Miracle On Texas Highway 71

Robert M. Winston details the ways in which the dedication, courage and training of emergency responders helped avert a tragedy.


The following account is about an unusual wildland/urban interface (W/UI) fire incident that occurred on Monday, Aug. 13, 2001, at approximately 2:25 P.M. along a stretch of Texas Highway 71 between Bastrop and Smithville (Heart of The Pines), Texas. The "fire weather" was: temperature 104 degrees...


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The following account is about an unusual wildland/urban interface (W/UI) fire incident that occurred on Monday, Aug. 13, 2001, at approximately 2:25 P.M. along a stretch of Texas Highway 71 between Bastrop and Smithville (Heart of The Pines), Texas. The "fire weather" was: temperature 104 degrees Fahrenheit; humidity 10%; winds southeasterly at 10 mph and gusting to 20 mph. No precipitation had fallen in 45 days.

The Bastrop County Commissioners had approved an outdoor burning ban beginning that day. Mike Fisher, past Bastrop City fire chief and emergency management coordinator, said residents have been "extraordinarily cautious with outdoor burning during the current hot and dry spell. But, conditions are ripe for a dangerous wildfire to break out, and many citizens are now calling for a burn ban."

Just after 2 P.M., an elderly woman put trash into a barrel in her back yard and set the trash on fire. She went inside her home, leaving the burning trash unattended. It was not long before burning embers were flying out of the barrel and landing on dry vegetation. The fire spread into heavier dry fuels and upwards into the crowns of 70-foot-tall Loblolly pine trees. A W/UI fire had begun that had the potential of producing catastrophic damage. It was named "The Alum Creek Fire."

What occurred during the initial phase of this incident can be best described as life threatening, chaotic and in the final analysis, miraculous. Some of the emergency response personnel who worked this fire incident have sent me their narratives explaining what they witnessed, how they functioned under unusually stressful conditions, and what occurs when people train and work together and care about one another. Here are excerpts from their accounts.

District Chief James Bennett, City of Bastrop Fire Department: During my response to the scene, I was watching the smoke column that seemed to be growing at a rapid pace. When I arrived in the area, I noticed that the fire was burning in close proximity to two homes and torching in a large stand of trees.

I drove past the fire to ascertain total acreage involved and to see if any other homes were being threatened. I doubled back and saw that a Texas Forest Service (TFS) engine and its crew were protecting structures to the south side of the fire. I then met with TFS Regional Fire Coordinator (RFC) Rich Gray to develop an attack strategy. RFC Gray decided to request two Black Hawk helicopters, from the Texas Air National Guard, for water-dropping operations to protect the 10 homes that were the most threatened by the growing wildland fire. I then made several attempts to notify Bastrop County Dispatch about the traffic conditions and my concerns about it.

Chief Deputy Sheriff Ronnie Duncan called me via radio and advised me that he was responding. He inquired as to what I needed for additional traffic control from his office. I advised him that the traffic on Highway 71 was all over us and that we needed the highway closed.

I then met RFC Gray at the rear of his TFS truck. Before we had time to make another statement, I heard the loud screeching of tires. I looked up and saw the rear of a dark-colored pickup truck coming our way, then I heard a loud crash and I felt myself hitting the highway's pavement. I was able to reach my portable radio and that's when I saw the front of the TFS truck and saw an arm hanging out of the window of the pick-up truck. The arm looked lifeless.

I contacted, via radio, the dispatch center and advised them that a serious motor vehicle accident had just occurred at the fire scene. I then saw Karen Allender, a TFS seasonal employee, attempting to exit the damaged TFS truck. She was yelling for RFC Gray. I went over to RFC Gray. He was bleeding from the head, but was conscious. I tried to talk to him, but he was unresponsive.

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