a command post in Merkel, about 15 miles west of Abilene. We started calling outside resources, predominantly federal, from all over the nation.”

Due to severe drought conditions, fire activity in west Texas remained heavy and constant. The TFS, which divides the state into seven branches, managed responses in each branch via coordinators. But the level of activity changed dramatically again in April when fire broke out in the Davis Mountains of west Texas. “On April 9, we had a fire out on the Davis Mountains, then a house fire down in Marfa started a wildland fire,” Hannemann says. “That fire moved 12 miles in two hours—then it moved 28 miles in 12 hours and burned through the community of Fort Davis. Our command post couldn’t handle that fire and all the other fires going on, so we ordered another national incident management team [IMT] and mobilized a lot of stuff.” Dozens of homes were lost in that fire, but an even larger challenge lay just ahead.

On April 12, the Possum Kingdom Lake Fire (or PK Complex) ignited near Fort Worth. The lightning-caused fires created an immense, destructive firestorm that pushed firefighting resources to their limit. Another IMT was deployed to try to gain control of the incident, but there weren’t enough firefighters on hand to protect all the homes that were in the fire’s path. Firefighters battling the blaze reported flame heights of 100 feet. Both police and firefighters went door-to-door to ensure that people had evacuated. Ultimately, the PK Complex burned more than 140,000 acres and destroyed 166 homes and two churches. Six hundred additional homes were threatened.  

One major reason for the high levels of destruction and fire spread of the PK Complex: high winds, which were a shared problem among many of the fires that broke out across Texas in 2011. “We had dry heat, plus a wind event,” Hannemann explains. “You don’t stop that type of a fire; you have to wait for the high winds to die down so you can make a stop on it.” Once the winds died down, air resources were deployed, but limited. “We had to prioritize where to put aircraft,” Hannemann explains. “Homes and life safety were a priority, but we only had [a finite] amount of aircraft, so you have to determine which fires can use the aircraft. If we can use something to try to stop a house from burning down, that’s what we’ll do.” Another major reason for the outbreak of fires was the fuel model, which includes very flashy fuels, such as juniper and cedar.  

In all, 450 firefighters fought the PK Complex, which created specific challenges for the TFS, because most of the wildland in Texas is privately owned; only 2 percent of the land in Texas is owned by the government. But not all states operate in this manner. “[On these fires], it’s important for us to understand how to deal with personnel when bringing them in from out of state and they’re not used to dealing with fire on private property,” Hannemann explains. “That added a bit of complexity to the situation. So we need to make sure that liaisons are working with our firefighters to help them understand, and to get the landowners involved in the discussion too.  

“We also need to remember local knowledge,” Hannemann adds. “Talk to that rancher or local emergency responder so they can give you their help.”  

Austin Responds to the Pinnacle Fire
While the TFS was battling the PK Complex and other fires across Texas, the Austin Fire Department (AFD) had its hands full with a fire much smaller in size, but equally as devastating to the community involved. Like the PK Complex, the Pinnacle Fire began in April. The initially small grass fire, located in a 200-acre, heavily wooded area, quickly transformed into a major WUI fire that ultimately required 25–35 apparatus, including bulldozers and C-130s that dropped retardant on the city of Austin—something that has never happened before, explains Matt Cox, captain with the AFD. “It started as a normal little grass fire, then it quickly grew into a house fire,” he recalls. “It went up a hill and over a ridge that was occupied by approximately 30 homes. It destroyed four homes there, then spread down into a valley and destroyed six or seven more homes. It was the biggest fire in our history in terms of the number of threatened residents and acreage burned.”

Taxing the AFD’s operational systems was not only the fact that the Pinnacle Fire was the first true WUI fire they had faced, but they also had to deal with three separate theaters of response: a brush branch, a branch that covered areas overrun by fire and a third branch that dealt with fires lit by embers. “We had three different types of fires, so we tried to incorporate all we’ve learned these past years on how to mitigate them,” Cox says. “We had complements equal to five alarms, and the fire caused $5 million in damage, so for us it was really, really big.”

Despite the amount of damage, the fire had positive effects on the AFD. “After the Pinnacle Fire, we were real quick to send a lot of people to any grass fire that occurred,” Cox says. “In fact, we kind of changed our call types and alarm configurations to account for getting people there more quickly.”

The AFD has also established a trigger point for when to staff brush trucks on high-fire days, and they’ve made some major changes to their public education and outreach programs. AFD operations companies first went door-to-door hanging flyers that informed residents about the simple steps they could take to protect their homes from wildfires. But after the Pinnacle Fire, the public wanted more. “We started holding town hall meetings with homeowners’ associations and neighborhoods that were in and around the WUI,” explains Josh Portie, an AFD lieutenant tasked with jumpstarting the department’s new outreach program. “We started working with them on what they could do in their own yards to protect them.”

The AFD researched and implemented the Firewise Program as well as the IAFC’s Ready, Set, Go! (RSG) Program to help keep residents informed and well prepared. “So far, we have more than two dozen meetings that have either already taken place or are planned, and those involve multiple neighborhoods,” Portie says. “And we try to send out the RSG booklet electronically beforehand so people have access to it even if they don’t make it to the meeting. Electronic messages have definitely been our friend. We’ve definitely started to reach into the masses.”

The new program found success quickly, as the AFD noticed that fuels that could have easily burned weren’t burning. “The landscape is dry, but we’re not having huge fires with the same frequency,” Portie says. “That may be just us here in central Texas, but I attribute that to public education. We still have fires of a few hundred acres that are burning, but we’re not having the magnitude that I would expect.”

