Jeremy Petersma: My name is Jeremy Petersma; I’m a Lieutenant with Lake Travis Fire and Rescue and I was one of the command staff that fought the Steiner Ranch fire. You know, it was, of course, how dry we were and then everybody was getting so prepared or trying to get prepared, you know, we’ve really never fought a big wildfire before. AFD and a couple of our units here, they helped out with the Oak Hill fire and so that was kind of their first real big wildfire in the Austin area. So, of course, they kept everybody on edge and we started staffing up extra trucks, extra brush trucks and it was just like it’s not if it’s going to happen, it’s when it’s going to happen. So, that was like a month before, you know, we were all kind of on edge; when it is going to happen and the day before the reports of how the humidity was, how low it was, you know, we were, the Haynes Index was extremely high, I think we were at like a five or six maybe on a Haynes Index.
You know, the humidity was in the teens, the low twenties maybe, I don’t have any records right here in front of me. So, the day of, we were actually collecting Fill the Boot; we were collecting money for Muscular Dystrophy that day and it was the final day and it was definitely a hot one. All the sudden, you know, I had a feeling that something was going to happen during that Labor Day weekend; I’m not sure what, but just kind of the whole scenarios of the bad weather, you know, people partying, whatever. Low and behold, we get toned out for a big fire.
KUT News: So, what happens, you’re, what happened when, how did you find out about the fire?
Petersma: Well, like I said, it all, I think, I can’t remember what time it came out. It came out, I think, around three. So, around one, we started getting busy, like, the lake started getting populated, our calls started coming in, not for fires but for EMS calls and stuff like that. So, I was running back and forth, I was acting Battalion Chief and I had been in that role in 2011 for roughly around nine months as an interim Battalion Chief. So, I was actually jumping on some calls with some of my guys at the stations and responding there. We went, actually, down Comanche Trail to kind of Bob Winds Point area or Windy Point and we cleared that call; we turned around and the engine I was with and myself, we saw a big ole column of black smoke and I’m like, that’s not just a normal control burn, I said there is something serious. So, we got on the radio, there was some chaos, you know, where we’re talking about versus our dispatch was getting phone calls coming in and so we started responding over there and that’s how it kind of all started. I mean, it was, it came out as far as being on one side of the road and by the time I got on scene, it had already jumped over 620 and was, kind of, in that valley there.
KUT News: What happened when you arrived on scene?
Petersma: It was something out of, I mean, literally, because it was by far the biggest call that I’ve ever helped in the command role. I wasn’t really in, you know, fighting the fire, but I was in a totally different stressful aspect of the fire. So, it was kind of like out of a movie, you know, you roll up and you see smoke everywhere and then you see flames that are probably 60 feet in the air and in the distance all you see is a neighborhood. So, it’s like there is no way we’re going to stop it on foot, you know, and we can’t get in front of it. It’s in the hills, it’s in that valley. We gotta think of something else. We gotta take that next step and try to be proactive instead of reactive on the fire. So, yeah, when I got on scene, it was chaos.
KUT News: So, you see a situation, it’s a pretty bad situation. Had you ever seen something like that before in your career as a firefighter?
Petersma: Not that intense, you know, I’ve seen some and I’ve fought some intense house fires, but nothing to that magnitude as far as a wildfire fire and, you know, what really helped us as a command staff with Chief Linardos and Chief Abbott, myself and a lot of the operational guys was prior in 2011, we actually were handed some wildfires, small ones and I was actually command on those fires. So, I had experience with the command stuff and so it really helped us and plus, you know, Chief Linardos being from North Lake Tahoe with his wall line experience, he really brought a lot to the table when he joined our department. He started teaching us about the whole, the characteristics, the strategies, the tactics in fighting a wall line fire that we weren’t really used to, you know, being in an urban interface area. We knew it was going to happen, but we weren’t really, not to say we weren’t trained enough, we didn’t have our eyes open enough, should we say. It was, to answer your question, I’m kind of bouncing back and forth, no, it was, you know, when I arrived on scene, I’m trying to remember, you know, exactly. I mean, there was smoke everywhere, the roads were closed. For one, I didn’t have enough units, you know, because, at the time the Bastrop fire was going, there was a fire in Pedernales. I think, when I was doing my report, I think there was a total of six brush fires that day and I think around the time ours started, there was already the Pedernales fire was going on at the same time. So, you know, we were already short staffed from the very beginning.
KUT News: So, what do you do? What do you do in that situation, you’re short staffed, you’ve got this crazy fire raging, you show up on the scene and there’s smoke everywhere?
