Miracle On Texas Highway 71

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.

I saw that a deputy sheriff had closed the highway, and that prevented any other traffic from further endangering the firefighters at the scene. Fire crews were starting to arrive on scene, as were ambulances. Bastrop Fire Chief Mike Norman arrived on scene and I gave him a briefing of conditions. He took a look at me, removed the radio from my hand and had me go to one of the ambulances.

My mother-in-law (Jean Norman) came over to me to see how I was doing. I asked her to contact my wife Michelle, who is also a Bastrop firefighter, and tell her that I was OK. I was transported to the hospital. My injuries were a cracked rib, sprained ankle and major bruising. Later, Michelle arrived and I insisted that she take me back to the fire scene. I had to know if Rich Gray was OK and if the fire was under control. She did take me back and the fire was under control with no loss of homes. I felt better knowing that, but I was still concerned about my friend and colleague Rich Gray.

Chief Mike Norman, Bastrop City Fire Department: The Bastrop County Fire Protection District is made up of 10 rural and three municipal volunteer fire departments, one inmate crew from a federal correctional institute and the regional headquarters of the Texas Forest Service that provides wildland fire suppression to the county.

I was working at my "other job" when the call came in over the radio alerting the Heart of the Pines Volunteer Fire Depart-ment that they had a fire in progress. I looked out a window and could see the plume of growing smoke. I then contacted my son-in-law, District Chief James Bennett, to advise him to get ready to roll to the scene.

I listened to the fire radio traffic. I heard RFC Rich Gray giving a size-up of the fire and he ordered the Black Hawks to the fire for water-dropping operations. Rich's radio traffic was suddenly interrupted by "priority" city radio traffic. A firefighter was giving a report that there had been a major MVA and to send help. He followed up by reporting that this was an auto-vs.-pedestrian MVA and that there were "firefighters down!"

I responded. As I crested the last hill on the road to the fire, I saw law enforcement vehicles, fire apparatus, ambulances and people everywhere. Three persons were on the ground surrounded by EMS personnel. I saw DFC Bennett standing in the road holding his ribs, in shock. I determined he was injured, badly, and turned him over to EMS. He gave me a briefing and size-up of the scene.

Chief Deputy Sheriff Ronnie Duncan was on scene and told me that he would handle the air operations with the Black Hawk helicopters and incoming med choppers.

I became the IC (incident commander) and began to organize the scene for water supply, fire ops, traffic/crowd control, EMS and rehab. I received a radio report from the north sector - that was my daughter and DFC Bennett's wife, Firefighter Michelle Bennett. She reported that the fire had jumped a dozer plow line and was in danger of being overrun by the fire. I ordered that the choppers' first drop was to be on the north sector.

Some of the first-in personnel were in a shocked, disbelieving emotional state because of the MVA and their close relationships with the injured firefighters. Not to mention that there were other severely injured civilians in the pickup truck that collided with the TFS truck. Some were in tears with others just holding them back. Those who had actually witnessed the MVA were having the most difficult time with emotions.

The news media started to arrive in numbers. A news chopper also arrived and was flying the scene. Firefighter Susan Long, who had seen the collision and gave initial EMS to Gray, was upset. She needed to be elsewhere. I asked if she could handle the news media and if she could handle the task of the public information officer (PIO). Susan pulled her shoulders back, put on her hard hat, went to be on TV and dealt very professionally with the news media.

Bastrop Fire Captain Richard Norman arrived on scene and I ordered him to perform a recon mission and devise an Incident Action Plan (IAP). He returned and gave his report and plan. I then assigned him the role of Operations Commander. Captain Norman accomplished the assigned objectives managing the tactical assignments utilizing dozers, helicopter drops and brush truck crews. Structures were saved.

The water-drop operation began to yield good fire-control results and greatly assisted the ground forces with containment and control. The TFS personnel were very concerned with the condition of RFC Rich Gray, who had been admitted to the hospital in critical condition. I released the TFS personnel so that they could go to the hospital and support Rich Gray.

Safety Officer/EMT-B Susan B. Long, Bastrop Fire Department, and seasonal PIO for the Texas Forest Service: I was working in my home when the Bastrop Fire Department toned out a grass fire at 2:25 P.M. As the BFD's safety officer, I responded in my personal vehicle. I was monitoring the fire radio traffic and heard urgent pleas from the fireground personnel requesting that law enforcement be sent to control and stop the heavy traffic on State Highway 71. The dispatcher announced that five sheriff's deputies and the Department of Public Safety were responding.

I arrived on the scene at about 2:30 and was waiting to cross the highway when a dark-colored civilian pickup truck came spinning out-of-control at an extremely high rate of speed. It veered off the road, crashing into the parked TFS truck belonging to RFC Rich Gray. The civilian's truck rammed into the front of the TFS vehicle, knocking it backwards several feet, impacting Rich Gray and DFC James Bennett, who were standing at the rear.

Rich was catapulted and cartwheeled up into the air like a rag doll, falling back down, landing headfirst. James Bennett was thrust outward, hands and legs extended seemingly to "fly," but landed in a recovery position. In fact, he immediately stood up and was talking into his portable radio with a report of what had just happened and asking for aid. He was unaware of his serious injuries.

I finally succeeded in crossing the highway, grabbed my medic bags and ran to Rich, who was lying on the highway, bleeding from his head. He exhibited all of the symptoms of severe head trauma (combative and repeatedly shouting his intent to get up) while at the same time telling me that he could not feel his legs. I immediately held c-spine and asked fellow firefighter (past chief) Mike Fisher to apply a c-collar around Rich's neck.

