On May 17, 2012, Chris Barron, Executive Director with the State Fireman’s and Fire Marshall’s Association of Texas, spoke with KUT News about his experience during the Central Texas wildfires.
Barron: You bet. So, in March of last year, we were starting to see a tremendous increase in the number of fires in Texas and our organization represents about 22,000 firefighters across Texas and over 1,200 fire departments. So, we hear a lot from our organizational members when activity starts to pick up or there is circumstances in which they are needing help. And, I’ll never forget that in this time period, generally the fire season usually starts for a typical fire season around May, June of each year and then goes through about July, August, September. That’s usually the hot and active time for fire departments in Texas.
Well, in March 2011, we started to see a pick up in the number of fires in Texas and we saw some major fires; one fire in particular called the PK Complex Fire, which was basically Possum Kingdom Lake and all the homes around it and all the area around it was basically on fire. That was one major event that we saw and we heard about and I’ll never forget talking to Chief Steve Perdue of the Mineral Wells Volunteer Fire Department and calling him on another reference for another project that I asked him what he’s up to and his immediate response was I’ve got fire all around me and I gotta talk to you later. That kind of set the tone for the rest of the season. When he made that statement and I’ve got fire all around me and we saw the worst fire season we ever have seen in Texas in 2011.
KUT News: That was in March?
Barron: That was just in March and that was really the start of the longest summer we’ve been in for quite a long time; worst drought and worst fire season that we’ve been in.
KUT News: What was his department, Possum Kingdom, did you say?
Barron: So, he’s a Chief or he was a Chief in Mineral Wells, which is next to Possum Kingdom up in the North Texas area, West of Fort Worth. It’s an area in which a lot of folks who live and work in the Dallas/Fort Worth area have lake homes, very wealthy lake homes around this lake and it’s a very quaint area and when we started receiving pictures of fire around that area and we saw where one picture in particular where there was a boat on the lake and yet everything around it was on fire, all the residents, it was just the most ironic picture you’d ever see where these two individuals were on this boat and fire is all around them. They basically were trapped on the lake and when Chief Perdue was telling me about this fire and that they were basically evacuating people via water, they were taking boats up to their lake homes, putting them on the boat and then taking them away, because their ingress and egress routes were blocked because of fire. And so, that particular fire was really one of the most major events to start off a whole summer of major events.
KUT News: Let’s fast forward then to the Labor Day fires.
Barron: Labor Day fires. Wow, what a day.
KUT News: Because that’s our core history project is about the Labor Day Central Texas fires.
Barron: So, Labor Day Fires of 2011, a day we’ll never forget. We actually have some of the best weather predictors and best fire forecasters around in the Country that work for the Texas Forest Service and they came out with a prediction the day before the Labor Day fires that said conditions are lining up for a very active fire date, drought conditions were there, the wind predictions were there, the low humidity were there; everything was lining up for the perfect storm. Not only the perfect storm in the fact of the weather and the fire behavior, but also the fact it was a perfect storm for the fire service because our funding for fire protection drastically got cut last year because of state budget restrictions. So, we had a grant program that went from $25 million to just $7 million in one year.
KUT News: What was cut in that grant; specifically, what was cut?
Barron: So the grant project provides grant funding for protective clothing. In the fire service, we generally are issued a set of clothing that allows us to go into a structure fire and be protected against vapors and heat and this and that and the other. However, this clothing is like wearing a winter coat in the middle of summer; it’s something we don’t want to do when it’s 108 degrees outside, so we started seeing pictures of firefighters fighting wild land fires with no gear on whatsoever. So, this grant funding would have supplied those fire departments with protective clothing; it would have supplied them with brush trucks or water tenders to allow them to put fires out more efficiently and effectively.
So, when Labor Day came about, we were very strapped. We had three major fires just in this area in Central Texas. We had Steiner Ranch; we had Pflugerville and then we had Spicewood, just in Travis County and then, at the same time, Bastrop was burning up. So, I’m also a fire chief for Manchaca Volunteer Fire Department and I was working the emergency operation center in Downtown Austin here, to coordinate resources and when I’m listening to all these fires going on at the same time and they’re calling me, asking for air resources or other resources from across the state and I call our state coordinator and I said, hey look I need a strike team from wherever you can get it from. The firefighter calls me back and he says I’ll do the best I can, but they’re pretty much strapped for resources at this point.
So, we later got a call that there was a team coming in from the Houston area and we thought, okay great, some relief is coming, because we had four major fires, Bastrop and then the three in Travis County and they were major fires; they were just not your five acre, ten acre, these were hundreds of acres burning up. In Bastrop alone, over 1,400 homes burned and 33,000 acres. So, when you get a fire that big and it’s just the conditions are so bad that the wind is basically driving your fire and you can’t even catch up to it, the thing you want to do is just get people out; you want to evacuate. And, we have to call on the air resources, helicopters and planes in order to get a stop on some of these fires, or at least slow them down so that the ground resources, the firefighters, can catch up and finish putting out some of the stuff.
