*The following transcription may contain spelling errors.
Jared Mikeska with the Pedernales Fire Department, who was one of the first on the scene of the Spicewood Fire, spoke with KUT News about his experience during the Central Texas wildfires.
Mikeska: The whole 2011 season was pretty hard for the whole State of Texas, not just for our area, but like I said for the whole state. We are joined with what’s called TIFMAs, which is resources around the State to deploy when needed to areas such as hurricanes, wildfires, tornados, anything where they’re going to need a lot of fire resources. So, what this TIFMAs, we were deployed twice, once was for the Fork Davis fire. The other was for the Wildcat Fire, which was just outside of San Angelo, which were two the largest wildfires that the State has ever seen.
So, leading up to the Labor Day weekend, the whole season was just really, really, really bad for the whole State of Texas. We were on high alert. The low humidity, high winds, it was just the right time for a wildfire and it was really scary. It was a red flag day. Of course, you know, with it being the drought, nobody could burn, no open flames. In the parks, people could have barbecues going. A lot of the times you had to call in if you were to even be like welding, for instance. We had caught several small fires before that where an animal had gotten on a power line and had shorted out and sparked and caused a fire. So, it was – we were on real high alert. That weekend, excuse me, with our areas, we usually do some up-staffing where we – we put additional personnel on our brush trucks in the even that we needed to deploy more resources for a brush fire. So, we had additional staffing here at the station.
Unfortunately, though, right whenever our fire kicked off, we had just sent on of our trucks to help out with Pflugerville and that truck had made it to the Bee Caves/71 area and we had to call them back in order to be able to respond for ours. Initially, the call came out for our fire and it was a smoke investigation. We have a lot of people here in our area that are very aware, you know, they’re very – anytime they see smoke, they’ll call in and say, “Hey, we’ve got smoke in this area. Can you come and check it out?” and so it’s a smoke investigation. So, we got – we got turned out for a smoke investigation and we had made it to the truck and as soon as we started our trucks up, it came out as a brush alarm.
KUT News: That’s that mean?
Mikeska: A brush alarm means that its – it’s – instead of upgraded from a smoke investigation, it means like it’s an actual brush fire. So, we were in our Engine 801 and we responded to the vicinity of the call. As we came up, you could really see the – the smoke and it was rapidly growing and it was in an area where – we were in our engine and we had one of our brush trucks that was responding behind us and we tried to find access for our brush truck and it was really hard for us to be able to find access for them to go in.
KUT News: What do you mean?
Mikeska: As in gates, you know, and there’s fencing and stuff and being – trying to find a way for them to get through the trees and, you know, get to what’s called the heel of the fire. Whenever you have brush fires, you have the heel, then you have your flanks and you have your head. So, at the heel, it’s the origin of the fire and so it’s progressing forward. So, we’re trying to get to the back side of the fire because you always want to fight your fire in the black, per se, which is all the burned stuff. So you could tell that the fire was progressing pretty rapidly and so we were trying to find access for our brush truck to be able to get to the heel of the fire so that they could try to start making their way towards the head in order to be able to cut it off. But again, because of the no rain, the high grass, not having any – the low humidity and not having any humidity, like I said, it was just the right time for a fire just to kick off and, of course, that day, not only was it for us, but we had five major fires that kicked off all in one day. You had the Steiner Ranch fire, I believe there was one out in Leander the same day we had the – the Pflugerville fire, our fire and then, of course, the Bastrop fire.
KUT News: Geez.
KUT News: So, you get there and you’re in the heel of the fire, so to speak. What happens after that?
Mikeska: We – we ended up trying to go – we went toward the head of the fire and then we tried to get ahead of it as far as we could in our truck which, like I said, is the actual fire engine and we had our brush truck that went in, you know, trying to get to the heel. So, we went toward the head in order to start trying to triage. You really want to start, one, evacuating, if there’s any evacuations that need to be done. You also need to kind of get more of a layout of what your fire conditions are, where the fire is headed, how fast it’s heading and, you know, just kind get a broad idea of what’s going on, so we ended up pulling around and going down one of our streets and pulled into a large ranch. Not really, I can’t remember the name of the Ranch. It’s over off of Cox Crossing.