Devastation in Bastrop County
The Pinnacle Fire, the PK Complex and other fires wreaked havoc on the state of Texas, causing the deaths of two volunteer firefighters—Elias Jaquez and Gregory Simmons. By late August/early September, some may have thought the situation in Texas couldn’t get any worse. But on Sept. 4, fire struck Bastrop County in southeastern Texas, and once again swept through bone-dry parts of Texas. Spurred by high winds from Tropical Storm Lee, the Bastrop County Complex went uncontained for days, forcing thousands to evacuate and ultimately decimating the town of Bastrop. That same week, more than 180 additional fires ignited in the state of Texas. Firefighting resources were at their limit. By Sept. 30, the Bastrop County Complex had destroyed 1,645 homes, burned 34,068 acres and killed two people. This fire is now the most destructive wildfire in Texas history.

Given the enormity of the fire situation in Texas, it’s obvious that the WUI issue will not only persist, but if the fire service isn’t properly trained on terrain, weather patterns, fuel types/loads, alternative extinguishing agents, etc., it will worsen exponentially. “We’ve got to be prepared for wildland fires because there’s more now,” Cox notes. “Back in the old days, there were just grass fires with no homes.”

Hannemann adds, “Remember that unlike the concrete jungles we live in now, there are no confined spaces out there, and fuel is everywhere. You’ve got an incident out [in open space] and there’s no break. It’s just continuous fuel.”

But in the current “do more with less” atmosphere, devoting more time and effort to the WUI issue will be a challenge for many departments and agencies. One solution may be as simple as increased cooperation. “I’ve noticed very good cooperation,” Cox says. “On the Marfa Fire to the north, we were the Marfa Fire Department for a few weeks while the actual Marfa Fire Department went out and fought the wildfire in their area. We’ve got 13 different departments in our county, and we each go out and help each other. I’ve never seen that spirit of cooperation before.”

Command on the Wheels
A look at the Parker County, Texas, mobile command unit

Shawn Scott, fire marshal/emergency management coordinator for Parker County, Texas, has worked with communications on many of the 2011 Texas WUI/wildland fires, including the PK Complex. FireRescue caught up with him a few months ago to discuss how his mobile command center is advancing communications on major WUI/wildland fires.

FireRescue: What are some of the challenges to effective communications that you’ve experienced?
Shawn Scott: Communications is always at the top of the list of things that need to be improved. We have a tremendous amount of technology that’s available to us, but we still have different terminology that’s used, and believe it or not, attitudes become a problem as well. There will be someone who says, “He doesn’t know what he’s doing so I don’t want to talk to him,” so there’s a communications breakdown. It’s not necessarily a technology issue.  

FRM: Like everything else, the fire service has been greatly affected by changes in technology. Before digital and web technology became popular, what were your communications capabilities?
SS: When I first came to Parker County, you typically had a command post out of the back of a truck, or on the hood of a truck, trying to hold maps down in the wind or sitting inside the cab of someone’s truck. So it was difficult to get information in and out, because you couldn’t break up the information. Everything was in the same pot, which reduced command and control. The biggest solution given to us by the mobile command post was that everyone was able to get inside the same room and could use satellite photos to check everything.

FRM: It sounds like you’ve taken quite a technological leap in terms of your capabilities. What does the mobile command post look like now?
SS: Our truck is a 40-foot-long independent chassis. We have radios that allow us to break up an area into different divisions, an AC-1000 that allows us to attach different frequency bands together, a large Smartboard on the back of the unit, as well as a 50′ mast on the outside so we can put different types of antennas on the back. We also have a satellite dish on top of the unit that shares bandwidth with the state of Texas, a Cisco phone system that allows us to run at least 25 simultaneous phone calls, and everything is powered by an independent generator.
And if there’s not enough room in the truck, we can set up our deployable office near the truck or up to 300 feet away from the truck. The office is equipped with WiFi and has the same data links and telephone network all in the same spot.

FRM: How did your mobile command center improve/enhance/modify your capabilities on the WUI/wildfires that have occurred this year in Texas? How did they affect your operations in the WUI?
SS: The biggest thing is the data capabilities. Being able to bring satellite photos in and show commanders visual representations of where subdivisions are or where a big open field is—that type of information you can’t get off a laptop necessarily, and it would take you a while with an air card. But we can get it in seconds, and we have a monitor on the side of the truck so we can do a briefing on the side of the truck and give commanders real-time information on what they’re seeing. Incident commanders can also give us information from the field, and we can take that information and draw a line on our map to indicate where progress has been made and which subdivisions are being threatened.

FRM: How does Motorola fit into your mobile command center?
SS: For our communications, the backbone is Motorola. Out of 4,000 radios on the system, 99.9 percent of them are Motorola. The bottom line is they work when we need them to; we don’t have any trouble. And we’ve had a pretty good partnership with them when it comes to communications within our county. The big thing too is that they have great hardware and equipment, but they also have great technical support. I can get great support with diagnosing a problem remotely, and their assistance is invaluable.

FRM: So on a given day during a large incident, what would the inside of your mobile command center look like?
SS: On the PK Complex, my team was in the truck, but at one point I stopped by. Inside, there were maps hanging all over the walls and white boards with different notes and frequencies all over. My team looked at me and said, “We got it!” So I said “I’m leaving!” You don’t realize how much you’ll use something like that until you have it. It was difficult at first to get some people on board with using it, but now I can’t imagine going the other direction and not having it available.