So, we later got a call that, I’m sorry but the team has been diverted; they’ve got a major fire working in Montgomery County. Your help is now gone. So, that was just like deflating a balloon because we thought we were getting some help and next thing you know, because; what happened is it just extended our period of being on these scenes. More homes burned up, more property loss and it was because there was not enough firefighters around. There wasn’t enough equipment around.
KUT News: Because Houston could’ve sent you a whole lot, had they been able to.
Barron: Sure. At that time, they weren’t as active as the Central Texas area, but at the same time, they also had the conditions and the wind had basically picked up there in that area and caused power lines to spark and when that happens, generally power lines will send off sparks and start major fires.
KUT News: So, Houston diverted everything to Montgomery County?
Barron: Umm, hmm. They did. So, we were without help. We had to rely, we had three helicopters in this area that the local Starflight helicopters that helped us put out some of the fires in Pflugerville and Spicewood, but it wasn’t enough. Those helicopters only have, you know, 100 to 200 gallons on them, generally, and we see where some of the big tankers, the air tankers, they have thousands of gallons of fire retardant and water that they can carry.
KUT News: What about Dallas? What about Tarrant County?
Barron: So, at the same time of the Labor Day fires here in Central Texas, they were having the same thing in Montgomery County, Tarrant County, Possum Kingdom; once again, Possum Kingdom had numerous fires, Eastland had a major fire in which they all lost one of their volunteer firefighters because of this wild land fire. So, everybody was facing the same thing; it was just not a regional based fire, it was, the whole state was in a bad predicament, bad scenario. At one point in time, we had every air tanker in the entire Country in Texas except for one and that’s incredible. We had the biggest one that’s even available, it’s called a DC-10 and it was station out at Bergstrom and it got here a little too late, but it was still effective. Once we got it and the pilots have to have a mandatory rest period because they were fighting fires in New Mexico and California.
KUT News: How many tankers was that?
Barron: Oh gosh. I don’t know how many we had because they were all over the state. I would imagine there were at least a couple of dozen, if not more, just in aircraft as far as planes. Now, helicopters, unlimited amount of helicopters, just all over the place. We had private contractors bringing in helicopters; we had, you know, local medical helicopters that were making water drops and they would pick up water out of somebody’s pond or a lake or a stream and utilize it.
KUT News: So, you were at the command center in Downtown Austin.
Barron: Umm, hmm.
KUT News: For the whole time, how did –
Barron: We worked basically 24 hour shifts, so I relieved another chief that had worked the command center, then somebody relieved me and generally we rotated around and so when I wasn’t at the command center, I was doing my fire chief duties or my executive director duties, trying to help Texas out; seeing what else we could do to, not only try and get gear to these firefighters that needed it, but also to try and work with the state to bring in additional resources from out of state. I think, at one point in time, we had firefighters from 48 other states here, assisting Texas fire departments.
KUT News: Amazing, just amazing. So, the first, the moment you heard about our fires here in Central Texas, where were you?
Barron: I was at my job with the State Fireman’s Association and I received a page and, in fact, I still think I have it on my pager, in which notification was sent out that there is a major fire working in Pflugerville and we sent a brush truck from my fire department up there and a tender up there, a water tender. The next thing you know, Spicewood had a major fire also and then Steiner Ranch had a major fire. So, it was just back to back to back major fires. I’ll never forget the, for example, the Oak Hill fire that cropped up, I think it was a few days before Labor Day. Listening to the radio and hearing one of the firefighters say we have another home on fire, this is another loss. So, they were out of resources and they had called in several fire departments to assist them with that particular fire and that was started by a transient that didn’t put out the little warming fire. But, it was, it’s one of those things you’ll never forget, kind of, where you were at and what you’re doing and the after effects of oh my gosh, we just didn’t realize it was going to be this bad.
KUT News: Where were you when you got the page?
Barron: I was at my office for the State Association and looking at it and I immediately went and got my radio out of my truck and started listening and I thought, oh this is going to be bad. And, of course, the weather predictors and then even one of the local firefighters said get ready for a busy day the day before and it’s amazing that they can predict this just based on the wind predictions, the low relative humidity and then the fact that everything was so dry because of the drought.
KUT News: And that was statewide, those weather conditions?
Barron: Statewide. That day was, sometimes I call it black day.
KUT News: Which was the fourth, the day before?
Barron: Right. Yep.
KUT News: Why do you call it the black day?
Barron: Uh, black is basically what we see after a fire has gone through. It’s the after effects of a fire; it’s everything is black and scorched.
KUT News: So it was Pflugerville, Spicewood and Steiner Ranch.
KUT News: And Bastrop was somewhere in between those?
Barron: All those. Yep, on the same date.
KUT News: So, did you fight fires directly as fire chief at Manchaca? Did you go –
Barron: I went out to, yeah, right Manchaca. We went out to, we had individuals at all three locations. I went out to Spicewood at one point in time to relieve some crews. We had one of our fire trucks that was caught in the middle of Highway 71 and the fire overran the road. It basically jumped the entire Highway 71 and, at that point in time, one of my firefighters called me up and said look we’re about to burn up our tender if we don’t get it out of the way, what should we do? I said, take it off road, whatever you’ve got to do, get it out of there. I mean, that’s a $250,000 piece of apparatus, so it got a little hot. It ended up busting a tire and we were lucky we were able to save it.