Petersma: Well, you can’t go home. Uh, I mean, we really just have to adapt and overcome. I mean, for one thing, if we don’t have enough resources, we don’t try to put people in danger. Our main goal is to make sure everybody goes home alive and we don’t have any fatalities. So, basically, one of my first objectives in that was evacuation. I saw that we weren’t going to be able to get in front of it, you know, it was going straight to that neighborhood. So, within, I think within 15 minutes was my first evacuation, first plan of evacuation, which is coordinating through the officers on scene, TCSO and I can’t remember who else was there, but I know there were several law enforcement agencies on scene. So, they helped with that first part and then, I think, within, I don’t know the time stamps, but within the first hour, I think, every home in Steiner Ranch had been notified or tried to be notified of an evacuation, which caused a whole different, another aspect of chaos, should we say. So, and there is, I think –
KUT News: What was the chaos –
Petersma: One way in, one way out or, technically, there is two ways out and two ways in, but there is 3,000 plus homes and so, you know, you’re looking at maybe an average of four homes, so you’re looking at 12,000 people. Now, whether they are all home that day or not, you know, but on a kind of rule of thumb. So, you had a traffic jam. It’s just like if a tornado or a hurricane hits down in the coast, you know, you’ve got all these people trying to go up one line or up 35 from Houston and it’s, you know, a traffic jam. That’s what we had in Steiner Ranch. Everybody was going out while we had fire trucks and everything going in and it was just, you know, people were, you know, frantic about it. They are going to lose their home, if they are at work, they just got a phone call, their kids are at home, are they going to be safe? So, it’s a little bit of, my pets are at home, they are not safe so, I mean, it was a little bit of anything that you can think of, that’s kind of what was going on.
KUT News: And how did people react when you told them that they had to evacuate? When I say that, I guess I’m asking can you think of any specific stories of people you interacted with that either didn’t want to go or freaked out or were happy to oblige?
Petersma: To be honest, I didn’t really have communication with anybody for telling them they had to evacuate. The first, you know, 45 minutes to an hour, I was more worried about where my guys were going and how we were going to put this fire out. I initiated that evacuation process, but I didn’t really, because we had the reversed 911, so what they do is, you know, they hit a button and then that certain block or certain grid, the phones, it will call back so 911, instead of you calling 911, 911 calls you and tells you hey that’s been an emergency, we need you to evacuate. Then, officers are going around with bull horns, telling people to get out now, especially the main areas that were going to get hit first.
KUT News: That must have been traumatic for those people, some of them.
Petersma: Absolutely. You know, not knowing, everyone was relying on the social media so everyone was relying on Facebook and, you know, the communication wasn’t as streamline as I would have liked to see, but you’re never going to get, something at that magnitude of an event, you’re never going to get communication the way everybody is going to want. So, yeah, I mean, they were seeing people posting videos with their camera phone. You know, they are fixing to evacuate and they got fire coming at them. So, that’s what they are relying on getting feedback because they are not in the area.
KUT News: So, you get everyone evacuated or, you know, at least as many people as possible. I think your Chief or maybe it was your Assistant Chief told me that you might have had some people hanging out at like, sort of secretly hanging out with a garden hose.
KUT News: But you get as many people out as possible and, this is kind of the scene that I’m really interested in, because, you know, most people couldn’t have access to these neighborhoods that were under attack by fire, the media certainly could not go passed the evacuation perimeter. So, what was it like in there, at that point, after everyone’s out?
Petersma: It was, you know, I can only go from, it was pretty intense. I mean, I wasn’t on the frontline but, you know, talking to some of my guys that I had go, you know, the first engine to the frontline, they said it was incredibly insane. They said it was hot, the fire was moving so fast. I do remember my Chief came up to me after he took command and put me in operations and asked me for, and I’ll remember this until the day I die, he came up to me and asked me for three plans or he asked me if I had a plan on what to do next. I was like, I don’t, I’m still working on it and he came to me and he said, in the next ten minutes, I want you to get me three plans. He said, if I don’t have three plans in ten minutes, I’m going to light a fire under your ass. And he was, but he was, you know, he was trying to get me think outside the box and let’s get more than one plan together just in case, you know, something doesn’t happen. Well, at that point, I was like, you know, we got to figure something out and so myself and one of the Battalion Chiefs from Austin, we went and drove into the neighborhood and was looking at all the damage and how we’re going to stop this.
