Jim Linardos: I am Jim Linardos. I am the Fire Chief at Lake Travis Fire Rescue, which is Travis County Emergency Services District 6.
KUT News: So, I’m here to talk to you about the wildfires – the Labor Day wildfires in September. I just wanted to start a little bit before then, though. If you could maybe tell me what – what was going on with the day beforehand, you know, was it a pretty quiet day? What was happening?
Linardos: Well, even before that, if I may, we were – looking back we were busy all summer. We started – I told the guys that we had graduated from grass fires to brush fires and to more of a wildfire regime around April and May. The Pinnacle fire, which was in West Austin, we sent four units to and they were buys in the middle of that. So, they learned that from that point on, we were graduating and going forward into more serious fires and – a serious fire environment. We spent all summer fighting wildfires, basically 100, 200, 300 acres at a time and up to our largest fire, which was 400 acres. Some of them were – were – all of them, but not all of them, but many of them we were protecting structures. So, they had been warmed up all season and so the day before, when that one started to hit, the organization was – was – was spooled up ready for it. So, it was really – as the Chief, it was neat to see an organization progress to the point where they were good, competent wild land firefighters.
KUT News: Right and so you – so you had some practice beforehand. Now, the day before, I mean, was it just quiet or what was happening?
Linardos: It was kind of quiet. You could feel the weather changing. We were looking at the weather forecast and I wasn’t sure what it meant by tropical storm moving in, what the impact was. I don’t think we quite realized that. We knew were going to be in fire danger behavior, but we’d been in there all summer. We didn’t realize it was going to be to that extent, so I think the day before was – was kind of a lulled sense of security probably, you know, it just didn’t feel right, but it wasn’t anything you could put your finger on.
KUT News: When you got – how did you first receive word and, I guess, the one that you dealt with primarily was the Steiner Ranch fire.
Linardos: That’s correct, well…
KUT News: How did you first receive word of that?
KUT News: Ironically, I was spending some time with an old friend that was a firefighter from way back and that morning we got up and went outside and looked and – they were visiting and – and it was – we realized what a horrible day it was going to be. So, we tried to go out to breakfast and got a phone call from – from one of the Austin firefighters, Chief Evans, from – from the City of Austin, the Chief of Staff. He says, “Hey, Chief Mullenburg over in Pflugerville’s got a big fire. Have you been listening?” I said, “Yeah, I knew a little bit about it.” So, I gave them a call and they said, “Come on out and help.” So, I went out to Pflugerville to help out there on the hood lay and the fire. So, that was the first fire I was at and I spent some time out there with them, you know, trying to help them with some stuff and talk to them and I’m the wild land coordinator for the county for the Capital Area Fire Chief’s Association, so it was appropriate to go out there and give a hand. I tried to help them out and then I was told that we had a Steiner Ranch fire and I was starting to listen to it one of the other frequencies and just hearing the tone of our guys’ voices, I knew that I had to get back. So, left that scene and abruptly came back to this scene. But, we knew that morning it was a bad day and we knew if we were going to get any starts – the – any fire starts, it would have been very difficult, if not possible to control.
KUT News: Now, you talk about the tone of their voices. What – what were they saying and how were they saying it?
Linardos: You could just tell by the – you can tell by the inflection of the voice, you know, that something’s serious. I had heard within minutes that it had jumped 620 and that part of 620 is pretty – that’s one of the wider parts of 620. For a fire in Central Texas to jump a road like that that quick is the sign of a pretty serious fire. So, bottom line was we knew from the beginning it was going into Steiner Ranch and we knew it was going to be a bad scenario.
KUT News: So – so – you – you arrived here, right? You – you rush back…
KUT News: What do you see?
Linardos: Well, I report to the command post and we have a – we use the Incident Command System – Incident Management System, so we have everything laid out.
KUT News: Really quickly, what’s that?