But, dealing with that and then my firefighters in Pflugerville at the same time, trying to coordinate, you know, relief because, you know, you’re out there; sometimes you just don’t get the relief you need. So, we’re shuttling people back and forth; we then sent crews overnight to the Steiner Ranch fire when they had all those homes burning up. You just can’t let a fire go and then not expect to go in and clean up afterwards and put out the hot spots and so numerous nights our firefighters were there putting out hot spots and trying to assist with the control of that particular fire. That fire in particular had, I think, two or three helicopters working it because it was, you know, close to the lake number one, but also it was just so, the terrain was so rough that you couldn’t hardly get to some of the areas of the fires. It was so rough a terrain, you’re dealing with canyons, you’re dealing with rocks, you’re dealing with all sorts of things that are dangerous to a firefighter that, when we’re out there fighting fire, carrying a hose that weighs, you know, an amount and we’re walking with gear. We’ve got to be very careful with, you know, what type of environment and terrain we’re going into and so often times we have to rely on air support.
So, in Texas 78% of the fire service is volunteer and so there you are, basically taking time off from their jobs or their family life to respond to fires and then, in Manchaca, we probably have 50 volunteer firefighters and then we have 12 paid staff, four on each day that work.
KUT News: So, who cut the budget; the legislature in the last session?
Barron: So, as you know, the legislature was in a financial crunch and we knew that we were a target also, just with just about all other grant programs. So, we were just hoping they wouldn’t totally cut out the funding. So, they reduced it from a $25 million grant program to a $7 million grant program and we were happy with that because we were glad that they didn’t cut the whole thing out, but we did not know and it was not predicted that it was going to be a wildfire season like we’ve never had. So, the timing couldn’t have been any worse.
KUT News: And it was cut from the grant program of what?
Barron: It’s a grant program underneath the Texas Forest Service that they administer and they allow for fire departments to apply for equipment, whether it is trucks or protective clothing or hoses.
KUT News: What else did they cut besides the protective clothing?
Barron: They cut the protective clothing, they cut the brush trucks out of it, they cut the tankers out of it, they cut the fire equipment out of the grant program. So, if you had a fire department that burned up, you know, 1,000 feet of hose, there was no state level funding to assist those fire departments out.
KUT News: When you say they cut those, that meant cut replacing damaged equipment or how does that work?
Barron: Yeah, exactly.
KUT News: When you cut something, you just can’t buy a new one. Is that it?
Barron: Right. Exactly. So, you can’t buy a new one, you can’t buy a used one, there is no money that would go to these fire departments. Generally, that particular grant funding had a matching portion of 10% that the fire department would have to contribute to the program so that they show that they are, you know, they’re also contributing to purchasing the equipment or purchasing a truck, but when everything stopped, those fire departments couldn’t go out and buy a needed hose or they would have to basically take away from one budget category, whether it’s fuel and then put it into another budget category such as replacement of hose. And, we had over and over stories of firefighters taking money out of their personal pocketbooks and putting fuel in the trucks because there is just not enough state funding out there.
So many fire departments rely on donations and bake sales and so when we started getting pictures of these fire departments fighting wild land fires with no gear on, we started up a private fund based on donations and the Independent Insurance Agents of Texas came to us and they said we’d like to give you $100,000 to assist these fire departments out. Well, the standard set of gear for wild land firefighting is about $200 per set; $200 to $300. So, we were able to buy a bunch of sets and give them out to these fire departments and then later on, they came and they said well what are your needs?
So, we started polling the fire service at the time and we had over $1 million worth of requests for wild land gear, just the protective clothing. IIAT, Independent Insurance Agents of Texas came back and they said we would like to help you out again. So, they gave us another $100,000. So, that started off this private campaign through our association to assist these fire departments out since we knew that the state was not able to assist these fire departments out because of the grant funding being cut.
Well, then Labor Day hit and we saw just tremendous amounts of fire; we saw where fire departments were not able to put fuel in their vehicles, not able to get them repaired because they had been running so much. Everybody had the most active level of response they have ever had and so they had to start cutting somewhere because they were just running out of money. We went to Lt. Dewhurst at that time and said if there is anything that can be done, we need to help our fire departments out by allowing them emergency purchases of fixing trucks or a hose or putting fuel in vehicles.
KUT News: Is this before the Labor Day fires?
Barron: This was right after the Labor Day fires. We saw him actually out at the Bastrop Labor Day fire and we said, you know, put a bug in his ear that we need some assistance. A week later, he came to us and said I’ve got $5 million out of state money; wherever he got it, we don’t know, for emergency appropriations to assist these fire departments out. He also gave the Texas Forest Service the authority to go ahead and spend next year’s money from that grant program for immediately requests for needs and so that greatly helped, although the $5 million was gone within two weeks, it greatly helped some of those fire departments out, at least get their trucks back in operational condition and put fuel in them. So, that helped out, but it was far short of the outstanding needs. We still have about $300,000 worth of outstanding need and after we set up this Texas Wildfire Relief Program and this fund and we got donations from all sorts of corporations, whether it be AT&T or Verizon or Apache Corporation; small donations here and there outside of the two big ones from IIAT and that helped put a lot of firefighters in gear, but we still have an outstanding request.
