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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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.