Anyway, we pulled into the ranch and they have some paved roads. So, we ended up going kind of back toward the fire on the paved road with our engine and we started getting over run by a lot of smoke and so we – we quickly turned our truck around and you could hear – I mean, you could just hear it coming at us.
Oh, it just – just a roar. You could hear the crackling of the wood. You could just hear it moving through the grass and the wind. It’s really a sound that you really can’t describe. You know, I mean, just like a roar, you know…
KUT News: Had you ever heard that before?
Mikeska: No, I’d never – I’ve – I’ve kind of heard and seen fire move pretty quick. Like I said, I was – there in Fort Davis and I’ve seen – of course, it’s up in the mountains in Fort Davis so you really can’t hear it and then the one in San Angelo at the Wildcat fire, you could – you could hear it, but not like this. I mean, we could tell that that fire was close and so we ended up turning around and going back out the same way that we came in and we posted – ended up posting some of our resources around a barn and – which was, you know, a little bit farther ahead of the fire.
We had enough to time to where we could deploy some resources out around it and have the homeowner to take out as many of the settling tanks from the barn as we possibly could. But our big fear was that it had a 1000-gallon propane tank. It had a 500-gallon diesel tank and a 500-gallon gas tank. The barn was filled with – with hay bales. It also had the settling tanks for welding and cutting and a whole bunch of other chemicals and stuff inside the barn. So, we were really afraid that this fire was going to come up to this barn and catch all that hay on fire and then we would be in a lot more trouble than, you know, anticipated.
So, we tried to get as many resources ahead of that barn in order to try to push the fire away from the area that we were in and so we were – we were sitting there. We deployed our lines off of our truck and we were trying to wet the ground out around the area as much as possible. Again, it was and, you know, a couple of other resources in the area, brush trucks and I think we had a Spicewood engine that was with us and it came quick. I mean, that thing came up on us. I’ve never seen fire move that fast before.
KUT News: What did it look like?
Mikeska: Really, it was – it was so – there was so much smoke that we actually ended having to go on air. We had to put our air packs as if we were fighting a structure fire. It was so smoky that you couldn’t see. You couldn’t breathe. Everything – your eyes were watering, it was insane. You know, it was the craziest thing to be sitting in the middle and, like I said, you had the sound of the fire coming you. You had all the smoke and the chaos of everything and the stress. So, we actually ended up having, like I said, we had to go on air and keep pushing that fire away from that barn and then it just, almost like a storm, it blew past us and then it calmed down. You still had the trees were on fire and everything else, but it lit like a match. Everything around us just went up so fast and burned so hot and so fast and it just – it just, like I said, went past us and then calmed down. It was the strangest thing that I’ve, like I said, that I’ve ever seen and…
KUT News: What do you mean it calmed down? Like just because everything was burned?
Mikeska: Everything was burned. I mean, like I said, it burned so fast that it just – it just – I mean, you hear people talk about a tornado. You know, it came and went and just a calm and that’s almost what kind of happened here. It just – we still had, you know, kind of the wind, but you just didn’t have the smoke and the fire around you as much as – you know what I mean? Like I said, I just burned really fast like a match and then just went right back down. Like I said, of course, the trees around us and stuff like that were on fire. You know, quickly put out as much of that as you could then we moved on to across the street from where we were to try to protect some homes. It was blowing up. With those homes, it had some short grass around it, so it was really easy. It just almost kind of went around it and then the fire almost kind of took a hard right turn and just took off and we looked behind us and it’s just this huge column of smoke and I don’t know, you’ve probably seen some pictures of – from Highway 71 and just the huge – the huge smoke column, almost like Bastrop, was about the say way as it was out here. In fact, some of the guys had video and stuff of them as they’re driving through it and I have some photos initially of whenever our fire originally kicked off and from how it was when it first started to where it was just like, okay, this is going to be a little brush fire to the devastation that it caused was just unbelievable.
