BASTROP COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — An independent panel of fire experts from across the country issued its opinion and recommendations Monday about how Texas Parks and Wildlife Department personnel handled the prescribed burn that sparked the Rolling Pines Fire on Jan. 18.
Made up for wildland fire experts part of state forestry agents from Georgia, Oklahoma, Florida and South Carolina, the panel said while “quick action” from the burn boss helped mitigate damage, there should have been more firefighters on site to begin with.
The fire spread past its boundaries and ended up burning 812 acres of land in Bastrop State Park, and 250 families had to be evacuated, but no buildings were damaged and no injuries were reported associated with the blaze.
The prescribed burn was originally set to be 185 acres, but due to a “limited window” for the type of burns within Bastrop State Park, another area was added to the burn, increasing the size to 268 acres. With the extra burn unit, the 22 firefighters TPWD had to start the burn weren’t enough, the panel said. There should have been 30 firefighters, 15 for each unit, and the crew didn’t file a “complexity analysis” after they combined the units.
The panel noted 268 acres of fire line is “long,” and they shouldn’t have lit the fires in the units at the same time. The panel said crews should, “focus on smaller burns for the park, even if that means burning more days out of the year.”
Due to other wildfires in the area, a bulldozer that typically would have been available wasn’t, and while another bulldozer was on its way, the prescribed burns jumped its boundaries and ignited, thus putting the heavy equipment immediately into action upon arrival, the panel’s report said. It recommended all bulldozers and other heavy equipment be at the site before lighting fires.
The panel also recommended more training for staff, augmenting current national standards with more information for planning purposes, seeking more grant funding for neighboring property owners to voluntarily maintain their land and having a third party review burn plans for high-risk areas, including Bastrop.
“We are thankful for the thorough and thoughtful review of our prescribed fire planning and practices,” said Carter Smith, the TPWD executive director. “Prescribed fires are essential in managing many of our habitats, landscapes and private and public lands across Texas, and while our staff takes numerous precautions to conduct their work safely, I know there is always room to make our practices better and safer. The recommendations presented through this facilitated learning analysis will do just that.”
The report showed wind speed, temperature and relative humidity checks in the area within acceptable ranges to start the fire, and the panel pointed out the preparation of the site was “very well done.” The panel also praised the burn boss for notifying outside resources and requesting help quickly.
It also said there’s a “thorough notification system to communicate when prescribed fires are planned or put into action.” It noted the network includes local landowners, elected officials and state and local emergency personnel.
“The existing relationships between park staff and emergency response agencies in the surrounding community have been built through years of cooperation and dedication. During response to the escaped prescribed fire, those relationships proved to be essential,” the report said.
Crews saw notices that fire danger increased across Texas that day, but none of the notices “were not intended for and did not include Bastrop County.”
“We have read the report carefully, discussed it extensively and already begun to weave its recommendations into our processes,” Smith said. “We can and will do better.”
TPWD is set to talk about the report from the panel in a town hall meeting at 6 p.m. Monday at the Bastrop Convention Center.