James Thalman

James Thalman

Story Vault
By James Thalman
AUSTIN—Operations this past September at the largest public safety answering point in the country’s largest state were like the 50 square miles of the central Texas high plains that surround it—on fire.

“Everything just seemed to catch fire at once, as if the whole region was just kind of exploding,” said Shawn Barnes, 9-1-1 and Emergency Communications coordinator with the Capital Area Council of Governments (CAPCOG).

Inside CAPCOG’s 33 PSAPs, things were spontaneously combusting as well: Calls jumped from a routine 300 or so a day to nearly 2,000 on Sept. 4, 2011. The number jumped to a record 2,549 calls for help as the wildfires raced ahead of almost every attempt to contain them.

“Emergency services have had to deal with the worst wildfire outbreak in Texas history during the hottest weather on record, and they’ve been heroic and cool as cucumbers from day one,” said Texas state Rep. David Swinford.

Totals from the National Interagency Situation Report released in November support Swinford’s claim: 20,635 fires, 3.7 million acres burned, 4,783 structures destroyed—including nearly 3,000 homes—four fire-related deaths.

The monetary loss to agriculture, the logging industry, and to residents displaced or wiped out by the fires is still being reckoned. An estimated 2 million trees were burned in the nearly 5,000 wildfires in Texas in 2011.

The communications and command centers supervisors didn’t need to see the numbers on call logs to know they had a world-class disaster on their hands. If wildfires were classified or came with a force ranking like earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes, this would have been The Big One, the Katrina, a fire tsunami that instead of coming in hard and fast, rippled out from their epicenter near Austin and across the terrain, sometimes swinging through the treetops faster than trackers in pick-up trucks could keep up.

“Wildfires are an altogether different nature-related disaster,” said Craig Gardner, who studies the nature of wildfires at the University of Texas in Austin. “Wildfires hit and then lead a wild goose chase in every direction, and call centers, especially at first, send out emergency crews in pretty much the same manner. It’s not the way it’s planned, but that’s the way it is.”

The scale of the Texas fires was so big and their destructive force so massive and simultaneous, that the federal government declared Texas a disaster area 10 days after the first fires near Austin were reported—well before the fires had taken their historic toll.

Thousands of fire and EMS professionals from local, state, and federal public safety agencies showed up and stayed. From the first, responders from the night of Sept. 4 when the wildest, biggest fires erupted, moved quickly to keep people and structures out of harm’s way, even though high winds often made plotting the fires anyone’s guess.

The number of homes lost in one month eclipsed the number of homes normally burned in a decade. Call center supervisors and front-line firefighters stayed on the move. One team of perimeter assessors put 10,000 miles on their pick-up truck in two weeks. However, it was a single-digit in the daily briefings report that became the most closely watched entry for the communications center: Number of fire-related deaths—4.

“That’s the big, important number to any public safety person,” Barnes said.

With the number of fires, structures lost, miles of fences burned, livestock counted, and wildlife estimated ticked up as automatically as a car’s odometer, “that number didn’t change, which was stunning in a good way,” he said. “It’s still hard to believe that only four people were killed, especially given the scale and duration of the fires.”

A gang of bullies

Wildfires most often start spontaneously and at random, said Linda Moon, Texas Forest Service communications manager. Causes are most often lightning strikes, but fires can be ignited from sunlight magnified through discarded pop and beer bottles and other pieces of glass.

The fires that by the end of October had become the most destructive group of fires in dry and hot Texas history were started, federal and state investigators believe, by sparks caused when tree limbs touched power lines in a fairly unpopulated section of Austin.

But no answer is definitive.

They follow their own pattern, and each one is unique, Gardner said.

“How past fires and similar weather and fuel conditions played out in previous fire seasons give only the vaguest clue. Like nature itself, wildfires are knowable but not predictable.”

All you can do

A wildfire is never one fire, but rather a group of them—sometimes a flotilla of them that sail across the tops of trees. When a significant number of fires start to develop its own kind of solar system or central fire and orbital blazes, they’re called a “complex.”

“Things go chaotic pretty quickly out there, and where there isn’t fire, there’s smoke, thick and in the way in all directions,” said Brandon Bancroft, Bastrop County Fire Chief ESD No. 1.

Wildfires are uniquely huge in scale compared to house fires. They tend to grow much bigger before they are corralled or directed toward bulldozed fire lines—wide, shallow trenches clear of any fuel in an attempt to pen the fire in while it burns itself out. Progress is measured in percentage contained of a particular fire or group of fires, rather than in the minutes it takes to extinguish the blaze.

Firefighters can throw on all the water from a lake, drop fire retardant, or try to get it to burn back on itself, and a wildfire just keeps being a living, growing, and moving thing.

“It’s not going to stop in its tracks until it’s burned everything in its tracks,” Bancroft said. “You try to keep a system to it, and coordinating efforts actually comes off better than you think it will, mainly I think because everybody is trying to do their best all day and all night long or who knows how long.”

Barnes said it’s a matter of everybody talking to each other, sharing information, and making sure the updates go to where they need to.

“Truth is there’s really no way to plan how to handle something so massive; you just staff up and do the best you can,” he said.

Texas-size loss and then some

The Bastrop County wildfires, which became a kind of ground zero of what one firefighter called “a conflagration of calamity” between Sept. 4 and the forest service announcement Sept. 22 that the wildfires were 95 percent contained, was the largest of the outbreaks and burned 5,700 square miles since the mid-November 2010 fire season began.