Linardos: The Incident Management System is something that was put together in the early 70’s that fire and emergency services, police, law enforcement, EMS all use. It’s now a Presidential directive since 9/11, but prior to that, it was something that fire services used to organize its fire ground and it was created in the Southern California area in the early 70’s and we’ve used it ever since. So, the Incident Command System is how we – when we – when we go work, this is how we work. It’s our management system. So, I know who to report to and, you know, how to get a briefing and how to lay things out. So, that’s how we did it. I showed up and went to work, found the incident commander. It was one of our guys who had been fighting fires all summer and had been in the tough position of running the fires. He – he really grew a lot that year. Anyway, he was running the fire and so I worked with him for a while and then decided that it would be best if I managed the incident and let him run the operations, which makes him in charge of all the tactical portions of it, so he ran that and then I managed the fire from the Incident Management point of view as Incident Commander for some time.
KUT News: Then what happened from that point?
Linardos: Well, from that point, within a few minutes, we were starting to evacuate. We knew we had to evacuate most, if not all, of Steiner Ranch by its layout. It’s complicated, but that’s the decision that we made. We worked closely with the Sheriff’s Office at the Incident Command Post to say, “Okay, here’s what we have to evacuate. We’re going to get these people out.” At the same time, trying to corral the fire, trying to get enough resources in. By the time this thing really took off and we were really getting into where it was going to continue – to run on us, we started taking other looks at how to get more resources in. I’ve got five stations, I’m one of the bigger emergency service districts and we – we had double staff pretty much. We had brought on about, at least, 20% more folks that day just because we knew that day was bad. We staffed extra staff here, extra staff there and extra engines and brush trucks and there were already some of them deployed. We already had one over in Pflugerville and then we had our own incident and then we had the – about the same time or just recent after that, we had the Pedernales fire, which part of that we had to send resources over and that night, we ended up with 180 acres of that in our jurisdiction again. So, we had two fires to fight and we had to split some of our crew out. But, the point was, going back to that day, trying to get resources was hard because about the time we needed it, if you look at the State of Texas, it was completely under siege. It was experiencing its – its – its most famous day for – for fires and in a horrible way, it just was locked up. You just weren’t going to get too many more resources. So, my job was to try to get as many resources as I could and I was working with our emergency operations center, which is out at C-Tech or Combined Emergency Transportation Communication Center. We had our emergency operations center, EOC, stood up and we were trying to get resources out and they’re saying, “We don’t have anything,” and I needed – you know, you try to get – you want to get an engine per structure threatened and it’s hard to do that when you don’t have any. So, I worked closely with them and I ended up getting some resources a little later to get in there and reinforce our guys. So, it took a while. I can give you’re the time frames and our layouts, but it took hours to get them in and even on the best case scenario and this – I’ve been doing wildfires and I’ve done these types of wildfires for pretty much most of my career.
I came from the western United States. This is what we did and I worked on incident management teams all over the western US, so I’d done this before and been on some big, big ones of these, but the problem was that first two to four hours – it’s so critical to get the resources in and we – Hooker Crook got some in there. A couple of county units left got in there. There were some strike teams which are five engines. They were mobilized in the area from – through our Texas Interagency or TIFMAS, it’s called – Texas Interagency Fire and Mutual Aid System. That’s kind of shepherded by the Texas Forest Service, but it’s run by the Texas Fire Chiefs, under the department or the Governor’s office of emergency management.
So, they put all that together and we had some resources in there and we started getting those later in the evening, but it took us a while to get those resources in there, but at that time, the fire was pushing through there so fast that we had to retreat people. By the topography and layout of the – of the – the Steiner Ranch, it created a lot of problems for us. You’ve got curvy linear streets. You’ve got – everyone gets a view. Everyone has the Greenbelt on their back yard and everyone’s on a cul-de-sac and it’s all these little fingers, which is really hard to protect. So, it’s not like it’s a flat straight street that you can say, “Okay, I have 20 homes. I need to put 20 engines on 20 homes. Okay, I can’t get 20. Give me 10 and I’ll do two engines per structure.” That’s the textbook answer. Steiner Ranch is not the textbook and it’s kind of a new way they’re doing stuff where you’ve got – everyone gets a view so it puts them on the top of a draw of a hill. That’s a problem and we had pretty much every backyard was a problem because he had wild land urban interface in it. So, we really, really had a hard time managing that for the first three to four hours. We really did turn the curve – we started turn that fire around around 11 at night and we started getting a handle on it and getting enough resources in there to really just put a lot of water on it and stop the progression.
