USA — In 2009, Karen Ridenour wrote the official report on the worst wildfire in Central Texas history. Less than three years later, she has the grim task of doing it again.
Ridenour, who studies fires as a geographic information systems specialist for the Texas Forest Service, wrote the case study for the 1,490-acre Wilderness Ridge fire in 2009, which destroyed 26 homes and 20 businesses in Bastrop County. Now she’s writing the official history of the fire that dwarfed it the Bastrop Complex fire after months of poring over 911 tapes, photos and videos, first responders’ accounts and even the burn holes left on trampolines.
Her case study, designed to spell out the lessons learned from the fire and to help prepare for the next one, will contain some revelations when it’s publicly released this month, including the fact that the fire had three, not two, ignition points and the emergence of a rare phenomenon that amplified the fire’s destructive power. It’s also a study of speed: the relentless, windblown advance of the fire, and the correspondingly rapid reaction by firefighters, sheriff’s deputies and others to get people out of the fire’s path.
The most destructive fire in Texas history capped a series of historical worsts. It happened during the state’s worst fire season: Nearly 4 million acres and more than 3,000 homes burned during the season, which ended Oct. 31. It wasthe state’s driest year on record, at the end of the hottest summer that any state had ever seen.
But the fire is also notable for the history that wasn’t made. The death toll two people could have been exponentially higher, Ridenour said, if not for a series of quick decisions that led to the rapid evacuation of roughly 5,000 people.
The first decision was made before the fire even began on Sunday, Sept. 4. Mike Fisher, Bastrop County’s emergency management coordinator, already knew that the conditions were perfect for wildfires: drought-baked vegetation, low humidity and a steady north wind caused in part by Tropical Storm Lee, which had made landfall on the Louisiana coast that morning.
By early afternoon, fires were burning across the state. Local fire departments would end up responding to 227 fires that day, and for 57 of them, the locals called the Texas Forest Service for assistance, Ridenour said. The agency assisted with nine fires in Central Texas.
Fisher had been monitoring radio traffic about the fires in Travis and Fayette counties, and he decided to activate his county’s emergency operations center. By 2 p.m., County Judge Ronnie McDonald, Sheriff Terry Pickering, Fire Chief Henry Perry and public information officer Gayle Wilhelm had joined Fisher at the operations center in the Grady Tuck Building on Loop 150.
At 2:16 p.m., emergency center staffer Steve Long called the 911 dispatcher to put everyone on alert. “We suggested if they were understaffed, they better start calling people in,” Fisher said.
Four minutes later, at 2:20 p.m., the first 911 call came in from a homeowner on Charolais Drive, just west of Texas 21 in the Circle D neighborhood. A dead pine had snapped and fallen on a power line. The homeowner reported flames near her backyard.
The first units from Bastrop’s volunteer fire department began rolling 29 seconds after that initial call. At 2:25 p.m., firefighters had reached the scene and realized what they were up against: They requested Forest Service bulldozers and planes to attack the fast-moving wildfire.
The emergency operations center radioed back with bad news. “The resources were gone,” Ridenour said. “There was nothing to send.”
The four Forest Service bulldozers based in Bastrop County had been hauled to other places to fight fires. What Bastrop County had left were 26 fire engines, 11 tenders (tanker trucks that carry water to fires), three bulldozers and two helicopters.
It wasn’t enough.
Thirteen minutes after the initial 911 call, firefighters made a crucial decision: The fire was already too big and moving too fast to stop it. Sheriff’s deputies led what would become a massive evacuation effort.
The second ignition came 32 minutes later and four miles away from the first, when the top of a dead tree fell onto a power line at Schwantz Ranch Road, just south of U.S. 290. About 5 p.m., the two fires merged near Cardinal Drive and swept south, blown by the steady north wind.
In some places, the fire raced along the ground, consuming underbrush and grass and trees. In others, it jumped into the crowns of the trees, where the wind 12 to 20 mph with gusts up to 30 caught it and whipped it through the treetops. It jumped roads, creeks and power line rights of way.