“Every statistic associated with this season is a record of some sort,” Barnes said, noting that “every season is fire season this year.” He said the one big positive that shouldn’t be overlooked—“the one that is more telling than any other to me”—is the total 50,237 structures saved by quick action and constant vigilance by communications centers and firefighters.

“It might seem kind of a crazy thing to say when these wildfires will go down as the worst of the worst in state history—maybe in the country’s history,” Barnes said. “But, believe it or not, things could have been worse.”

Tinderbox waiting for matches

As bad as things were, they weren’t past a joke, as one displaced and smoke-weary resident showed with a temporary sign outside a convenience store: “Satan called. He wants his weather back.”

The sentiment might be funnier if not for mounting meteorological evidence that the Texas dry spell is as likely as not to reach Biblical proportions. Under any scenario and most long-term forecasts, Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said Texas will continue to be like a tinderbox filled with strike-anywhere matches.

More than 80 percent of Texas is classified as having “exceptional drought,” the driest ranking on the state’s five-tier scale, according to an alarming assessment by the climatology office. “The worst one-year drought overall for Texas in the last 100 years is also the worst one-year drought at 55.8% of all locations in the state,” said Nielsen-Gammon.

The “hell and no water” conditions that officially began a year ago October caused $5.2 billion in losses for rural farm communities—the greatest seasonal loss on record. Cattle ranchers lost $2 billion; the cotton industry $1.8 billion. Figures don’t include smaller crops such as alfalfa.

“I’ve been involved in cattle and calf production my entire life, and I have never seen these types of conditions across Texas,” Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said in a department news release. “Texans are suffering through the worst one-year drought on record, and this calamity is just getting worse by the day.”

Some of the fuel has been consumed, Nielson-Gammon said.

But the region is the driest ever in history and likely to stay that way, he said. Moisture still forms into rain and comes in heavy sheets, but a good percentage of it that doesn’t dissipate in flash floods simply evaporates in the heat waves coming off the parched surface. “Drought remains our biggest emergency, but you can’t call 9-1-1 for that.”

Preparing for the worst

The conflagration of 2011 was actually under way in 2008, the year the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released a study warning that an unprecedented era of wildfires could break out in the region and go on for some time.

Emergency preparedness conferences as well as daily situation briefings focused on the fact that from the panhandle to the gulf, wide bands of the mostly arid region seem to be turning back to what they were before the ground was furrowed for crops and plumbed with irrigation water—a desert.

Some firefighting agencies did their best to prepare, “but most just planned on the fires happening and when they came, they’d deal the best they could,” said Greg Obeck, Emergency Communications coordinator with the Capital Area Council of Governments (CACOG) in Austin, when asked what could be learned from 2011.

“This was unprecedented fire behavior,” Obeck said, adding that neither local EFD agency nor the 17 federal ones involved managing the incidents had seen anything like it. “No one on the face of this Earth has fought fires like this under these conditions.”

No EMS plan, no matter how sophisticated, could have predicted that on Sept. 4 winds would cause tree branches in two different locations 50 miles apart to come into contact with power lines, showering sparks that would ignite the two biggest fires among the 195 new fires the Texas Forest Service reported in the first two weeks of September.

“Responders under such conditions can only maintain a defensive posture,” said Brian Dale, Salt Lake City Fire Department deputy chief and Accreditation Board chair for the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch. “It’s like a shortstop in baseball—you can’t know where the ball is going to be hit, but chances are it’s going to be hit. You better know the play if it comes to you.”

Sometimes, nature seems to bring all its heavy-hitters to bat at once.

Montgomery County in the Houston area is a case in point. The scale of both the fires and the demand on the call centers are a fraction of the size of the operations in Bastrop. The rigors of knowing that doing twice what you can is half of what you need multiplies the stress on any emergency response team, said Woodlands Fire Department Chief Alan Benson.

Handling wildfires is hectic enough, but fire seasons to come will no doubt stretch the township’s 15 dispatchers thin. Two more dispatchers are being added in this fiscal year, but the additional help won’t likely offset the urbanization of Montgomery County, Benson said. The more homes and neighborhoods are built in rural rangeland or near wilderness areas, the more destructive a wildfire will be.

Building in the fire zone

Communication, despite the varying frequency problems common most anywhere, worked surprisingly well, and seemed to be the only ally at times, Barnes said.

Everyone knew what the goal was, but from initial dispatching calls to field command centers, to bull horns, to cell phone texting, to word of mouth, it was quick, skillful response to initial calls that kept a lid on things.

The 10-fold increase in calls for emergency help wasn’t from the wildfires in the remote areas but for help at residences that stood in an oncoming fire’s path.

The Bastrop County Fire Department communications center was inundated by calls due to the manifold effect of wildfires setting off structure fires that in turn set off hundreds of smaller fires—each of which had to be responded to. Dispatchers at the call center in Austin told supervisors of multiple homeowners refusing to leave or stay away from their homes in desperate bids to save what remained.

The number of get-back-to-nature dwellings and housing developments in interface zones severely increased the injuries and personal financial losses—something the Forest Service had been warning planning and zoning agencies about for years.

All the planning in the world, however, will never change the face of response, Barnes said.

"No matter the conditions, no matter how long the drought lasts, no matter how good our communications, no matter what, the job is always going to be to take the calls and get help to where it’s needed most in the most efficient manner."