KUT News: For gear?
Barron: For gear; just the basics. And we would like to at least, you know, at some point in time catch up with all those gear requests and then move on to accessory items, such as goggles to help protect an individual’s eyes from falling inverse in the smoke and soot or a lightweight hardhat that is worn by a firefighter when they’re out fighting wild land fires that is not so heavy like what we wear when we’re inside a burning building. Or things such as gloves; a lot of people don’t even understand or think that something simple such as leather gloves greatly help us out when we’re out there fighting fires and, of course, bottled water and that type of thing. And we saw a lot of donations, especially on the big fires where people were bringing in cases of water and that certainly helped, but they didn’t have the protective goggles that we needed that we can withstand fire and the heat and they didn’t have the lightweight hard helmets that we were sometimes when we’re fighting wild land fires.
KUT News: The need that you’re talking about is statewide?
Barron: The need is statewide, no doubt.
KUT News: What specific needs are in our Central Texas neighborhood?
Barron: So, outside of the City of Austin, which the City of Austin is primarily covered by City of Austin Fire Department and then you have 13 surrounding fire departments that are generally covered by what are called emergency services districts, which is a funding mechanism. Once you get outside of Travis County, you start seeing more combination and all volunteer based fire departments that are a little bit lower funded. So, they need all sorts of things such as wild land protective clothing or hose replacements or a wild land hose, which is a lighter weight hose. The thing about a wild land fire is fire moves so fast. It’s not contained to a structure, so when it’s being wind driven and it’s going on for acres and acres, you’ve got to expend the life of a firefighter by putting them in lightweight clothing, putting lightweight hoses on the trucks, making sure that the firefighter lasts longer because they are going to be out there a whole lot longer than they will be for a structure fire.
KUT News: It’s interesting, isn’t it; it’s so different. So, how many trucks, brush trucks, tanker trucks, how many trucks were damaged kind of in the Central Texas area, equipment, do you know?
Barron: Don’t know that for sure; we do know that we saw over and over where fire departments, in fact 86% of those volunteer firefighters were taking money out of their personal funds to put fuel in the trucks or to repair the equipment.
KUT News: In Central Texas?
Barron: Yeah, Central and beyond. It was, that’s the general number is that most all of them spend; even paid firefighters, you know, we all fall short, especially when we’re out there, we’re fighting a fire and we need something and we need something immediately. We will go spend our personal money and we’ll take care of it.
KUT News: Did this reduction from $25 million to $7 million, is that every year or in the course of two years you’re funded before they meet again?
Barron: Yep. That’s every year; it’s $25 million every year cut to $7 million so that’s for this year and next year and then next year they’ll go back into session and we hope that they will restore for the 2014 budget cycle that funding program.
KUT News: Does it affect personnel, how many paid people you have; how many, I guess you have to pay volunteers something. Do you pay volunteers anything, expenses, anything?
Barron: Nope. Volunteers do it out of the goodness of their heart and that is the nature of the beast. They don’t get paid anything unless their department does a specific type of program, whether it is a response incentive program or a pension program or something, but generally volunteers don’t get paid anything, they just, they do it out of good will and they respond and protect people’s homes and property just out of the goodness of their heart.
KUT News: I thought so. I just wanted to ask that question, just in case. Okay, so does anybody, was anybody laid off due to these grants?
Barron: Yeah, sure enough. Here in Texas, there is no job protection for volunteer firefighters, unlike the National Guard Job Protection Bill.
KUT News: Can you say that again, I stepped on your words?
Barron: You bet. In Texas, there is no job protection for volunteer firefighters, unlike the National Guard who has job protection. So, when a firefighter gets deployed on an emergency incident that might last for days or weeks, they might come back to an employer who might punish them or terminate their employment due to not being there. In fact, in my department in Manchaca, I had at least two, one was punished and one was actually terminated for responding to the fires and we just felt that was wrong. Even when we made a plea to the employer that, did you know that 78% of the fire service is volunteer, that they rely on these resources to put out fires all over the state, whether it’s in our own area or other areas of the state. And, so about three legislative sessions ago, we actually had a bill passed that would allow for job protection of volunteer firefighters and it passed the house and it passed the senate and the governor actually put an amendment on to it that we didn’t mind and that was one of his amendments that came from his office and then it passed through everything and then he actually vetoed the bill and we never understood why.
So, we will try that again. We’ve been working, even on the national level, to try and get a job protection bill for firefighters just like the National Guard has that same protection. There is no difference, you know, we’re all in it for the same reason; we’re there to protect and serve our country, whether it is our neighbors or other areas of the state. We are responding to emergencies just like the military responds to emergencies.