KUT News: Now, can you talk to me about what’s that like? I mean, so you’ve been doing wild land firefighting most of your career. You know what is required in those kinds of situations. You are in those critical first few hours, you are in need of resources desperately to fight a stubborn blaze that is in a difficult to fight area and you’re not getting them. I mean, how do you – can you kind of walk me through how you feel and what you do in those situations and how do you deal with that?
Linardos: It’s a – that’s a tough situation. It was a tough situation and if we’re handed it again, it’s going to be a tough situation. The folks rallied hard and the firefighters were – were heroic in what they did, but what we had to do and they weren’t happy with it and you can ask them about it, at one time is we ended up forcing them out of there to go rehab themselves. You know hundred degree heat, low humidities, wind blowing and you can only imagine the heat that they’re in with the radiant and convected heat from the fire storm. We forced them out to go rehab and then go back in and they didn’t like, but we had to force them to do that. We said, “You know, these guys will work themselves until they die,” I mean, that’s – that’s what firefighters do. That’s how – that’s – culturally, we’re trying to run that out.
We’re trying to tell firefighters, “You need to work hard and then you need to rehab, get your body cooled off, get yourself hydrated, get some rest and then get back in there again.” You know, it’s kind of re-treading them. There’s some danger to that, but that’s all we can do. I don’t have, you know, we don’t have, you know 1000 firefighters at beck and wind that can get in there in 20 minutes. It’s just not going to happen. So, that’s really what we do. We try to – we try to use the right amount of resource with – with the right amount of stress. There’s tactically some things they can do to keep the heat off of them. They – they employed those, but strategically speaking, we have to make sure that we – we feed them, we water them and get them a break and get them back in there and we had to do that.
When they’re engaged in active firefighting, pulling them off is not easy to do, but we did it, it worked and we didn’t lose any firefighters on that day and I think state-wide, that much fire engagement from that many directions going on, if you think about all the – all the incidents that are out there, it baffles me that we didn’t kill a firefighter. If you really think about it, just that much hard we’re working, but they’ve done a good job keeping safe and doing a good job that they’ve learned that if they go down, it just creates more problems for – for the rest of the team, so as a good team player, they try to take good care of themselves and by the end of the summer, like I said, for our guys, they had learned their limits and they’d been out there, so they knew how to pace themselves. It wasn’t their first marathon of the summer.
KUT News: Right. How did people react to being evacuated? Did you talk to anyone specifically?
Linardos: Yeah, you know, I have a lot of friends in Steiner Ranch. You know, yeah, I’ve talked to a lot of them about it. They all have different stories. Some of them are very interesting. Texans are a unique breed because they’re very independent and a lot of them may not, you know, don’t like to evacuate, so they’re not going to say they like it, but I think it runs the gamut of everything from people saying, “Okay, get in the car and we’re going.” A couple of friends have told me they just got in and left, panic-stricken, both the husband and the wife or the husband or whatever and then I had other folks that basically fortified their homes and quietly stayed there and didn’t tell anybody. That’s just the nature of the beast and we understand that exists. That’s the reality of it.
So, you’ve got the whole gamut of stuff and everything in between and some – some hilarious stories. Now that you look back at them, they weren’t funny at the time, but people really don’t think and one of the things that we’ve tried to do is produce this “Ready, Set, Go” program that helps folks with a list on the back of what you do and trying to help them – I hate to say checklists, but people don’t always think, “Oh, I got to take my –” you know, I mean, they remember their pets on most cases, but they don’t remember their prescriptions. They don’t remember, you know, to take clothes for the next few days. They don’t – forget, you know, a lot of things. Plus the power is going to be off in their house for three or four days. That’s another problem.
But anyways, from an evacuation point of view, it was interesting the human elements in that. Now, mechanically getting that many people out of a road that’s choked down, it was a little problematic, but I think it worked pretty well. We wish it had gone a little faster, but I think we’ve all learned a little bit on ways we can help expedite it and I think the community maybe can chip in, but it’s a tough area to get in and out of and I think everyone did well and again, no one was killed. This was one of those scenarios where you start losing houses in this type of rapidly moving fire, if you look at the case studies, you’re going to find that, you know, there’s one or two or three fatalities in those types of scenarios and we didn’t have that.
