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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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.