KUT News: So, it was vetoed not this last session but the session before?
Barron: I believe it was two sessions before that. So, it would be, I believe it was 2005.
KUT News: And, job protection would mean, what? If someone was terminated because they fought a fire, what would the job protection bill help them with?
Barron: It was actually vetoed in 2007. The job protection bill would allow for them, that a firefighter can be deployed for a period up to two weeks without wrongfully being terminated or punished in his or her employment status and the amendment was that it would be for any employer that had over 50 employees, which is no big deal. But, for some reason, it didn’t set well or otherwise, so we’ll try again. We think that this 2011 fire season hopefully will be to our benefit so that we can go back and ask for the funding to get restored, if not increased, at the time the funding was cut, there was over $135 million worth of outstanding requests for needed gear, needed brush trucks and needed equipment to help these firefighters out. We believe that $135 million is a lot of money, especially when this grant funding is only $7 million; we’ll never get caught up.
KUT News: $135 million of requests out there for that $25 million you had the session before.
KUT News: You weren’t asking for an increase, it was just you were trying to ask for the same amount?
KUT News: Knowing the budget problems in Texas.
Barron: Knowing the budget problems. So, we were just glad that we had heard of many, many different agencies getting their grant programs cut to zero and when they came with the $7 million, we just took it and said okay thanks, we’ll be back though.
KUT News: The rest of history. There is no way that’s ever going to fly.
KUT News: This next session.
Barron: No doubt. So we hope that we’ve got some, we’ve been doing a lot of fundraising for the wildfire relief fund that is administered through our 501C3 program and recently, we had a luncheon in which we honored Lt. Dewhurst for those actions of finding $5 million to assist by presenting him what’s called a champion of the axle award and we raised about $17,000 at that luncheon through corporate sponsors and people attending the event, which will go a ways to assist these fire departments out. Now, granted we still have over $300,000 worth of outstanding requests and what we do is we give those awards out based on needs of the local fire departments. So, if their funding is at a low amount, if their call volume is at a high amount and if they are in a situation in which they can’t afford protective clothing, we assist those fire departments out.
KUT News: So, what other personal accounts would you like to share with us?
Barron: It was almost as if the story was never going to end. Just when we think that we had one fire out, here came the tone and here came the message that another fire had started, we need assistance. So, we were finding ourselves coming and going and it seemed like we were not getting any rest; there was no end in sight on Labor Day. So, we went up to Pflugerville and did our best up there and put fire out and then by the time we wrapped up, or at least we thought we did, we were asked, the need for assistance was going out for Steiner Ranch fire and then we got involved with the Steiner Ranch fire. We responded, we assisted and just when we thought that we were getting a handle on it, next thing you know, we were getting called by the Pedernales Fire Department that there was a major fire in Spicewood. That’s the one that jumped the road and they were associated with each other, but, in fact, they almost grew together, because one fire was moving South and the other fire was kind of moving North; it almost became one big fire, but there was still some separation in between. So, that fire was a rough fire; it was very rough terrain also in Spicewood and when we got out there on Highway 71, there’s not a lot of water so you have to go to pretty much the Bee Caves to find a good working hydrant to get water at and so that makes the response time and the water availability much longer. So, that’s when you really need to rely on the overhead resources, aerial resources such as helicopters and planes to put a stop on some of these fires or at least slow them down, if not put a stop on them.
KUT News: So you had planes for Steiner and Spicewood.
Barron: Yeah, we had helicopters on both of those –
KUT News: But not bigger ones –
Barron: Right. We didn’t have the big tanker at that time. We did have a couple of smaller planes; in fact, there’s pictures of the planes picking up water outside in Lake Travis, when it was already so low so it was, you know, you see these planes flying into the lake and they’re cruising along and scooping up water out of Lake Travis and then going to their fire and making water drops. And, that, you know, when I went out to the Bastrop fire in the position I’m in, I took several groups of people out there and was able to go behind and show them fire and show them the responses, just because of my position. We went out there and at one point in time we were probably standing on the back porch of a home that was probably $2 million or $3 million and it overlooked the Colorado River, overlooked this humongous filed. At that time, there were some firefighters around and we weren’t quite sure what they were doing because we didn’t see any active fire; well, the next thing you know they were fighting a fire in a canyon on the backside of this house that was next to the Colorado River. They couldn’t quite get to it because it was such a rough terrain and, at that time, the battalion chief that was in charge of the task force out of Galveston actually that was there called on aerial support. Two or three minutes later, here comes this Chinook helicopter which is the double rotor blade helicopter and we watched and got it on video right in front of our eyes, him dipping into the Colorado River with this humongous bucket, lift it up right by the house and drop it on this fire and it was like a torrential downpour of rain. Of course, we aren’t standing underneath the drop and you’re not supposed and that’s not the intention, but you could feel the impact of that water being dropped down, I mean, 300 gallons being dropped at once on a fire does a pretty good amount of good for spot fires and then he made two or three other passes; dipping into the Colorado River and coming back up and you can literally see the pilot looking out of his little bubble on the side of the helicopter, watches where he wants to strategically place that water so that it does the most good for that fire.
