Central Texas burns, Oak Hill on edge

September 8, 2011  

firechiefGaryWarren

Oak Hill residents reacted with concern and fear as wildfires burned thousands of acres and hundreds of homes over the Labor Day weekend. The Oak Hill Fire Department staffed up to protect its local turf, and went into extended firefighting action first in Pflugerville, then west of Oak Hill near the Pedernales.

On Sunday evening, Oak Hill residents could see and smell the smoke hanging in the air, and some went into fire drill mode, packing their cars to evacuate if necessary. The next day, smoke was visible to the east, south and west, and local residents were seen standing in the streets pointing at the smoke, perhaps wondering just how close the fire was getting, or if some new fire had erupted close by.

As bad as the April 17 Oak Hill fire was — with 100 acres burned, 11 homes destroyed and 10 damaged — the magnitude of that fire pales compared to the losses suffered in the past week. The Oak Hill fire department has been in the thick of it, deployed mostly to fight the Pedernales Bend fire.

On Saturday, September 3, the National Weather Service issued an ominous “red flag” warning as it cautioned that dry, gusty winds could cause any fire to spread rapidly (much like the conditions seen on April 17). On Sunday, the combination of sustained high temperatures, the ongoing drought and dry, gusty winds created a recipe for fire disaster, the likes of which local firefighters have never seen. The worst of many fires that started over the weekend, the Bastrop County Complex fire, has thus far burned 34,000 acres and destroyed 785 homes. Two people have thus far died in that fire. Officials have given no information about the victims other than stating they were not firefighters.

Other local weekend fires include:

  • Pedernales Bend: 6500 acres, 67 homes destroyed
  • Steiner Ranch: 125 acres, 35 homes destroyed, 30 homes damaged
  • Bastrop Union Chapel Fire: 800 acres, 27 homes destroyed
  • Leander: 300 acres, 11 homes destroyed, 8 homes damaged

The first fire on Sunday brought local fire services to Pflugerville where firefighters were able to keep the 325-acre blaze away from structures. The day started well, but it would soon get worse. Much worse. For weeks the Central Texas landscape has given the illusion of an early fall, when in reality those pretty orange leaves signify dying trees. Two fires that started Sunday near Bastrop State Park spread quickly through the dry Loblolly Pines. Winds whipped the fires into a frenzy, resulting in a conflagration of historic proportions.

By Tuesday, only 100 acres of the 6,000-acre Bastrop state park remained unburned. Texas Parks and Wildlife personnel fought feverishly to save several buildings erected in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corp. At this writing they appear to have been largely successful.

Fire Chief Gary Warren of the Oak Hill and Westlake fire departments told the Gazette: “Oak Hill and Westlake resources have been involved, first in the Pflugerville fire and then almost completely in the Pedernales fire for the last three days. I personally was at the County Joint Operations Center all of Sunday until midnight and then most of the day and all night Monday at the Pedernales Command Post.”

The Oak Hill and Westlake fire departments used Austin resources and employees working overtime to cover the district while also fighting the fires in Pflugerville and Pedernales. On Monday, staffing increased to 30 percent above normal capacity to concentrate on fighting the Pedernales fire.

Chief Warren said: “We will continue to send extra resources to help at area fires for as long as they need us, but we are making sure to take care of our own district first. Staffing increases for both Oak Hill and Westlake fire departments are at about 30% over our normal staffing.”

The Austin Fire Department (AFD) needed just 25 additional firefighters during the weekend as it assisted with the fire emergencies occurring largely around Austin’s perimeter. AFD limited responses to those determined to be true emergencies to ensure adequate availability.

Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr was out of state during the fire, opting not to cut short her golfing vacation in Colorado. Her command staff said they supported this decision because little was happening within the city limits. It would appear AFD personnel was able to capably handle the fire operations in her stead.

Asked about state resource availability during the weekend fires, Chief Warren said, “There are very few state resources available right now. Nonetheless, a wildland strike team was assigned to the Pedernales fire. Other than that, all other state resources are committed and not available.”

While reports indicate some Steiner Ranch residents decried the lack of aerial support at that fire, the problem may have stemmed from prior commitment to the larger Bastrop fires. Chief Warren reported during the fires that while he didn’t have the larger water- or retardant-dropping planes at his disposal, he did have smaller air support: “Aerial support has been non-existent except for Starflight helicopters. Almost all air resources are dedicated to the Bastrop fire and will be for some time in the future. Lack of adequate resources for fire suppression is another reason people should not decide to remain when evacuation notices have been issued.”

Oak Hill residents were, thankfully, spared from this round of fires. Nonetheless, many prepared for a possible evacuation.

Deb Erlanson of Circle Drive reported that she and her husband, Oscar, had their cars packed Sunday night in case the winds shifted and brought the Pedernales Bend fire in their direction.

Dwain Rogers of the New Villages at Western Oaks also had his cars packed. He said, “We packed up both cars and left them in the driveway. With two daughters and three dogs, there would not be time to get everything put together on short notice. We were not concerned that our home was in imminent danger from the existing fires, but rather feared a new fire would spring up close by and leave us little time to evacuate.”

Laura Faulk of GK Beckett Estates said she was concerned. Her neighborhood has been working on having an AFD “Fire Wise” presentation given to the community so the residents can be better prepared in case of fire. She said, “All our lots are an acre or more and we have many natural areas that are now full of dry vegetation. It’s scary. This morning, after watching the news of all the fires around us, I took pictures of almost everything in our house and garage and made a list of things to grab if we were suddenly evacuated. We have not watered our front yard much this summer, except to keep the trees alive, and were about to quit watering the back, but decided to continue just to keep a little of the grass green. I don’t know if that will help with the fire danger or not but we are trying. I even thought of watering the roof but haven’t yet!”

Local businesses are offering help where they can. U-Haul has offered 30 days of free storage to wildfire victims. Dell Children’s Hospital has offered free food and showers to emergency personnel fighting fires. Oak Hill’s own Canine Center for Training and Behavior has offered help, too. The staff has offered to place pets, find temporary boarding or offer a calm place to relax, take a shower and wash clothes. For more information call the Canine Center at 512-721-8496.

While fire officials appear to be getting a handle on most of the fires, Chief Warren cautions that the danger persists. He said, “Take all public warnings very seriously. I know it can happen because it worked for reducing fires caused by fireworks on the Fourth of July. The next important thing I think people should take seriously is any calls for evacuations in a neighborhood. Far too many people are ignoring calls for evacuation and are taking a very serious risk with their lives. If they stay behind, they will be in an area where there are very few other people to help them if things go really bad and fire response units will have no knowledge of their whereabouts. Fire behavior is extreme right now. That means you will not be able to predict how deadly the approaching fire will be when it gets to you.”

 


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