KUT News: So, when it took off, right, what was going through your head at that point?
Mikeska: I don’t really know. I mean, to be honest, it was just – you know, we do so much training and everything that you just kind of – kind of go into that mindset of, “I’ve got a job to do and I’m going to do my job.” You know, and so you just kind of go through motions. You really don’t have a lot of stuff going through your mind other than, “Okay, this is the objective that I have and I’ve got a, you know, try to get that objective completed.” After it had kind of pushed through our area we were at and we were out – we ended up running out of water, so we had to make to our Station 3 which is quite a ways ahead of the fire and I remember that we refilled from there and we went back to our original post and that’s whenever it had made a pretty hard right turn and started going to our Station 3, which is our command post and they had to – to abandon our command post and move the command post up to Highway 71 and with the wind, what it was causing, not only was it blowing fast, but it was causing spot fires. What I mean by spot fires is you have the original fire and it’s kicking up embers in the smoke column and those embers were then lighting off initial – you know, those fires and then those fires are taking off. Then you have what they call fingers where a part of it will jet off and then it will start going to – it was just – it was insane. That was the craziest day I think I’ve ever had in my entire life.
KUT News: What was your – so, when it got really crazy like that, what was your plan?
Mikeska: Because we were in an engine, our main objective was to protect structures, to protect homes. We don’t have – we really don’t have any businesses out there, so all of it was just protecting homes and making sure that we evacuated people out of our homes. I know that whenever we were – once we finished with our Cox Crossing assignment and we went back over to our station, Station 3 for reassignment, we ended up going down Red Brangus and by that point, it had already blown through the Red Brangus area and that was where we lost a lot of our homes and I remember driving through there and it was almost like a bomb had gone off. It was just – the devastation was unreal.
You know, we’re driving through and you have a home, as we were driving up, that is – had, you know, fire on one side of the house, you know where it had basically come up and hit and kind of exploded around the side of the house and so one side of the house was fine, but since that house was on fire, we couldn’t – basically we couldn’t do anything about that home because it was already involved in fire. We had to move to the next home that wasn’t and make sure that we protected it. So, and I remember at one point we were afraid – we had gotten calls that there was an elderly couple that was in a home that needed to be – that their house was, you know, flames were impinging on their home and I think that they had already gotten out it’s just through the hustle and the chaos through everything, I think they kind of – somebody had lost them along the way, but they were already out, but I remember we were protecting one home and then everything over the radio was the chaos of trying to find this elderly couple in their home and of course, we have our post of protecting a home that we were assigned to and then just hear those guys down the street and you have homes that had ammunition. You could hear those going off inside the houses.
We had – it’s called a blevy and with a blevy it’s when like a propane tank explodes and you could just hear propane tanks exploding and explosions everywhere and these houses that are on sight of the cliffs on fire and you just – basically surrounded by fire and you just like put your hands on your heads and like, “Holy smokes, what am I supposed to do?” You know, and it – it was pretty crazy. It was, like I said, intense and I don’t think there’s any other word that you can really use to describe it other than – than intense.
KUT News: Wow, that does – that does sound crazy.
KUT News: So what happened after that?
Mikeska: We – we protected this one – one structure and fire was kind of coming up the cliff side toward it we ended up suppressing the fire and pushing it back and then we just kind of stayed along one little stretch and protected probably five or six homes that weren’t impacted by the initial fire and that was our assignment for the rest of the night was to make sure that the fire didn’t come back up the cliff and make sure that – that we didn’t have any reignition around any homes and basically save what we could save because there was absolutely no way that, initially, we could have fought that thing from the front. I mean, it was just – it was too fast.