Then, we went on to other areas of Bastrop and, you know, the goodness of people comes out when there’s an emergency and we came up to one intersection in Bastrop and fire trucks were all over the place and the local, I think it was Roadhouse Café out there in Bastrop, had brought out all these hamburgers and cheeseburgers for the volunteers and the responders out there. I’ll never forget picking up one as we were making our way through the various fires and seeing where two fires have converged onto one and seeing what was called moonscape landscape. It was basically like looking at the surface of a moon; everything was gray. There was not an ounce of green anywhere, not an ounce of brown anywhere; everything was just gray, just nothing but ashes. Where we witnessed just, you know, home after home after home burned up, car after car, some of the visual images that we saw where a fire would wipe out one entire house and then the house next to it would be intact and would be perfectly fine and then the house next to that would be totally wiped out.
It was amazing to see how fire traveled. In one particular driveway, I’ll never forget seeing a plastic kids big wheel, for lack of a better word, that was still intact; it looked like nothing ever happened to it, but yet the entire home was gone, the entire landscape was gray, ashes were everywhere, even so much, the fire got so hot that it burned the roots of trees. You would come up to holes in the ground and these little fingers that would go off of this hole and you’re wondering, that is the strangest looking thing; it’s actually where it had burned up the roots and burned up the trunk of the tree. The fire was so intense.
KUT News: And there was negative space; it was just ash.
Barron: Yeah, it was just ash. Another fire I’ll never forget in Bastrop where we were going through the neighborhood and we saw home after home of just burnt everything and people’s lives destroyed, people’s homes destroyed, where there was a lamppost and all of the bulbs of the lamppost had melted and it just looked eerie, it just looked like slime coming down off the lamppost but it was just melted plastic and melted glass where the fire had got so hot. We drove down this road and got to a home where every house was burnt around it and every house was gone and what was the most amazing and ironic thing I have ever seen was an American flag on a pole at an angle and it was still intact. It had holes in it, it had it all battered up and you could tell where embers had hit, but everything around it was totally gone.
So, it was just, you know, some of those memories that, you know, I’ll never forget and it’s just the devastating effects of a fire people don’t quite realize until they have to experience it. I hope I don’t have to see that again in my lifetime, but I’m afraid that it’s going to come about again. I hope not to the effect that it did in Bastrop where 33,000 acres and over 1,600 homes were burned but the predictions are this summer’s going to be bad, the 2012 season is going to be bad; maybe not as bad as it was last year because we’re seeing some rains that we didn’t see at this time last year, so we’re hoping that maybe it will keep some things green. But the thing about is that people have to remember that, with rain comes growth, with growth comes development so you’ve got grasses growing up and everything else and if it dries out, if the rain stops, all that new growth is going to become dead and just going to become fuel for the fire.
KUT News: So, we’ll wait and see, of course, we’ll have to and hope that there is some emergency funding that can happen for this summer. Do you have any idea about that?
Barron: At the champion of the axle luncheon with Lt. Dewhurst, we had a discussion about setting up a committee and setting up something to identify immediate resources and immediate needs so that we’re not in a reactive type of mode for a fire outbreak; we are in a proactive mode in which we’ve identified a funding mechanism to keep firefighters in protective clothing, to keep fuel in trucks, to keep, you know, fire department’s vehicles in tune and working. We are hoping that we can come to some conclusion with that so that we can establish this emergency funding, it will already be in place, that we know where it is and we know how much it is so that when that time comes of fire departments are being run into the ground by running all these different calls, we can pick up the phone and say it’s time to activate operation “x”, you know, that we need this thing instituted now and here’s the application process for this emergency funding and fire departments know ahead of time that, hey there is help out there, whereas right now there’s nothing.
KUT News: So, Lt. Governor Dewhurst is working on this?
KUT News: And with you?
Barron: Right. He is establishing a committee with our association since we represent the majority of the fire service to come up with this plan of attack, so to speak, so that we can identify what exactly is needed in Texas, as far as response, preparation and an emergency funding program for these fire departments.
KUT News: And when will that be in effect, considering we’re now halfway through May, approaching our summer. When do you, is there, kind of, a deadline or a due date?
Barron: We’re hoping that, you know, by mid-June, we’re going to know something, we will have something in place. And we hope that we’ll have something in place by then, but we are trying to meet with his office at this point in time to follow-up on his request and get something established pretty quick.
KUT News: Great. What else would you like to share; what are those, just amazing memories that come to mind from the Labor Day fires?
Barron: Well, the outpouring of the community support. I’ll never forget when I was at the Steiner Ranch fire and we were hanging out waiting for our assignment with our crew, we had several crews out there, we were at a staging location at some business, I’m not even sure what the business name was, but we were in this, you know, kolache parking lot and we had a couple of canapés set up and we had all sorts of community support, whether it was people bringing in breakfast tacos or bottled water or whatever to assist these fire departments out with. Even when they are in the most worst part of their destruction and when their home is being burnt up, they are still thinking about those responders and that little stuff goes a long way and people don’t quite realize that.
