Out of the Ashes

The firefighters who rushed to what became the Possum Kingdom Complex fire last year knew about wildfires, but they were about to encounter something outside their experience.

by Gail Bennison

The volunteer firefighters slept on the floor the first night in a warehouse at the Brazos River Authority at the Possum Kingdom Dam. Over the next six days, they hardly slept at all. John Burgoyne, 70, was the fire chief of the Greenwood Rural Volunteer Fire Department when he and his wife, Nancy, were deployed along with 12 others to the Possum Kingdom Complex fires in Palo Pinto County. It was April 2011, the driest year in recorded Texas history back to 1895. The firefighters had no idea they were about to fight the biggest inferno any of them had ever seen — what John describes as “the granddaddy fire of them all.”

The PK Complex was made up of four fires in Stephens, Young and Palo Pinto counties — labeled the Hohertz, PK West, Jackson Ranch and PK East — that started April 9 through April 16. It was one of the most devastating fires in Texas history — at one point the biggest fire occurring in the country — engulfing 162,000 acres or 253 square miles, about the land size of Austin — and burning 168 homes. Miraculously, there were no fatalities.

“The normal fires we fight around here are five to 10 acres, and most of the head fires are 3 to 8 feet tall,” Burgoyne said. “When the PK Fire moved through Sportsman’s World and Gaines Bend, the head fire was 120 feet tall. It devastated everything.”

Burgoyne has been a firefighter for 11 years. He is retired from IBM after 32 years and serves on the board of directors of Pier 1 in Fort Worth. John and Nancy lost their home in Gaines Bend.

“It looks like a moonscape — 150-year-old live oak trees were burned right to the ground,” he said.

By April 15, Possum Kingdom East Volunteer Fire Department Chief Ronnie Ranft, a firefighter since 1986, and his department had already fought the Hohertz Fire, protecting the town of Strawn, and helped contain a fire in Graford. Around 5 that afternoon, a fire neared his station. Winds were 30 mph, and the smoke was so thick that eventually the firefighters couldn’t see between the fire trucks.

“We never even saw it when it jumped Highway 16,” Ranft said. “We had a Mineral Wells unit that joined us, and we started setting up behind the Baptist Church. We figured the fire would go around the mountain by the way of least resistance.” The fire came around the south side of the mountain with flame lengths of more than 100 feet.

“That was a bad feeling,” he said. Water was in short supply, and they couldn’t save the church.
“It was demoralizing. When you lose a church, you’ve lost a good portion of your community. We regrouped, and the beast jumped the road again. There was so much fire.”

Difficult Decisions

“There were times when we had to decide what was and wasn’t going to be saved. Every day the fire goes, you lose resources. Every time the fire grows, your fire lines increase exponentially,” Ranft said. “We were seeing wind shifts, and that spreads your resources out and creates new concerns.”

He worried that the firefighters had been there for days. Did they have food and water? Are the houses in a defensible area? What about the roads? Can the firefighters get out if they have to?

“You know there are areas you can’t defend. I hoped and prayed that I had made the right decisions,” Ranft said.

Folks have referred to the 2011 Texas Fire Season as the “perfect storm” of fire seasons. Texas Forest Service Regional Fire Coordinator Mike McGuire says he would have to agree in that all the elements for dangerous fire came together at once.

“We had extremely high temperatures for extended periods of time, low relative humidity with little recovery, and of course, the drought,” McGuire said. Wind carried firebrands for miles in some cases.

TFS responds to only about 20 percent of Texas wildfires, but those fires burn about 80 percent of the land that’s charred each year. During the two-to-three week period last April, there were more than 200 fires burning in Texas. Every available resource was committed, said Nick Harrison, Wildland Urban Interface Staff Forester for TFS.

“This usually involves setting up a command post to manage all TFS assets. TFS will bring in additional ground firefighting resources, such as bulldozers, wildland engines, crews and aerial firefighting aircraft,” Harrison said.

More than 3.9 million acres burned in Texas from Nov. 15, 2010, to Sept. 30, 2011, with 6,739 homes lost but 39,413 homes saved statewide.

There were two fire episodes around Possum Kingdom Lake last year — the April blazes that destroyed much of Possum Kingdom State Park as well as a number of homes and a second outbreak in late August and early September, when wind-driven wildfires again raged across the state.

The Orange Beast

The Greenwood Rural Volunteer Fire Department was deployed as part of the Parker County Strike Team. Fire Marshal Shawn Scott, the county’s Emergency Management Coordinator, led that initial task force in the April fires.

“I can remember just seeing massive columns of smoke and the sun being turned into this reddish hue that was not normal,” Scott said. “That in itself made all the hairs stand up on the back of my neck — just looking at the sun and seeing that kind of smoke coming from a fire that large. I thought, ‘We’re about to be in the middle of a major firestorm.’ This particular storm gave me more chills than Hurricane Ike did.”

That first night was frustrating.

“There’s no way to describe how hard these guys were working, and it just seemed like nothing was happening,” Scott said. “The harder they worked, the more the fire grew. It was an insurmountable fire that I had not seen, and by the next morning things had gotten much worse.”

Firefighters hopscotched from house to house, Scott said.

“As the saying goes, ‘When people run away, firemen run in.’ They held their ground against this monster. I can’t begin to tell you how many homes these guys saved,” he said.
It was a fast-moving fire.

“When we fell back and the fire was headed toward Palo Pinto, we were sitting on top of our trucks and looking at the fire coming toward us. It was an orange beast. That’s when you think, ‘What are we doing here, and how are we going to stop this?’ There were fire trucks from places I’d never heard of, and still it wasn’t enough,” Scott said. “The best way to describe it is the feeling of impending doom.”

