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2014-08-28

Ranch fire proves hard to fight

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

Photo by John Stith
A fire on Highway 173 South, caused by errant flames from burning brush, proved hard due to hilly terrain.



A string of fires in Bandera County has kept Fire Marshal John Stith hopping and the recent blazes had nothing to do with the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't burn ban.
At 2:25 pm, Thursday, August 21, a call came in to 9-1-1, reporting that burning brush had gotten out of control on a ranch located in the 4900 block of Highway 173 South.
"Once the rancher realized the wind had picked up considerably, he began covering up the burn piles, but by that time, it was too late," Stith said in an interview. The upstart was that although the fire covered only about 10 acres, it took three days, 835 man-hours and a helicopter to ensure the blaze was completely contained. "The accident caused a tremendous workload on all local emergency personnel," Stith said.
The problem became evident when firefighters realized the burn had ignited dry brush piles of clear-cut cedars drying on the side of a mountain. "Ten acres isn't much on flat ground, but it becomes almost insurmountable in the topography of the Hill Country," Stith explained.
Hampering fire fighting was the fuel load and labor-intensive maneuvering in the hilly terrain and 100-plus temperatures. "It took 900 feet of hose just to reach the fire," Stith said. "The tankers gave us sufficient water, but putting boots on the ground in almost inaccessible terrain proved difficult."
Volunteer fire departments reporting to the scene included Bandera, Pipe Creek, Castle Lake, Tarpley, Medina and Lake Shores. Approximately 15 trucks and other firefighting apparatus were used in the effort.
Additionally, EMS dedicated a standby ambulance unit and the American Red Cross opened an on-site food wagon. Also, Buddy Byrd donated portable toilets for the extended firefighting period. "He's always been there to help us and we're grateful for Buddy's support," Stith said.
Stith had requested air support assistance from the Texas Forest Service, but the agency helicopter was already involved with another emergency.
"AirLife volunteered their services to assist the firefighting efforts," Stith said, adding, "AirLife has always had a great partnership with Bandera County. We're very grateful for their support."
He credited excellent coordination among EMS, emergency management and the fire departments with a lack of injuries to firefighters. "Only one firefighter was treated locally for heat exhaustion and that's a exceptionally good record," Stith said.
The firefighting efforts took place over a three-day period. On the first day, firefighters left the scene at 2 am and the second day they were on site until 6 pm. "On Saturday, August 23, a crew with the Forest Service arrived to do handwork and ensure that all the embers had been extinguished," Stith said. "We didn't need any flare-ups."
In the end, Stith said that the wind and low humidity had created an ideal environment, allowing the fire to expand at a rapid rate. "Just because a person can burn, it doesn't necessarily mean a person should burn," Stith said. "The burning brush and embers just got away from the landowner who was doing everything right. It just got away from him."
A second incident that occurred on Saturday, August 23 involved four vehicles at a used car lot located in the 2000 block of Highway 16 North.
A call came to emergency dispatch at 7:35 pm reported that a vehicle was on fire in the back of K&M Auto. The witness said smoke was coming out from under the hood of a 2003 Chevrolet pickup truck.
Apparently the fire spread rapidly to the engine and flames engulfed the truck. Additionally, the heat and fire caused extensive damage to three other vehicles parked in close proximity. According to Stith, the fire appeared accidental and previous work done on the truck may have been a contributing factor. However, the vehicle fire remains under investigation.