Like I said, I wasn’t on a brush truck. I was on an engine, so we were kind of more of the back line and more of a structure protection instead of on a brush truck, you know, and like I said, there’s some video one of the guys took where they were front line and they were, at one point, afraid that they weren’t even going to be able to make it to Highway 71, because they couldn’t see the road and like I said, you could just hear the chaos and you could hear it in everybody’s voice, you know, as they’re trying to figure out how we’re supposed to – how they were supposed to attack this fire because, like I said, it was just spot – spot firing left and right and they just – they couldn’t get a head of it enough in order to be able to stop, you know stop it and so we had a lot of resources that came out.
Initially, we didn’t whenever it originally kicked off because, like I said, there were five other large fires that were going on in the area. So, the resources were very slim and they did start trickling in toward the evening. We got a lot of help from Oak Hill, West Lake, Lake Travis sent some of their trucks out, Austin and then we got North Hayes and then Spicewood and Burnett County resources as well. I think we had over 22 agencies that helped us out with our fire total. So, it was, you know, very devastating. I don’t know if you’ve driven down through there to see what – you know, what it looks like. It’s green now, but you can still see the trees and everything. I mean, they’re just not going to grow back.
KUT News: So, how did you ultimately contain it and extinguish it?
Mikeska: We – I know that we had help with – Star Flight came in with, you know, with their helicopter and they had their bucket and they were pouring water on it. I think they were able to push it enough into the – into the river – river bottom, into the Pedernales River and get it that way and cut it off. Really, I’m not too sure how they got it to be honest because it was just – the vast – the wide, you know, I mean it was wide. Like I said, if you go from where the Pedernales River because it kind of winded down – down the river edge and then it just went out. I don’t even know how many miles wide it was and it just blew a huge area and to be honest, I don’t know how they got it stopped. You know, I don’t know if it was STAR Flight that was dropping on the head of the fire or what, but those guys did a great job.
KUT News: Did you have to evacuate anyone yourself?
Mikeska: We didn’t have to evacuate anyone. They were – the – the Sheriff’s Office did a really good job of getting ahead of it and getting everybody out that they could. You know, like I said, ahead of it. I had heard that they had – were going to maybe start doing evacuations here in Briarcliff, but, of course, the fire wasn’t moving in this direction, but they were afraid that it might come across the river but of course it was all, the way the wind was blowing, it was all pushing it away from the village of Briarcliff, so…
KUT News: Wow, so now – so it was finally – how long did it take to get under control?
Mikeska: I believe we got it completely under control within 48 hours. It was – we had it contained but then, you know, you had the fires in the middle and so you’re main concern is like contain it, stop it from spreading and then you want to put out everything in the – in the middle, you know, that way – because you don’t want spot fires again. You don’t want something else to kick up and throw embers over into an unburned area and then start burning that way. So, total, we were on fighting fire for two weeks and, of course, that night that it kicked off, there was probably a week where we worked 24 hours straight. I mean, like I said, it – we got the call. I want to say it was like around 2:00 in the afternoon and then we ended up – we worked all the way through the night and then got our relief at 9:30 in the morning, went home, slept and then came back the next day in order to help the guys out, you know, and we were – we did that throughout the two weeks.
KUT News: What kind of toll does that take on the human body?
Mikeska: Oh, man, you kind of hit extra gears that you didn’t think that you originally had. You know, it – you know, like I said, you kind of get in the mindset that you have a job and you need to get your job done because you have lives that are depending on you to get your job done. So, you don’t really feel the effects of it because you have so much adrenaline going and – and – and your training kicks in and everything else. Of course, with everything going on, you just – you don’t think about it until afterwards and then that’s whenever you kind of sit back and go, “I’m tired.” You know, but initially – I mean, and, of course, there were times where you had – you would take a break, you know, because it was just – it will get really grueling and really hard on you. It’s not like a structure fire where you’re in all this gear and you’re wearing 70 pounds worth of – worth of stuff, but I mean, you’re out there in the heat. You know, you’re in a jacket, you’re in pants, you’re fighting fire, you’re carrying a hose, but it was pretty tough, but like I said, it’s – it’s rewarding. It’s awesome. I love the job, never would – never would go back.