KUT News: Now, I do want to ask you about some of those lessons learned.
KUT News: And what’s happened since then, but first I just want to go back to that Labor Day weekend and you’ve evacuated everyone. Now, you get some resources on the scene that you – that you need to start combating the fire, what, I mean, what happened then? Did you – first of all, how much stuff did you have there to fight this fire?
Linardos: At the peak of the battle, approximately about 40 engines in total, with some other resources, maybe 40-45 at the most. That’s what started making a dent. What we ended up with was coming up with about four to five plans on basic different case scenarios and I asked for that from our planning folks. I say, “Okay, what’s – what’s this thing going to look like? What’s the weather forecast for tonight,” et cetera, et cetera, et cetera and we started putting all that together and we ended up with one of the better case scenarios in there. The worst case scenario is that fire would have run – continue to run like it did, it would have – it would have jumped right over, we think, it had the capability of jumping over Austin, Lake Austin and moving its way up the other side. That would have been another problem. But we were seeing spot fires 1100 to 1500 feet from the head of the fire which is not – which is normal under those – under that fire environment, you will receive spot fires at 1100 – 1500 feet down range and we were picking those up. That’s really what a lot of what we were doing was trying to manage those embers and the spot fires.
It created a lot of problems in structures, because they always go to the least side you and don’t see them getting in there, but that’s another story for another day. Back to us – we were looking at that. We started getting the resources in. We started getting fresh resources in. The City of Austin sent a lot of engines in there. I – I’ve looked at the counts. Over a period of time, it was a significant amount of resources for our fire, that was it. Our fire was condense and small and when you look at what they had across the lake and over there in Pedernales, we had what was called an interface fire. They had more of an intermix fire where the fire was running, it was hitting houses and going large distance. We had a smaller, more condensed fire, with a high density of population. So, we were planning for the worst. Call it divine intervention, but the wind decided it was going to quit a little earlier than was forecasted and that’s when we started getting a handle on things and that would have been, you know, before midnight is when we started turning the corner on it. In the interim, we thought we were going to lose, you know, up to 300 homes and that – that’s probably not an exaggeration when you look in there at all the homes. And again, the problem with areas like Steiner Ranch is they’re beautiful, everyone gets a view, everyone’s got a cul-de-sac, everyone’s on a little hill, but it all ads up for a hard – it’s a hard, you know, you’re attacking the fire in five or six different places at once, very problematic.
KUT News: Yeah, I remember that from – the finger then from – from when it was happening and the updates that we were getting just through the media. How many homes were destroyed total, do you remember?
Linardos: I believe 23.
KUT News: Twenty-three and like you say, it could have been a lot worse. A lot of that is obviously through the hardworking firefighters.
Linardos: Yes, they did a great job.
KUT News: All of this is because of the hard work of the fire department. Once the – like at what point are you – are you ready and comfortable to let people back in?
Linardos: Well, it’s more than the fire. When you’re letting people back in, yeah everyone goes, “Well, the fire –“ they’re all worried about, “Well, what percent contained is it?” You can’t hit 100% containment around homes. For me to contain a fire, I have to put a fire line completely around it. That takes time and when you’re dealing in people’s backyards, that’s problematic. What we had to do was we had to get the power back on in certain areas. You don’t want to send people back in without power. You don’t want to send them in without gas. The gas was shut off, but for some reason, the gas folks they had to get in and get into the streets to open then back up. So, we let them go in early as an advance team and this was all coordinated with the Sheriff’s office on getting these folks in as soon as possible. So, it took us some time. We came up with a plan, power, gas, get everything redone and then let them back in and I think it was a lot better. We did coordination with the local churches. We grouped them together up there and they ended up coming in with trailers and taking the trash out of the homes from the refrigeration.
