As wildfires rage to record heights in West Texas, local firefighters are responding in force.
Gainesville Assistant Fire Chief Wally Cox said city and county emergency workers recently joined statewide-coordinated efforts to manage fires in the troubled regions. A “Cooke County Strike Team” — equipped with a command vehicle, plus brush trucks from the Era, Lindsay, North Shore and Valley View fire departments — hit the road Saturday to lend aid to cities such as Post and Merkel.
The coordination stems from the Texas Interstate Fire Mutual Aid System (TIFMAS), enabling any department in any Texas region to respond to a major disaster following an alert from the state. The local strike team is part of a broader recruitment that includes volunteers from Austin and Travis counties.
No effort is going to waste, but even all efforts combined may not be enough.
“This is almost an unprecedented event in the state,” Cox said, relaying information from the Texas Forestry Service. “From what we are hearing right now, this last weekend was probably one of the worst wildfire days in the history of the state of Texas.”
Associated Press stories report hundreds of square miles burned in the droughted West Texas regions, leaving dozens of homes destroyed and many horses and livestock killed. Affected areas include Stonewall, Post, Merkel, Palo Pinto, Midland, Fort Davis, Amarillo and Dumas and total damage value is unknown. Human injuries have been minimal, an AP story said, though one firefighter is in critical condition following severe burns.
Cooke County strike team members Jason Botcher and Marcus Dennis, reporting West Texas details via speakerphone Tuesday, witnessed “apocalyptic” walls of fire ranging 60 feet tall during their 12-hour shifts. Many of the fires are in various levels of containment but low humidity, burgeoning heat and winds that sometimes exceed 40 miles per hour continue to fuel a steady burning spread.
The winds are expected to stay below 40 mph this week, Botcher said, and were acceptable Tuesday. But as long as they stay above 40 mph, fire management aircraft can’t perform from overhead.
Ground vehicles aren’t always much more effective.
“The problem we’re having is that these fires are so remote, and their terrain is so bad, that we’re unable to get vehicles into the fires to stop them,” he said. Botcher also explained that in the absence of aircraft, some crews have had to veer off main roads and use motor graders to cut “firebreaks” near the blaze, trenching down to a span of bare soil that deprives the fire of fuel when the two meet. Brush trucks are kept nearby to provide water jets.
Another flux factor is what starts the fires. Virtually all Texas counties, in their drought, have been under burn bans. But in some cases, Botcher said, the wildfires have been caused by illegal outdoor burns — torch-cutting that trickled sparks and hit dry grass, in one incident. Lightning may have caused other blazes.
Cooke County itself appears to face no such prospects. It was under a burn ban until Monday, when county commissioners lifted it. But local moisture levels have been far more favorable than what much of the state faces, and Cox said the strike team went to West Texas with only a minimal amount of firefighting resources, so local supplies are well-stocked.
And under TIFMAS terms, Cox added, Cooke County officials could have declined to help in the disaster if burn danger nearby was truly imminent. Current signs don’t show that.
“We looked at the weather and what we were expecting moisture-wise, green-wise,” Cox said. “And we are far and above what they are out in West Texas, as far as moisture content. That’s not to say we couldn’t have a fire here. We could, but we have ample resources to take care of that.”