And so, we came up with three plans and I went back to him and I told him what our three plans were and he asked me, well what’s Plan B if those three don’t work. And I was like, don’t worry about Plan B, let’s worry about Plan A, B and C right now. So, you know, when I went in and we looked, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I had never seen fire destroy homes so quick. It was, I mean, there is no way we’re going to save one home that’s fully involved because it’s lighting the next home on fire and the next home on fire and the next home on fire. And it was jumping homes. I mean, there is one neighborhood where the cul-de-sac, the house at the very bottom was not burned but every house around it was burned. It was just the way the fire was burning and the wind was blowing. But it was incredibly, I didn’t have time to take pictures, you know, I wish I would have so I can explain it and show it, but it was incredibly, what’s the word I’m looking for, I mean, it was just totally out of the ordinary.
KUT News: Just out of curiosity, what were you plan A, B and C, do you remember?
Petersma: Plan A –
KUT News: I mean basically and generally speaking.
Petersma: Yeah. Basically, my plan was that we were looking at a map and looking at the fires and I knew that we weren’t going to be able to fight house for house. Like I stated earlier, it was just too hot. So, basically, I had to visualize on a map of where I was going to draw a boundary and at that time, I picked a street and I was like, I’m going to consider these homes from here to here gone. I got to stop the fire here or we’re going to have a bigger issue. So, basically, my plan was to set up, I don’t know how many engines I had, I mean, I probably set up nine, seven engines and two ladders down there. I don’t remember.
Basically, the tactic was when you see the fire coming, you squirt as much water on it as you can. I mean, to be, to put into layman’s terms, don’t let the fire come to you; stop it in its tracks. So, that was initially the plan, I just, plan A, B and C was, okay, so we’re going to stop it here. If we can’t stop it here, we’re going to back everybody out and we’re going to stop it here. If we can’t, we’re going to back everybody out and stop it here. It’s not going to get all the way to Lake Austin; we’ll stop it before then, but, you know, it was pretty much picking a street and making, you know, kind of like making a stance. We had to stop it.
KUT News: So, what happened?
Petersma: Plan A worked. It was, the guys on the frontline did an incredible job. I can’t thank, you know, my guys here at our department, AFD, other neighboring departments, I don’t know what department was on the frontline or what wasn’t without my sheet here. But, you know, every order that I gave to the structural group or whatever, they didn’t have any problem with it. Like, they did bock at any order. I told them what I wanted and, you know, they followed through with it and they did a tremendous job, a hell of a good job and they stopped it in its tracks exactly right where I wanted. So, we didn’t have to go to plan B or C or D, you know, I mean, plan A worked and, you know, thankfully we only lost 23 homes and I think we had 25 that were damaged, but not a total loss. I think that was, and we didn’t have any fatalities so I think, with all that being said, everybody pulled together and it didn’t matter what department you were with, AFD guys worked along with our guys, right beside and we worked just as good with everybody else. I mean, we all pulled together as a big team and we had one common goal; to put the fire out.
KUT News: When I was talking to your Chief, he was telling me that some of the homes, I mean, some of the firefighters working on this fire, you know, they had been to Steiner Ranch, they knew some of these houses, they had been inside some of these houses or they would show up for like a birthday, you know, they made a doctor’s visit or something. Had you been to Steiner Ranch or any of these homes? Do you know any of these places or are you familiar enough to?
Petersma: To be honest, yeah. I mean, I had friends that lived in Steiner Ranch and, a couple of my close friends and so we actually, my wife and my family, we let one of those families come and stay with us while they were evacuated and, you know, I kept a good eye on where their house was and where the fire was going. As far as the homes that were burned in the very beginning, I didn’t. I knew a couple people that had acquaintances that had homes off on the side, but, you know, I might have been a couple homes over there for a birthday party years ago but, you know, it didn’t, at that time, I wasn’t really thinking of that. But, you know, Steiner Ranch is such a close community. They are a phenomenal group of people over there that really showed their support to us as, you know, as their local fire department.
KUT News: I heard about the Steiner hugs.
Petersma: Oh, man.
KUT News: Can you tell me about that, anything?
Petersma: Yeah. That was pretty emotional. It didn’t matter if their house got burned down or not. I went in a couple day after, whenever they kind of released the do not go beyond this point, you know. So, they kind of let everybody back in and see the damages and stuff. So, I made my way around, showing my condolences to some of the families that lost their homes. I went into one cul-de-sac and I wanted to see the progress of the fire, for one, and there was a table set up and this family was sifting through all the ashes. I got out of the truck and, well, it was pretty emotional. You know, I could only imagine if my house burned, I mean, I couldn’t imagine.
