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2009-01-22

Latest grass fire - could have been a lot worse

By Judith Pannebaker

For the second time this month, local volunteer firefighters have had to rally the troops and battle a not inconsequential blaze.

On Monday, Jan. 12, a grass fire broke out just north of the intersection of Highway 173 and FM 2828. While not as destructive as a recent one in Comal County, if conditions had differed, Bandera’s version could have had just as serious ramifications.

According to Fire Marshal Ralph Dresser, volunteer fire departments from Medina, Bandera, Lakeshore and one from Kerr County had responded to the blaze. Medina served as primary unit.

“The fire broke out on Poacher’s Trail, the first trail on the southside of Bandera Pass on 173,” Dresser said. “A TxDOT contractor was repairing a guardrail on the side of the highway when sparks from his cutting torch caught the grass on fire. He failed to notice the fire right away and when he did, didn’t have enough water to put it out.”

After firefighters arrived on the scene at approximately, 3 pm, the contractor blocked the northbound lane of the highway with traffic cones, allowing firefighters to work the blaze safely behind the barricades. Additionally, three deputies with the Bandera County Sheriff’s Office and two constables assisted with traffic control.

By the time the grass fire was contained at approximately 8 pm, more than 15 acres had been consumed.

“The fire crossed over a fence line and started up a 15 degree slope, which made it difficult to extinguish,” Dresser continued.
“As everyone knows, Bandera Pass is very steep. If the fire had continued up the slope, we would have had to fight it from the top down. We were very lucky in that regard.” In addition, the flames burned from between 200 and 300 feet along the highway.

The luck almost ran out the next morning, however, when a motorist noticed smoke again emanating from the charred area. “Apparently, the wind had kicked up still smoldering sparks,” Dresser explained. “There were no visible flames and the Medina unit responded and took care of it.”

Commending all firefighting units involved, the fire marshal said, “Everyone worked together and did a great job containing the fire.”

He also noted that although the relatively low humidity of 15 percent had contributed to the ferocity of the blaze, conditions could definitely have been worse.

“That day the winds were calm to five miles per hour,” he said. “If the winds had been stronger, four or five structures in the area would have been threatened.”

Dresser also singled out for kudos other participants involved in containing the county’s latest conflagration. “An emergency unit stayed at the site until 7 pm that evening,” he said. Also, EMS Director Cindy Martin shuttled back and forth to Bandera rounding up chainsaws that were used to battle the blaze, Dresser added.

Andy Larsen of the Texas Forest Service had traveled from Fredericksburg to consult with Dresser on ways to combat the fire had it raged up the pass. “In that case, we planned to use bulldozers, but luckily, that wasn’t necessary,” Dresser explained.

Additionally, a Texas Department of Safety helicopter out of Del Rio was on standby. “However, we had the fire under control by nightfall so it wasn’t called in either,” Dresser said.

He even singled out for praise the culprit’s contribution to the firefighting effort.

“The contractor provided food and water for the firefighters,” Dresser said, adding, “This was just an accident, carelessness on his part.”

However, in the future the hapless contractor will no doubt take extra precautions when welding by dry grass in the middle of an extreme drought.