His instructions from Parker County Judge Mark Riley: “ ‘Shawn, don’t let this get into Parker County.’ ”

Destroyed in 15 Minutes

The drought was relentless, and on the afternoon of Aug. 30, another wildfire went out of control in Palo Pinto County.

Mike Carter, general counsel at Pier 1 and formerly the Hudson Oaks Volunteer Fire Chief, lost his weekend home in the Cliffs, west of Highway 16 in Possum Kingdom. It burned in 15 minutes.

“If you’re building houses out in the PK area, you’ve just got to understand that wildfires can take them,” Carter said. “And there’s not a lot that the fire service can do with the limited resources, especially as tough a summer as we had. The best thing to do is to make sure you’ve got it insured up to the maximum amount and be prepared for it to burn down. Wildfires are just a part of the Texas landscape.”

The Carters are rebuilding.

Scott said that what he saw come out of the devastation was that Americans — Texans in particular — are resilient people. “It’s awesome to see people come together and work together like they did and support one another during such a tragic event. The community outpouring was the silver lining,” he said.

“This is a prime example of an effective partnership that has been developed not only in this region but across the state, and Parker County was more than happy to assist,” said Riley. “The other side is that as the fire began to move, we had a fear that it could come into Parker County. It certainly was an ‘all hands on deck’ situation, and as bad as it was, there are always blessings in it. It could’ve been worse, as we saw in Bastrop.”

Catastrophic Wildfire

The Bastrop County Complex fire began on a hot, dry and windy Sunday afternoon, Sept. 4, and swallowed the Central Texas town of Bastrop. Now regarded as the most catastrophic wildfire in Texas history, it ranks as the third worst in the nation where loss of homes was involved. The fires burned more than 34,000 acres, destroyed 1,645 homes and killed two people. It wasn’t until Oct. 10 that it was declared totally contained.

Tahitian Village residents Michelle and Ed Rios lost their dream home and all of their possessions. Ed works as an Airborne Countermeasures Engineer for BAE Systems in Austin and recalls a day he says he’ll never forget.

“Michelle had let the dogs out that afternoon and said she saw a giant storm cloud,” Ed recalled. “I said, ‘No, that’s fire.’ It was very ominous. The normal sounds were silent.”
Traffic was at a standstill for 25 minutes as the couple and their two dogs headed west out of Bastrop, and the smoke just kept getting closer.

“All we saw was a red glow, and while we were sitting in the traffic, I was thinking that I didn’t want us to burn up in the car,” Ed said.

Ed and Michelle are renting a home in Austin and plan to rebuild.

Michael Baldwin works as a lieutenant paramedic for the Hudson Oaks Fire Department in Parker County and also serves on the Parker County Response Team. He operated the mobile command truck during the PK fires. With more than 35 fire departments fighting the PK Complex fires, he had a big job on his hands — make order out of the chaos.
“This was the worst fire most people had ever seen. I’ve spoken to men who make their living fighting forest fires and wildland fires clear across the country, and they’d never seen fire behavior that bad and with conditions that dry,” Baldwin said.

Units from Keller, Watauga, Euless, Grapevine and Colleyville joined the fight. Fort Worth did not, but Fire Chief Rudy Jackson said that the city’s fire department now has received the permission it needs to respond to aid requests through the Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System (TIFMAS) in future wildfires. “Previously, we couldn’t go because of policy relating back to the Lake Worth fires,” Jackson said, referring to the deaths of Fort Worth firefighters Phillip Dean and Brian Collins in a Feb. 11, 1999, fire at the Precious Faith Temple in Lake Worth.

“Now we have permission, and we have teams that are forming now,” he said. The teams would be on standby status in the event of a request for assistance.

When, Not If

Recent rains have improved the situation somewhat, but the National Drought Mitigation Center reported that 65 percent of Texas was in drought conditions as of Feb. 15, with 47 percent of the state under conditions of “severe” to “exceptional.”

State Climatologist Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, says the drought may continue into 2020.

Scott says Parker County had been working before the PK Complex fire on a Wildland Task Force. There’s even more urgency now.

“Their whole job is focused training in wildland firefighting, focused equipment and specialized tactics that you don’t get in normal fire schools,” Scott said. “This group of guys will not only be available to our county but for responses to our surrounding neighbors. Getting to the fire quickly, getting things under control and getting organized quickly can make all the difference in the world. Our key focus is on training, rapid response and organizational structure to make sure that as a fire grows in size our command structure grows with it, allowing us to manage it better. Those are the lessons learned.”

Volunteer fire departments have a long and storied history with the original traced to Benjamin Franklin. In those days, the volunteers had to have the means to pay for their own equipment. Not much has changed.

Officials say there are 1,042 volunteer fire departments with about 28,000 firefighters in Texas, and 85 percent of those use personal funds for equipment and supplies, putting together fire equipment in any way they can from charity events, grants and some government subsidies. Most have no governmental or sovereign immunity.

“They have no duty to respond, they’re never paid and they have no duty to have any training, but if you initiate a response in Texas, you can’t abandon and can be sued if you do abandon the response,” said Mike Carter. “So they’re out there handling medical and fire events, and they’ve got civil liability associated with it. Think about that for a minute. It’s really bizarre. Not even paid for it — just a really good bunch of people going beyond the call of duty even when their own homes are in jeopardy, who do the best with what they’ve got.”

They were heroes in the 2011 fires season, says the Texas Forest Service’s McGuire.

“It is important to remember that volunteers fight fire for no pay whatsoever. They are there because they feel a sense of duty to serve their communities, first and foremost.

They are the ones who put their lives on the line, and in 2011, some of those volunteers actually paid the ultimate price. They died on the fire line trying to protect their communities,” McGuire said. “That sort of selflessness should never be forgotten. The volunteers are the real heroes in this story.”