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 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.