If your refrigerator and your freezer go out for four days, you’re going to have a smelly house. So, they helped with that and they took trailers and trailers of trash out. We had a lot of resources giving out water and a lot of volunteers. There was a whole army of volunteers up there doing that, so that was awesome to see the community come together and help out. So, those were some of the things we did. We had kind of a traffic plan getting them back in and again, for the areas that were impacted the worst, we sent senior staff of the fire department to those areas to meet with the homeowners right off the bat. So, we covered the three or four hardest hit areas with different folks, myself included, down there saying, “Hey, we’re sorry for your loss. We did everything we could,” and we went down there and it was pretty heartwarming. These people are giving you hugs and kisses and thank you for saving their neighborhood even though they may have lost their houses. So, it was pretty – we learned all about the – it was pretty encouraging, but it was also emotional for us because, you know, we’re firefighters and we want to save everyone’s property and lives and sometimes that’s just not gong to happen.
KUT News: Can you remember one specific person you talked to? Does anything stand out from that – from that little exchange?
Linardos: Yeah, I don’t recall her name, but she had this little metal – her house was gone and she had this little wire like a birdfeeder that she was carrying around with her and that’s really all she had and she – she was just so happy to see us and gave me a big hug and thanked us and I believe either that night or the next night, she went and baked us cookies – went to the neighbor’s house and baked us cookies and took them over to the fire station to thank us. I thought that was beyond the call of duty personally and that kind of – you know the Steiner hugs, we said. A lot of hugs given back and forth and our guys were in there too and we still had some work to do. We let them in a little early, but, you know, each 12-hour block you keep these folks out is traumatic for them. We realize that. Law enforcement and fire and our EMS counterparts altogether, we all understand that getting back to normal is so important, but we want to do it in a safe and effective manner. I think we did that at Steiner. I think we let them in as soon as we possibly could on the time frames with lifting the evacuation and get in in an orderly manner because you can have chaotic reentries where you have a lot of issues, too. We were down there and just a coordinated effort and the people were just so generous. Not everyone was happy and we understand that. You know, we – we had some challenges, too, but we’re all so trying to being empathetic in what happened there and it was pretty significant for a lot of people.
KUT News: Some people got angry with you?
Linardos: There was some anger and some frustration and, you know, it doesn’t, you know, I’ve studied wild land firefighting. I’ve studied urban interface firefighting for my career and the interesting this is is even with in most cases, you understand where the fire’s going, but the fire’s got a mind of it’s own. So you can stand there after the fire and go, “Why this house? Why not this house?” It’s hard – it’s hard to really put your finger on after the fire what that was. Now, there’s certain things that you can find in the science, but on the human side when it’s a homeowner standing there and they’re neighbor’s house is standing and there’s isn’t, that’s a problem for them and all of the science in the world can’t explain that to them. At that time, they don’t want to hear science. It’s just, you know, they’ve lost everything and it’s not like – you lose everything in a wildfire. Everything’s gone. Your house is gone, everything. It’s – it’s not like there’s much. We had a couple of houses that had some salvaging going on, but in general terms, when a wildfire comes through, it comes through – that’s where the term “comes through like a wildfire” comes from because it does and it’s the great equalizer. It just takes everything out.
KUT News: How is it that like one – can you, I mean, I’m – how is it that one home can be destroyed and then one next to it is fine because I seem to recall reports of that from Steiner Ranch and I realized, like you say, there’s a science behind it. Is it possible to explain in simple terms?
Linardos: I’ll try. Three – three – three basic heat-transfer methods all work together, convection, conduction, radiation. That’s when the fire or it’s close to the product of the actual flames hitting the house. Those are the tree that come together. So, forget those for a second and think about ember generation. Embers are little tiny things that look like little bugs and they come down. You don’t see them during the day until the back of your shirt then you know it’s there. But, embers were dropping all over Steiner Ranch. Central Texas, until really of recent, with this new wild land urban interface, Central Texans weren’t really – firefighters weren’t really tuned up to ember generation and really didn’t understand it. Now, they understand it now, but what we learned was and what the community’s learned is these embers can go, like I said, 1100, 1200, 1500 feet and drop and start a fire.
