BASTROP COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — More than 200 firefighters from across the Lone Star State took their battle against what’s been dubbed the “Rolling Pines Fire” outside Bastrop early into Wednesday morning.
As of about 10 p.m., Texas A&M Forest Service said the blaze was only about 10% contained, but the “fire behavior has greatly moderated, allowing our resources to complete direct attack.”
In a press conference held earlier in the day, county and state leaders said the blaze began as a controlled burn for 150 acres around 10:30 a.m. Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape said fire specialists noticed “spotting outside of the prescribed fire boundaries,” later that day.
“They think that that spotting was likely caused from embers from the fire. We don’t know the particular cause or genesis of that,” Pape said.
“It’s terrible. It’s terrible,” said John Ricke as he watched the smoke billow from a few miles away.
This fire sparked in the same area as a deadly fire in 2011 that became the most destructive in Texas history. It burned for 55 days, destroyed 1,600 homes and burned 32,000 acres. That fire started in September, sparked by tree limbs that snapped and hit power lines, and was made worse by strong winds.
Ricke has lived in Bastrop County since 1958. His sister’s home burned back in the fires of 2011 and 2015. Although his own has been spared, so far, he was still anxious.
“When I came out of H-E-B, I saw the fire, and it was over in our direction where we live, and I said, ‘Oh, no! Lord, not another fire!'”
Pape said there was no county burn ban Tuesday, but Texas A&M Forest Service said there was a wildfire risk alert.
“Our team does not commence a fire unless they believe it’s safe to do so,” said Carter Smith, executive director of Texas Parks and Wildlife.
Smith said before officials conduct prescribed burns, they develop a plan with local, state and federal people. He insisted conditions met safety standards.
“At this juncture, it’s my understanding that we were well within the prescription of the weather parameters that were called for within the plan,” he said. “And so, our team felt that it was safe to proceed.”
Texas A&M Forest Service explained what should be in a prescribed burn plan. It includes objectives and goals, site information, weather conditions as well as a safety and contingency plan, as well as a notification plan.
Every prescribed burn must also go through this checklist on the day of a burn. The very first question asks if conditions have changed, like drought conditions, and goes on to ask if the current and projected fire weather forecast has been obtained and considered favorable.
If all the questions were answered yes, it said to move ahead with a test fire. And if there weren’t any concerns brought up in the test fire, it said to go forward with the prescribed burn.
“It’s not unusual for us to see some changing weather conditions as the day progresses, and so that may be what has happened today,” Pape said.
Officials said prescribed burns are meant to prevent wildfires, and a reason why they believe the 2011 fire got so bad was crews hadn’t been able to conduct a controlled burn for years before that.
“And so the forest grew up like a jungle, and there was no way for firefighters to enter that kind of environment and effectively fight the fire. Once it got started, we just had to pull out and let it go,” Pape said.
Ricke and other neighbors who spoke with KXAN are angry officials set a fire on such a windy day.
“When I see a fire like this, and I see the way this fire started, I really get … I get upset,” Ricke said. “Because this was unnecessary.”
“Our officials chose to burn on a windy day KNOWING the risks. They should be held liable for all the loss! The people of Bastrop need to know how reckless their elected officials are. We lost so much in 2011, how dare they put us in this situation AGAIN!” wrote another resident, Shelby L., to KXAN.
TPW said once the fire is contained, they will conduct a thorough investigation of how the prescribed burn spread.
State officials said two more strike teams are on their way to help fight the fire. So far, they said they’re not aware of any deaths or injuries.
Residents living along East and West Kelley Road, as well as those north of FM 1441, were able to return home Tuesday night, officials said.
Texas A&M Forest Service said in a statement the following evacuation areas are still in effect until at least midday Wednesday:
- Power Plant Road
- Pine Tree Loop
- Lisa Lane
- Linda Lane
- Porter Road
- KC Drive
- Hill Crest Drive
- Pinedale Drive
- Pinehollow Drive
- Wildwood Drive
- Boren Lane
- Pinehill Drive
Officials said heavy smoke in those areas has created blackout conditions that are making it hard to search for hidden fires. ESD No. 2 officials and Bastrop County OEM officials will decide Wednesday morning when residents can return.