We, you know, we had eye drops that people were bringing out because when we’re out there fighting fire, it irritates our eyes pretty bad if we don’t have goggles on and then, of course, you know, we’re working 12 hour shifts and, you know, we’re expending a lot of energy when we’re out there fighting fire, so you want to fuel a firefighter and so you can do that with food and you can do that with bringing, you know, sport drinks and Gatorade and that type of stuff so that the firefighters keep their electrolytes up and we don’t become a part of the problem when we’re out there fighting fire. So, that was going on; then seeing the relief efforts afterwards of communities getting together and having fund drives and having people bringing in stuff that they would normally have for garage sales and helping in the relief efforts to help these folks who lost their homes get back on their feet.
You know, we found out that even in the fire service there is not a relief effort for firefighters. So, we had a firefighter in Spicewood who lost his home due to fire and there was no funding source out there to assist that firefighter out with getting him back on his feet. So, he had to rely on the local community donations and the support groups that were out there. There is not a fund to assist those who protect and serve and we learned from that, you know, that we probably need to set one up at some point, but you know, we’re our priorities. Our priorities, of course, is getting people in protective clothing and then making sure they have the equipment and tools necessary to fight fire and respond to EMS calls and that type of stuff so, you know, where is our priorities in emergency services when it comes to fighting fires and then also taking care of our own? So, it’s a big juggling act and, you know, we’re trying our best to raise money through the Texas Wildfire Relief Fund, through, you know, setting up a website at Texas Wildfire Relief to try and bring in donations and we’ve seen, you know, little donations here and there, but there’s still a tremendous outstanding need for that. That’s just for protective clothing.
KUT News: What’s so interesting is that you had all this gear for going into buildings, right?
KUT News: I mean, isn’t that what the whole state and everybody, except for maybe California and there are some places that have all these fires every year, but most fire departments are geared up to go into a burning building.
Barron: Right. Yeah, so they don’t, the priority is to set up for that because the gear is so expensive. We spend about $8,400 per firefighter in protective clothing, whether it is coats and pants and boots and a helmet a radio and pager; $8,400 to outfit one firefighter and when you look at that type of cost, you know, wild land gear is far down the list on priority needs because it is just something we don’t think about as often. It’s something, we would rather put fuel in the vehicles then having wild land gear, but we’re realizing we’ve got to have wild land gear for these firefighters because, you know, so much of our responses is wild land fires and wild land gear is going to greatly extend the life of a firefighter. But, fire departments are having to make a decision; do we put fuel in the trucks or do we fight fire on top of a brush truck with no gear on? And, that’s what their choice is, it’s that they put fuel in the trucks and respond to calls and then we worry about the protective clothing later on wild land incidents.
KUT News: And you’re talking about even those fire departments outside of the city limits in Austin, even those that are rural fire departments; they don’t have wild land gear.
Barron: Right and, you know, even the City of Austin, even the major municipal fire departments in Central and surrounding Texas, they generally have the financial resources to buy this type of equipment, but recently, within the past decade I would say that, you know, even Austin Fire Department realized that we’ve got a wild land urban interface problem around us and so we started seeing fires that interface the wild land and then interface the homes that are in Austin and so they stepped up to the plate and they just saw a need that they needed to get their firefighters trained in wild land firefighting when all these years in existence of the Austin fire, they have been specializing in structural firefighting and high rise firefighting and HAZMAT incidents. So, now they are taking it a step further and they are realizing that we’ve got to get trained in wild land firefighting, when that’s generally been the specialty of rural and combination fire departments that are in Texas. You don’t see high rises in Muleshoe, Texas, so they don’t specialize in that type of training; their goal and their mission is primarily wild land fires and structures fires and, you know, they don’t have a need for high rise firefighting
KUT News: So, how about Bastrop firefighters; are they trained in wild land?
Barron: Yeah, Bastrop has been trained in wild land fires because they have seen for years that there is going to be a major incident and they did everything possible to create fire breaks and create a fire-wise community that would basically put homes in a defensible space so that you could clear out the brush around the home, you could clear out the trees and bushes that were encroaching on a home and cleaning out gutters and that type of thing. There are so many things that a resident can do to make their home fire defensive.
KUT News: They’ve been doing that for years?
Barron: They’ve been trying to do it for years. So, they, you know, I think it was finally realized after the Labor Day fires, their efforts weren’t good enough or the community wasn’t responding good enough that they didn’t think there was going to be, you know, fire will never hurt us so why should I go and remove some of these trees, I like living out in the wild, but yet, they never realized that they could have a fire like that, a wall of fire that was moving so fast that, you know, even the best efforts probably wouldn’t have helped.
KUT News: It makes you rethink your wooden deck, I’ll tell you that.
Barron: I’m sure it does.
KUT News: Because that, often times, I’ve been hearing they are the first thing to catch and then your house.
