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2008-01-03

12 Fires reported in 10 days

By Judith Pannebaker

A countywide burn ban has been reinstated - and apparently not a moment too soon - since 13 fires have broken out in Bandera County in the last 10 days, according to Fire Marshal Ralph Dresser.

In fact, Dresser arrived at the Courier office for an interview on the series of blazes approximately 10 minutes after dealing with yet another grass fire.

The most devastating one occurred Sunday, Dec. 30, near Schmidtke Road just past the Mayan Dude Ranch. A large brush fire consumed approximately 30 acres owned by Tom Akin on Ibec Road.

Six volunteer fire departments, including one from Utopia in Uvalde County, as well as 71 personnel, responded to the blaze. In addition, two Blackhawk Helicopters from the Army National Guard in Austin were called into action to assist the weekend’s firefighting efforts.

“They made 20 water drops,” Dresser said. “It would have been a lot worse had the helicopters not been there because the blaze occurred in a semi-box canyon.”

The canyon’s configuration - high terrain on three sides with an opening on a fourth - made the fire particularly worrisome.
“If you have to climb 300 or 400 yards in firefighting gear, it’s really hard to fight that fire with picks and shovels after struggling up a hill,” Dresser explained.

He also credited calm winds with giving local firefighters a break. “The winds were only about five miles an hour. If they were blowing hard, things might have turned out a little differently,” he said, observing fire travels uphill four times faster than it does on level land.

“Two people from the Texas Forest Service also served as advisors during the conflagration, one in a helicopter and the other on the ground,” Dresser said. In addition, five or six EMTs, along with a command vehicle and ambulance, were also on the scene, he said, adding that EMS Director Cindy Martin had assisted at the Incident Command Center.

Dresser also offered kudos to Teich Construction for contributing a dozer and four people to the firefighting effort.
In addition to the Utopia VFD, other volunteer fire departments responding to the blaze included Bandera, Medina, Pipe Creek, Lake Shore and Tarpley. Fifteen brush and tanker trucks were also utilized. Referencing the tanker trucks, Dresser explained, “You have to carry in your own water in when fighting these kinds of fires.”

In addition, law enforcement personnel on the scene included two constables, deputies from the Bandera County Sheriff’s Office, an officer with the Bandera Police Department and a trooper with the Texas Department of Public Safety. “We were called to the scene at 12:20 pm and left the gate at 5:30,” Dresser said.

According to Dresser, the fire started from a campfire purportedly built the night of Saturday, Dec. 29. “The next morning, they thought the fire was out, so they removed the ashes from the rocks and cleared space and scattered them on the grass,” Dresser said. “Apparently the fire wasn’t completely extinguished. It just took one ember to start a 30-acre fire.”

In addition to Sunday’s blaze, three of the baker’s dozen of recent rounds of conflagrations involved structure fires. Two structures were totally destroyed, Dresser said, one occurring after an earlier grass fire at the same location the afternoon of Friday, Dec. 21.

“We were called back to the scene at 6 pm that evening,” he said, adding that a 50- to 60-year-old vacation house off FM 1283 in Medina Lake was completely destroyed. “We know where the fire started but not how,” Dresser added.

In a second structure fire, flames engulfed a closet or shed attached to a home on Panther Hollow, off FM 3240. The shed housed an on-demand water heater that worked by a combination of propane gas and electricity. Dresser indicated a fire was ignited when a gas leak came into contact with an electrical spark. “Luckily we contained the flames so the only damage to the house was from smoke and water damage,” he said.

Not so lucky, however, was another residence on Medina Lake. “The people who own it probably just visit once every six months,” Dresser said.

“Apparently there had been a forcible entry and kids had used the home as a kind of clubhouse. It looked like the fire was started when they left a lit cigarette on a mattress.” The half-century-old edifice was also completely destroyed.
Dresser’s tales continued.

“We almost lost a trailer in Medina over the weekend. A man started burning trash, but left the fire unattended and it crossed over to the neighboring property,” he said. “Luckily, a woman used a hose to put out the fire before it reached her mobile home.”

Dresser was clearly relieved when commissioners officially reinstated a countywide burn ban during their Dec. 27 meeting - rather than rely on what he jokingly referred to as the “flex burn ban.”

“We always expect people to use good judgment. Sometimes that happens and sometimes it doesn’t,” he said resignedly.

To illustrate how easily fires begin during optimum burn conditions, he cited a recent that occurred after a county resident paused his mower, but allowed its engine to idle. “The heat of the engine was enough to burn a half acre,” he said.

Dresser again emphasized the current dangerous conditions and the ease with which grass fires can begin.

“All these tall grasses are dead and freeze-cured. Even half an inch of rain cannot put moisture back in the grasses. Coupled with relative humidity of 17 percent and winds, we have a county filled with volatile fuel,” Dresser said.

“That fire I came from 10 minutes ago was caused because the mesh screen on top of a burn barrel was really more of a grid and allowed sparks to fly out of the barrel and ignite the grass.”

Although Dresser did not characterize the area as such, for all intents and purposes, Bandera County has become a virtual tinderbox - and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.