Rocket test gone wrong at the Firefly Aerospace facility in Burnet Co. has officials reviewing safety measures

BRIGGS, Texas (KXAN) — An “anomaly” during a rocket test at a Burnet County aerospace facility in Briggs resulted in a fire and evacuations on Wednesday night.

According to Christina Kang, a spokesperson for Firefly Aerospace, an incident during routine testing ahead of a planned spring launch for its Alpha rocket caused a small fire on the test stand that was quickly put out.

On Wednesday afternoon, the company tweeted a now-deleted short clip of the loading LOX, which stands for Liquid Oxygen.

Kang said that the test stand has an automatic fire suppression system for cases like this and that the system quickly extinguished the fire.

Many of the people who were evacuated within that mile radius of the Aerospace facility behind me last night went to JJ’s Market. They’re left wondering if everyone was on the same page prior to making the evacuation call.

“I’ve lived in Briggs my whole life,” said Craig Daniel. “I’ve had a lot of concerns about it and a lot of people around Briggs have also.”

Craig Daniel’s been in Briggs for 60 years It’s only been the last five years that he’s had a rocket testing facility just about in his back yard.

I don’t think its dangerous, they’re a nuisance,” said Jimmie Baker, Briggs resident.

Neighbors have heard the loud tests before. ​​

The people in the community, they heard and explosion. They saw an explosion. The company explained to me that it was a fire,” said Burnet County Sheriff Calvin Boyd.

Despite initial reports of an explosion, both Firefly and the Burnet County Sheriff Calvin Boyd both confirmed that there was never an explosion.

​”We had a fuel leak and fuel shot of of the engine in a direction it’s not supposed to and so it shut itself down,” said Firefly Aerospace CEO Tom Markusic. “It creates a big fireball, but the fire suppression systems took care of that and put it out like they’re supposed to.”

In an interview with KXAN’s Tom Miller on Wednesday night, Firefly Aerospace CEO Tom Markusic said that the event “resulted from fuel coming out of one of the engines that created a small fire.”

Markusic said, “when a rocket starts up, it sounds like an explosion. It’s very powerful, there’s fire that comes out of the rocket engine, so there’s noise. It was not an explosion.”

Regardless, Briggs all-volunteer fire department evacuated everyone within a one mile radius, but they weren’t following any prepared plan.​​

Question: “Was there anything in place prior to last night?”

Burnet County Sheriff Calvin Boyd: “No that was one of the problems was that there isn’t anything in place.”

“Our plans right now are to really get close to the local fire folks and be highly coordinated so they know what’s going on,” said Firefly CEO Markusic.

Residents here in Briggs are hoping that happens soon.

“I hope that some agencies start checking on him and doing everything by the book before something does happen,” said Craig Daniel. “Like I said, we live close. All of my friends live in Briggs. Last night that was the first evacuation.”

In the end, Markusic said, it wasn’t a big deal. While thankful for the response by emergency personnel, he thought it was too much given the incident, relatively speaking.

“It was just very normal rocket testing stuff,” Markusic said. “The response was larger than it needed to be. And I will take the blame for that. We didn’t properly communicate that there wasn’t an issue to the local emergency response folks.”

A rocket at the test site of Firefly Aerospace in Briggs, Texas (KXAN/Todd Bynum)

According to BCSO, Oakalla Volunteer Fire Department requested help from BCSO to help shut down traffic on nearby roadways, activate reverse 911 and start evacuations with a one-mile radius of the facility.

All of this was out of “an abundance of caution” by the Oakalla VFD, BCSO says.

There were no injuries reported and there is no risk to the community or those at the site, Kang said. Firefly says that this is the first time anything like this has happened at the facility but that they plan and prepare for events like this often.

Traffic jam three miles south of Briggs, Texas (KXAN/Andrew Way)

KXAN Investigators looked into Firefly Aerospace’s safety records with other oversight agencies. Records from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, show it was cited and fined more than 12-thousand dollars in March of last year (2019).​

The violations include these categories.​We’ve requested more information about what they entail.​ We’re still waiting for a response.​

In a statement on Wednesday, the Firefly leadership team wrote, in part:

“We apologize for any inconvenience caused and we will be working with the local emergency response team to ensure that the local community is kept aware of actions in a timely manner.

We will be hosting a community day soon to explain what happened and answer any questions.”

Kang says plans are still moving ahead for Firefly’s Alpha rocket launch from California sometime in the spring.

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