So, I walked over and I introduced myself and we started talking, without skipping a beat, the homeowner came over and gave me a hug and she said thank you. I said it’s kind of hard to accept a thank you when, you know, with this in your background. And she was like: it doesn’t matter. She says, “You guys did the best you could; no one died, houses can be rebuilt.” You know, it really sank in that, you know, that’s the truth. It don’t matter, houses can always be rebuilt and the Steiner hug, it didn’t matter who they were, they saw a firefighter, they were giving them a hug. The Steiner hug was big and along with the Steiner hug, the food that was pouring in; just the people that were – the water – just everybody in the community was unbelievably supportive of everything. Like I said, it didn’t matter if their house burned or not, you know. I was surprised, but it’s kind of like, you know, we hang our head up high because we’ve got a great community out here; we’ve got a great fire department.
KUT News: Totally, man. So, when you look back on this whole entire experience, you know, what, like, what stands out to you? Often, I don’t ask, you know, the question about this, you know, I don’t know how to ask it so I’ll just say tell me, put yourself in my shoes, what would you ask yourself? I mean, what is the, sort of, the stand out thing to you?
Petersma: Oh, man. I mean, it’s just; that’s a hard question to answer.
KUT News: Because there’s so much?
Petersma: There is. It was just such an extensive event that, I mean, and I kind of repeat myself. I mean, it’s a little bit; stuff that stands out is, for one, the commitment that I had from the guys, the department. It didn’t matter what we needed, I mean, we got it and the community support; the state support that we got. I mean, we got a group in, I think it was from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, I don’t remember the departments, Frisco, Plano maybe, but there is a group of fire engines that came down from Dallas; drove down from Dallas to help us with this fire. It was, whether, you know, our resources were tapped and so everybody else was, you know, kind of spearheading together and giving us what they could here and there. It was an entire fire, EMS, law enforcement. The public service entities joined together and made Labor Day, I mean, it was memorable. You know, I mean, it’s, I say memorable and you know, it’s memorable to us just because we will never forget this fire, I mean, it was a career fire. But, the things that stood out, I would have to say, I mean, the community support kept us going. I mean, just without them, you know, being at our beck and call with food, whatever.
KUT News: Well, I heard you got, someone asked for some bananas at some point, do you remember that story?
Petersma: I don’t remember the story, but I remember coming in to our Station 5 there in Steiner and I walk in and there are boxes and boxes and boxes of bananas. It didn’t matter it was bananas, there was somebody, I don’t know who it was, a firefighter or somebody said something about, you know, socks or Gold Bond or you know, something to help because we’re on our feet and, I mean, we got truckloads of stuff. Sunscreen, eye wash, bananas, cookies, you know, I mean, we wanted to eat healthy but we were getting cookies and cupcakes and, you know, all this sort of stuff. But, I mean, everything went noted. It was greatly appreciated, everything we got.
KUT News: Cool. Well, thanks for your time. I just have one last question also, this is something else that I was looking at, you know, ESD’s especially in, sort of, metropolitan areas across Texas are strapped for resources. You know, you do the best with what you have, obviously.
KUT News: Now, I know that, and especially in the first few hours responding to this fire, you didn’t have that many engines. So, what, I mean, can you just sort of, and you kind of answered this already, but can you tell me what you guys, how you dealt with; first of all, what that shortage of resources meant to you and then how you overcame it?
Petersma: Yeah. Like I stated earlier, you know, getting our department or, should I say, our department was getting geared up. So, we were staffing extra trucks, extra brush trucks and that day, we had a brush truck and an engine staffed. Well, our fire was one of the later fires to kick off, so our engine got sent out with our south engine to help with the Steiner Ranch fire. That morning, our brush truck got sent out to help with the Pedernales fire. So, I was already, those two resources that we staffed up were already gone. So, by the time the Pflugerville fire had or they kind of let the brush truck, they were heading back and we popped our call. So, to answer your question, our resources were tapped. With all the other fires that were going on, all we could do was just hope for more people. You know, our entire district was, you know, stripped. We had neighboring departments back filling what they could in other calls that were going in our district. We had AFD sending us trucks to help us. I think over a period of time Austin Fire Department, they sent us, over the extent of the five days, they had 26 different apparatuses here. So, you know, our big brother, you know, across the lake, you know, they helped us tremendously. And, you know, we just adapt and overcome. I mean, with the help of STAR Flight dropping water. You know, wish we could have had some more air resources, but with the amount of fires that were going on at that same time, you know, the Bastrop fire was a lot bigger than ours and they needed more aircraft out there and along with the Pedernales. We just, the famous saying is we just do what we do. I mean, we have to adapt and overcome and whatever that means, you know, if it means that we have to strap up and, you know, hit the road or we might not get relief for another 12 hours, but we’ve got to be mentally prepared for that.