Barron: Right. Well, even on the fires in Oak Hill that Austin was fighting during the Labor Day period, it was basically embers falling from one house to another, landing on the roof or landing in the gutters in which they had not been cleaned out and so that’s just fuel for the fire. You get under the eaves of a house and pretty much the fire is going to take off pretty quick.
KUT News: So how about Spicewood, Pedernales, Spicewood and Steiner Ranch fire departments. Were they trained in wild land?
Barron: You bet.
KUT News: Have they been for years out there?
Barron: You bet and Lake Travis covers, Lake Travis Fire and Rescue covers the Steiner Ranch area and actually their chief is from Nevada where they have multiple wild land fires a year so he is very verse, he travels all over the place when it comes to assisting with incident management teams on wild land fire. So they’ve been training, the Spicewood and Pedernales fire departments, they’ve always known they’ve had a wild land interface issue. So, those type of fire departments were prepared, but they weren’t prepared for the Labor Day fires and I don’t think any fire department would have ever been prepared enough for that. There is just not enough money and, of course, fire departments can’t afford to buy a helicopter or a plane to assist with, you know, putting out some of these fires so they have to rely on state resources and, you know, when the governor is able to bring in Blackhawk helicopters from the National Guard to assist with firefighting efforts, we have to rely on those resources to help us out.
KUT News: And did that happen on Labor Day?
Barron: It did. I believe the Blackhawks weren’t on our fires; they were in other areas of the state working fires, but we had the local medical helicopters fight fires and they do fire rescue and EMS of course.
KUT News: Where was the Chinook from?
Barron: I don’t know where the Chinook was from, it was a contract Chinook; it didn’t have any type of government markings on it, but they contracted with some of these private companies are out there that will actually provide firefighting services. There was actually, at the time, a DC-10 sitting in, which is a humongous plane sitting in San Antonio that had just got done fighting a fire in Mexico and because of some governmental issue, they were not able to get a contract with the State of Texas or the U.S. Government to assist with these fires. So, they had everything set up; they had base camp set up, they had the fire retardant there, the plane was sitting there, but the plane sat and it didn’t move because of, you know, some legal bureaucracy and agreements that needed to be in place. Hopefully they got those worked out.
KUT News: So, back to Bastrop, Steiner Ranch and Lake Travis, Pedernales and Spicewood; do they have wild land gear?
Barron: You bet. You generally see, like in the Central Texas area, those fire departments that are surrounding in major municipal fire departments such as the City of Austin will have wild land gear. Once you start getting outside of Travis County and beyond, you’ll see where you’re going to find smaller fire departments and more volunteer based fire departments that don’t have the funding because the tax dollars are not there to collect. People are living out on ranches and subdivisions become sparse so there is not the taxing ability out there in those areas to afford this type of gear.
KUT News: Do those fire departments in Central Texas, what we’ve been talking about, do they need more protective gear?
Barron: You bet. So –
KUT News: I mean, you’re talking about a statewide need, but you’re saying they don’t have enough gear, as well. I know you probably said that, I just wanted you to say it again.
Barron: Yeah, so in Central Texas, there is definitely a need for wild and protective clothing. I can tell you that there are numerous requests for goggles and helmets, not necessarily the clothing itself in the greater Austin surrounding area, but the accessory items, the gloves, the helmets, the goggles, the particle mat, something that is going to cover our nose and mouth when we’re out there and we’re breathing in soot and everything else. It’s harmful to us. There is definitely the outstanding need out there for accessories that go along with wild land firefighting, even a fire shelter, a fire shelter will help protect an individual if they get overcome by fire and there is no way out and you can’t find an escape route. You can basically open up this fire shelter which looks like a big baked potato, get in it and the fire will basically run over you, but you’re protected because you’re in this, it looks like a big, you know, Reynold’s Wrap type of baked potato covering and it protects you against the heat and the fire and once the fire goes over, you’re able to come out and you’re still alive.
KUT News: But as far as like the clothing gear, they’re in pretty good shape in Travis County, Bastrop area?
Barron: I would say definitely so, because we also have put the priority on making sure those fire departments in the surrounding areas that were hit hard by Labor Day got some of that wild land gear, got the protective clothing pretty quick. In fact, we just recently approved one for the Heart of Pines Fire Department, which was greatly hit by the wall of fires from Labor Day and so they have some new wild land gear coming to them.
KUT News: Anything else you would like to share?
Barron: No. People can, you know, since we started up this private donation, they can go to Texas Wildfire Relief and actually donate to the cause since the state government is not able to assist the fire departments because of state budget cuts, we are looking for any private donation we can get.
KUT News: For?
Barron: For wild land gear, for wild land accessories such as goggles and helmets and shelters and gloves. Anything that can help that firefighter out when they are out there fighting wild land fires.
KUT News: Can it also get brush trucks and can it also go to heavy equipment?
Barron: It sure could if the funding was at that high rate, but when you look at a brush truck costing $50,000 or $60,000, the money goes really quick so we try and focus on those little items that might cost $50 or $100 so we can greatly extend the donations by focusing on the small items and hopefully the state will come back and restore that grant program for the big items.
KUT News: Thank you so much, Chris.
Barron: You’re welcome.