I recall being covered in blood while trying to keep Rich's head from thrashing about as he was screaming to let him go. We finally got him boarded and kept him from tearing off his c-collar and spine board straps. A Critical Air helicopter arrived and its crew took over treatment and transport.

I exited the ambulance to see more choppers landing on the highway. There were numerous brush trucks, engines and tenders staffed by very competent crews from surrounding volunteer fire departments as well as the Texas Forest Service, all efficiently fighting the fire.

The two Black Hawks requested by Rich Gray moments before the accident were already delivering very precise water drops with the grace and rhythm of professional dancers. Dozers were creating effective fire control lines, protecting homes on ridges among the Loblolly pine trees.

Hours later into the evening, sawyers were felling big trees and snags. As I surveyed the scene, I marveled at the fact that 43 homes as well as magnificent stands of pine trees had been saved by dedicated firefighters - firefighters who knew that some of their own were injured, firefighters who wanted desperately to run to their friends and somehow soothe their suffering, firefighters who in spite of all these concerns continued to fight the "beast," knowing its capacity to inflict enormous damage and loss of life.

Days later, our injured firefighters amazingly returned to perform their jobs, which they are so passionate about. For these firefighters there is a happy ending … this time.

One final thought from me. Critical incident stress debriefing is essential for the mental and emotional well-being of firefighters and other emergency response personnel after they have worked at and or witnessed serious trauma at incidents. Even more so is when victims are fellow workers, family or close friends.

Chief Mark Stinson, Heart of the Pines Volunteer Fire Department: I was delayed in my response to this fire incident. I cannot say enough about establishing and maintaining good working relationships with neighboring fire departments. In my absence, RFC Rich Gray and DFC James Bennett were in the process of directing operations and establishing the Incident Command System (ICS) and the command post. The parked TFS truck had been struck by an out-of-control civilian vehicle. The command post was wiped out.

Many of the firefighters went to aid their fallen comrades. Resources were pouring in and instinctively went to work with structure protection. Chief Mike Norman arrived and became the IC, sized-up the situation and reestablished order to the scene.

Regional Fire Coordinator Rich Gray, Texas Forest Service: What made this W/UI fire so significant was not its relatively small size, but the enormous complexity of the incident. The fire was exhibiting significant fire behavior with torching of trees and short-duration runs through the crowns of 70-foot-high pine timber. There were multiple homes immediately threatened and a total of 43 homes within the 50-acre subdivision. In the air were two Black Hawk helicopters, performing fire suppression ops, two medical helicopters tending to the injured and at least one news media chopper hovering around. A major four-lane highway was shut down and then we had the accident scene controlled by the Bastrop County Sheriff's Department and the Texas DPS.

As one of the critically injured firefighters, I would like to reflect on some facts and thoughts. First and foremost, I cannot say enough about how important a strong cross-training program and a cooperative multi-agency training partnership are. The outcome of this incident would not have been the same without these programs in place. Even with fellow firefighters injured and down, all responders stayed focused and completed all tasks assigned against enormous odds. This type of incident is testimony to their professionalism and dedication to the people they serve. All components of EMS and law enforcement gathered together and ran a smooth and efficient operation.

My final thought is SAFETY. Fireground safety is of the utmost importance. This incident brings to light the many dangers not only faced in fighting wildland fires, but there are heightened dangers at wildland/ urban interface fires.

My brother and sister firefighters, EMS and law enforcement personnel pulled together to get us through our injuries. They were steadfast in their duties and excelled in the face of huge odds. My sincerest thanks to all of them.

Mike Fisher, past fire chief, emergency management director, City of Bastrop: At its height, this remarkable incident was attended by state and local agencies, volunteer firefighters and the Texas Forest Service, performing as a single, professional unit, solidified by emotion, compassion and an extraordinary concern for public safety.

For those tending the injured, compassion and dedication prevailed; for those sent to fire-line duty, courage and aggression came as a natural behavior. For all, it was as if skill overcame anger and accomplishment would be the requirement of the day. In the end, injuries were manageable; the fire damage was comparatively small (15 acres burned, a few scorched spots on some structures), the performance of the responders was exceptional.

An event that should have taken lives and destroyed property did not. To those of faith, miracles can and do occur. It follows then that if this is indeed miraculous, God certainly enlisted the assistance from men and women that were attired in yellow Nomex clothing on Monday, Aug. 13, 2001, on Texas State Highway 71.

I am proud to say I personally know these heroic, compassionate and highly skilled men and women emergency responders. During the past three years, I have worked, trained, taught, laughed with and enjoyed their camaraderie in Bastrop. I am truly thankful that TFS Regional Fire Coordinator Rich Gray and BFD District Fire Chief James Bennett are alive, fully recovered and back doing the jobs they love so much. This W/UI fire incident that you've just read about was truly a "Miracle on Texas Highway 71." My personal thanks and appreciation to all of those who worked so hard supplying me with the information and pictures that made it possible to produce this story.

Robert M. Winston, a Firehouse® contributing editor, recently retired as a district fire chief in the Boston Fire Department with 32 years of structural and wildland fire experience. He is a Red Carded qualified Structure Protection Specialist and instructor for wildland/urban interface fire protection. Winston holds a degree in fire science and is a member of the National Fire Academy Alumni Association.