USA — Texas was faced with an unprecedented wildfire season that destroyed more than 25,000 acres in Midland County alone.
On the front lines, firefighters braved intense heat, long hours and dangerous conditions. The heroic men and women at the Midland Fire Department, Northeast Volunteer Fire Department, Greenwood Volunteer Fire Department and the Texas Forest Service were the only barrier from pervasive grass fires and Midlanders’ homes.
In addition to Midland, many other fires such as the Bastrop, Iron Mountain and Rockhouse fires devastated Central and West Texas. The terrain remains scarred from spring blazes in several counties, including Midland, Ector, Andrews, Glasscock and Howard. Although each fire was unique, because of elevation, speed and strength, all had a root cause: The environment.
Coming on the heels of two previous years with exceptionally high rainfall totals for this region, plant life had grown throughout the area. But when the drought began in earnest in September 2010, the thriving, living plant life quickly deteriorated into kindling and fuel for grass fires.
“There was so much fuel out (in the county), and when the wind picked up to north of 25 mph … it was an unbelievable sight,” MFD Fire Marshal David Hickman told the Reporter-Telegram when looking back at the 18,000-acre Hickman Fire on April 9, and the smaller CEED Fire that roared into city limits on May 24. “The fires moved so fast.”
Speed was one of the biggest obstacles firefighters had to overcome. Many at MFD related stories about the necessity to place resources ahead of the fire, but because of the fires’ breakneck speed, the wildfires had progressed by the time resources were in place.
“We tried to get ahead of the (Hickman Fire) several times, but it was moving so fast we couldn’t get the road graters or brush units in place fast enough,” Station 3 Capt. Brian McGary said.
Many of the rank-and-file firefighters have told the Reporter-Telegram that being in the midst of a fast-moving wall of fire, adrenaline is high, but also that was a scary and potentially life-ending event. But seasoned veterans like Capt. Karl Staggs said there is no fear when he goes into a dangerous situation, only adrenaline.
“If you’re doing your job right and fighting grass fires from the burned areas … it’s all adrenaline,” the veteran of 21 years and of at least 100 wildfires said.
When several firefighters were asked if they considered themselves or their compatriots heroes, all were extremely humble and only spoke of duty and honor.
Both Hickman and McGary stressed the importance of planning, logistics and coordinating resources. They said a few years back, when that year’s fire season started, the various departments would “pre-stage” equipment and do surveys. After the surveys were completed, resources strategically were placed throughout the city and county based on high-priority areas and likely problem locations. That was a new idea implemented two years ago, and since then, it has been conducted every year. Both men said that type of planning saved lives and property this year.
Hickman pointed to the Feb. 27 grass fire that led to the death of 5-year-old Cameron Dominguez, of Crane, as the beginning point of this season. A wall of smoke blocked motorists’ vision as they traveled on Interstate 20, west of Loop 250. The low visibility conditions eventually led to a seven-car accident, in which Cameron died.
But the first big event of the year was the March 9 fire in Big Spring, Hickman said. It was the first time the Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System was activated in the region this year, he said.
“From that point, it took off,” Hickman said, as he rattled off names of several fires he and MFD were dispatched to handle around the state.
Most notably, Hickman assisted with the Rock House (Fort Davis) and Bear Creek (East Texas) fires. Midland has a leadership role within TIFMAS. When MFD is dispatched to assist other departments, the department sends a strike team consisting of a leader, an assistant and two firefighters.
Since the wildfire season began on Nov. 15, 2010, TFS and local fire departments have responded to 29,540 fires that have burned 3.978 million acres. The total cost in combating these fires statewide has eclipsed $260 million, according to TFS records and statements from the governor’s office.
“Terrain was a big factor,” Hickman said about the Bear Creek and Fort Davis fires. “We couldn’t even get to it. We had to just wait for the fire to come to us before we could do anything about it.”
The fire sprawled across several hills and wooded areas, using a completely different type of fuel than Midland firefighters normally encounter. The firefighters used a lot of control burn tactics to push the fire into areas where they could tackle the wall of fire.
After combating the worst fire season in recorded state history, MFD and TFS don’t plan to take it easy in the coming year. Despite the amount of burned fuel, “there is still plenty more out there,” Hickman said.
The current weather and drought conditions are expected to persist. In light of this, MFD brass will pore over weather data, land maps and equipment lists during the brief respite before spring.
McGary said the National Weather Service was instrumental in helping plan where to place tankers, road graders, brush units and fire breaks during emergency situations. He wants to take that partnership to the next level in the coming year.
The department also is working on vegetation maps for the county to identify potentially problematic locations, Chief Robert Isbell said.
“We couldn’t do what we do without our partnerships with county and city agencies,” Isbell said. He specifically mentioned the hard work by the Midland Transportation Department.
The department also received a new Type 6 fire engine that is designed to get into places larger brush units and traditional fire engines can’t maneuver and also is expected to add another fire engine to its fleet at some point next year.
Regardless of planning, training and the acquisition of new equipment, the environment and weather conditions ultimately will dictate the tenor of 2012.
“The conditions are prime again for another big season,” Isbell said somberly. “It could definitely be another big fire year season.”