KUT News: Yeah, once you do sit down, I mean, what’s – after this long firefighting session and it was put out after those two weeks and you finally did get a moment to sit down and decompress, I mean, how was that?
Mikeska: It, you know, for us it was actually kind of hard because our job is to put fire out and whenever you see a house that’s on fire and you know that’s somebody’s home and that’s everything to them, you know, all their belongings, you know, family memorabilia, I mean, everything, their life and you can’t do anything about it, it actually kind of got – starts getting a little depressing, you know, because you have your job and you know you need to protect these, but it’s like, “Why – you know, like I really wanted to be able to protect that one,” you know, but whenever you have so many that are on fire around you that it – it – I mean, it’s depressing.
It’s really depressing to see what – what the people go through, you know, how their lives are affected. You know, some of the people aren’t able to rebuild, that they just didn’t have – don’t have the money to rebuild or didn’t have insurance or – or, you know, are living in the poverty line to where they just, you know, what they had was what they had and they can’t afford anymore and so it’s – it’s hard. You know, I mean, it’s – it’s rewarding to know that we saved what we saved, but then again, it’s hard to know that we didn’t save more. So, you know, and then to go back over there and to see the area, of course, like I said, we’ve gotten rain and so it’s – it’s greened up and the grass is growing and you see life, you know, and of course then there are people that are rebuilding and everything, but you know, initially, whenever you walked over there or whenever you went over there, it almost looked like it was the surface of the moon. It was just ash and gray and black and gloomy and just, you know, depressing. So…
KUT News: How did people react to the fire like the – the people in the community react? How did they support the firefighters?
Mikeska: Man, we had so much support during our fire. We ended up getting three meals a day. We had our ladies here that are with our auxiliary and – and other volunteers that made food for us. The community came together. Anything that we needed, we had. We had other and not only just in our area, but, I mean, the whole Austin area and other resources around the State. I know that we had, I think the Red Cross was out here, but the community – you know, when something like that happens, it’s just – it’s amazing on how humans will get together and help each other out, you know.
It just – it was awesome to see, you know, like local churches and everything that were doing food drives and clothing drives and everything for those that lost – lost all their stuff and they – they continued to do it. I mean, I know that just a couple of weeks ago, Willie Nelson, you know, did a golf tournament, celebrity golf tournament and raised some money for some charities, you know, helped raise some money for us. The community came together and helped us out. We – during our fire, we had some of our equipment that ended up going down like some of our chainsaws and we had one of the residents that we saved his home, got together with some other farms and ranches around him and they pooled together and bought us new chainsaws. We had some old, outdated vehicles, our brush trucks and – in fact, during our fire, three of our brush trucks went – went down in the fire.
I mean, went down, I mean, they had – maintenance, they had engine problems, they had pump problems. We had, you know, tires and our department took a pretty big hit last year. You know, we don’t have that big of a budget and last year we spent about $100,000 and within that two weeks with the vehicle costs, with our personnel costs, with our equipment costs, you know, everything all added up and, you know, that took a really big hit out of our budget, but the community came together after that and – and donated so much money that we were able to actually build a new brush truck, which has – I mean, that’s – that’s helped us out tremendously.
KUT News: How much was that?
Mikeska: We had one built – we built it ourselves. We had it built for around $70,000.
KUT News: I just wondered – this is my last question and wrapping up here, but what, you know, what changes or have there been besides, I mean, I know you got this new equipment, besides that, any changes as a fire department and was this a learning experience or force you to reassess how you prepare for wildfire?
Mikeska: It – it – it definitely did. We actually ended up just receiving a grant through LCRA in order to be able to purchase new wild land equipment. It changed some of our policies in how we go about fighting wildfires.
KUT News: Like what?