“This fire didn’t seem to travel in a line,” said Scott Sutcliffe, the assistant chief for the Heart of the Pines Volunteer Fire Department. “It was just popping up everywhere. It was raining embers.”
The embers created hundreds of spot fires, which would then merge and become a new fire front, Sutcliffe said.
“How do you fight something that’s moving that fluidly?” Sutcliffe said. “You really can’t. You run, try to get in front of it again, because you don’t want to be caught in the middle.”
Sean Rissel, a Forest Service resource specialist, would later get permission from homeowners to collect seven trampolines that had survived the fire.
A square meter of one trampoline from McAllister Road was peppered with 250 burn holes, Rissel said.
The wind blew embers for miles; residents reported finding chunks of blackened pine bark the size of softballs in Rosanky, 15 miles south of the Colorado River. As the fire grew, smoke and heat and energy billowed into the sky and created horizontal roll vortices: slowly turning cylinders that roiled above the fire. Ridenour said they are a sign of “very extreme fire behavior.” Aerial maps would later show what looked like long stripes of blackened forest within the fire scar a sign, Ridenour said, that the vortices became so massive that they crashed back to earth along the fire’s flanks.
“When it crashes,” Ridenour said, “it nukes everything.”
At 3:02 p.m., the flames crossed Texas 21, and Fisher declared the fire a disaster a crucial pronouncement that allowed the county to request help from other parts of Texas and other states. Less than a half-hour after that, authorities began evacuating neighborhoods south of Texas 71. The fire had pushed into Bastrop State Park, and at 3:40 p.m., it crossed Park Road 1C, a little more than a mile from 71.
The highway’s mowed right of way created a 325-foot-wide fire break, the last obstacle between the fire and the neighborhoods of Tahitian Village, Pine Forest and ColoVista. Farther east on 71, Sutcliffe and his fellow volunteer firefighters burned the deadgrass in the highway’s median, trying to deter the advancing flames from their station, and doused spot blazes as they erupted.
“We had to save the station or else we were out of the game,” Sutcliffe said. “We just stood our ground.”
When the power went out, they lost water pressure, he said. Smithville’s Fire Department shuttled water to them in tankers and brought them food and water and gas to keep their generators going. “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Smithville,” he said.
The fire went over them. It leaped Texas 71 at 4:07 p.m.
At 5:16 p.m., Ridenour said, a third fire broke out along the south side of Texas 71 just east of Tahitian Drive also sparked by a power line. By 10 p.m., that fire merged with the larger fire, and the wall of flames raced toward the Colorado River. By day’s end, the fire had burned an area 14 miles long and 6 miles across at its widest point, Ridenour said.
There was more to come the next day, Monday, Sept. 5. At 11:28 a.m., what became known as the Union Chapel fire erupted in the oak and mesquite stands near the intersection of Texas 71 and Texas 21.
About 3:30 p.m., the wind shifted and the huge Bastrop fire pivoted to the southwest. Its long flank now the front, it consumed roughly 1,000 additional acres.
On Tuesday, the winds died, allowing local firefighters and hundreds of reinforcements from other parts of Texas and other states to make some headway on containing it. By Wednesday, the fire had reached its maximum size, Ridenour said. A day after that, the fire response peaked, Ridenour said.
“These people came as fast as they possibly could, and it took them five days,” Ridenour said. But most of the damage was already done.
The fire was officially declared extinguished on Oct. 29, 56 days after it started. More than 33,000 acres and more than 1,700 homes and other structures burned, most of them during the first two days.
In the end, Ridenour said, the fire was just too big, too fast, too unpredictable.
“We could have had every piece of equipment in the U.S. here,” Ridenour said. “You could not have stopped it.”
Sutcliffe, who spent three days fighting the fire his home burned down, but the fire station survived reached a similar conclusion.
“It was unrelenting,” Sutcliffe said. “We never stood a chance.”