Mikeska: Well, like within the State, they’re recommending that we – we take certain classes on wildfire and wildfire behavior because the State – Texas Forest Service, they learned a lot about wildfires and how wildfires react and how, you know, because it was – last year was a completely different thing that they had ever seen before. So, even the State has gone in and changed some of its policies and procedures. We didn’t have certain equipment on our vehicles that we needed to have in order to keep us safe. Because of how fast the fire ran, we didn’t have – it’s called a fire shelter and a fire shelter – here in the fire service we call it a potato sack, but it’s basically like a foil little shelter that you deploy and it goes around you and in order for you to deploy and lay on the ground and the fire will go over you and then you, you know, try to keep you safe from – from being overrun by fire because a lot of firefighters that die in wildfires are overrun by fire and none of our vehicles had any of those – those shelters on the trucks and so with this grant, we’re able to now put those shelters and actually give it to each one of our members of our department so that they have that. You know, so I mean, we’ve changed a lot.
We’ve gone out and done assessments of our areas and tried to let people know that have trees that are too close to their house, you know, kind of let them know, “Hey, you might want to cut your trees back and don’t have shrubbery around your home and you might want to clear your land a little bit. I know you might want to be more secluded and have – it’s nice to have all those, you know, cedar trees or have, you know, have your property with all this protection around it, but whenever it comes to a wildfire, it’s very dangerous.” So, you know, we’ve gone around and we’ve kind of looked at our area and picked out where, you know, if we were to have our next fire, how we would go about containing it and fighting it and everything else. So, like I said, it’s changed some of our polices and procedures and it’s also changed our outlook on what – what equipment and everything that we need to purchase, so…
KUT News: I mean, it’s kind of like when – when, you know, for example when a county goes to war and comes back, they learn a lot of lessons and they’re often more prepared for war in the future. Do you feel you’re more prepared for the next wildfire?
Mikeska: I feel that we’re getting there. You know, every fire is different and every fire is going to act different, but I feel that with the way that our department is growing in our wild land area, I believe that we will be better suited than next time to fight a wildfire. Not only like I said did we build this new truck, but we’re also having two new trucks that are being built by a company in San Antonio, so we’re going to actually have three new brush trucks, so it’s going to have all the new equipment. We’re not going to have to worry about old equipment that’s going to be breaking down and so it’s – we’re getting there. You know, slowly but surely we’re getting there. Like I said, we don’t have that big of a budget, but from what we can do, we, you know, like I said, we got the grant through the LCRA and so that’s really helping us out to be able to purchase a lot of the stuff that we’re needing to get.
KUT News: ESD’s are just under funded. It’s a fact especially those in areas outside of the cities.
KUT News: Just outside urban areas. In fact, there’s a study by the IC Squared Instituted that was done last year at UT. I mean, it’s a fact.
KUT News: You’re underfunded.
Mikeska: Yeah, and I mean I know that they’re doing a lot of cut back and cutting a lot of funding, you know, across the board, but you know, I really feel that they don’t need to be cutting any of the funding to the Texas Forest Service or to – to any of the small departments. I mean, not just ESD’s, I mean, but, I mean, look at all the little volunteer departments that can’t afford stuff. You know, like whenever we were in out in the San Angelo area for that wildcat fire, there’s some of those vehicles that you’re seeing these volunteer departments driving and I can’t imagine – you know, and that could be their front line truck, you know, and – and it’s a 1977 with a, you know, with a pump on the back of it that’s used for irrigation pumping, you know, which is what one of our old trucks were that we just got replaced. But, you know, I think that the funding for just fire departments in general, not just Texas.
I mean, the funding deficit has really been hitting the fire service pretty hard. That going from the State level to the national level and, you know, I don’t think that funding like that needs to be cut. You know, I think that they need to try to figure out something to help out, but yeah, definitely the ESD’s in the area. Some of them are a little bit – have a little bit better budget than – than others but that’s only because of, you know, they have the tax dollars, you know, but with us out here in this area, we just don’t have the – the tax dollars to give us the budget that – that we would need to really get us on our feet where we need to be. So…
KUT News: Well, thanks for your time, Jared.
Mikeska: Thank you very much.
KUT News: I appreciate it, sir.
Mikeska: You too. You too, thank you.