We ran into ember generation a few years ago and then we saw it again early this year west on Bee Cave in the City of Bee Cave. We had a small fire in the Star Ranch area. It was less than an acre. We did lose one house in that, one residence, but there’s a little area that has a bunch of old homes on it that they’ve retrofitted and we found little fires starting in six of those homes, I believe about 1100 feet downwind from the fire. This fire never even got established. That was in April, so come September, the fuels just continue to dry out, dry out, dry out. So my point to you in easy scientific terms is you have these little embers that go downwind. They look for – they’ve almost got a mind of their own. They look for the back side – if the wind’s blowing, there’s low pressure on the back side of the house and it tends to eddy back up and into the house, they will find little quarter-inch mesh, they will go right into your attic and start a fire. So, that’s what we found so many of and our crews – you talk to the engine crews and I really hope you do, but when you talk to the engine crews, you find out the engine ladder companies were out there and they would actually go into the attics, all of these places, and find little areas and go in there with a chainsaw and cut them out that were burning.
That’s the problem with a wild land urban interface is you see these small little fires get into the attic, they get into these low crawlspaces, they – they drop on a curtain. They find something’s that flammable just inside the house or just adjacent to the house and go. So, that’s it. So, defensible space is so important. You’ve got to have, you know, 30, 60 feet cleared away from your home. Central Texans will use trees for shade over their homes for obvious reasons.
Speaking as a Central Texan, I’ve been here long enough to know that it’s going – it’s going to take a lot of work to cut those trees down over the top of the house, but the tree, when it’s dry, is also flammable. So, we’ve got to be very careful with that and having ash junipers or the cedar trees right up against your home without a break is, you know, probably not a good idea from a convection, conduction and radiation issue. The embers were the other problem and that’s really why you saw patchwork of houses standing. A lot of that is embers and ember generation and it’s just an interesting – it’s not really a phenomenon, it’s just a very standard every fire you get and the drier your fuels are and the larger your fires are that are burning, the more and farther that generation occurs. If you’re burning a three or four inch tree, it’s going to put off some significant ember generation. If you’ve got the wind to push it, like we did on Labor Day, the fire’s going to go anywhere it wants until you can get enough water to slow that down, slow down the ember generation and then you can start getting a handle on putting the fire out.
KUT News: So, what – so, I mean, you said, that there were firefighters around here in Central Texas hadn’t had a lot of experience with embers prior to then. I imagine there are – there’s a list of lessons learned and, I mean, speaking from Lake Travis Fire Rescue, what – what have – what, I mean you’ve been researching this, you know for – most of your career, but what did you learn and what has changed, if anything, at Lake Travis Fire Rescue?
Linardos: Well, a lot’s changed at Lake Travis Fire and Rescue and if I can start state-wide and work my way down. I’m involves in some state initiatives. Texas Forest Service saw this happening, saw this drought coming and they started putting together firefighter training for firefighters and I’ve been part of that and honored to be part of that where we’re training firefighters state-wide to train other firefighters how do to national wild land firefighting to a national standard. So, that started training – that started this spring and I’ve been training through that cycle. So, we’re training thousands of firefighters in doing that. Regionally, the Capital Area Fire Chief’s Association, which represents basically most of your Travis County Agencies, all of your Travis County Fire Agencies together, has come up with a training program that we’ve been working on for three years on managing fires that go into what we call extended attack, which is what the Steiner Ranch fire was. It’s not initial attack anymore, you’re going to be here a while. So, we’ve all trained in that. We’ve trained hundreds of folks in that.
So, we’ve been stepping up to the plate in training folks. We’ve coordinated our efforts better. We have a multi-agency group that gets together on conference calls and shares resources and where they’re at and how we can coordinate those resources. LTFR – we’ve done some innovative things. We’ve contracted with a bulldozer. So, we have a bulldozer on call as needed. We use the county bulldozers, but in larger fires, you need many of them. We need those resources, so we’ve done that. We’ve trained about six of our folks about how to manage that resource. We’ve trained with the Austin Fire Department with wild land firefighting. We’ve put, oh my goodness, pretty much a lot of those folks – I’ll let you speak to Austin on that, but most of those folks went through more training, so we’ve had another 40 hours of training for every firefighter in how to manage wildfires. So, we’ve done more of that. We’ve really stepped up to the plate for that.
We’ve also put on kind of a wild land – it’s a seasonal crew that comes on for six months out of the year and does hazard fuel reduction work. They’re finishing their training as we speak. They’re here on the premises. I can show them to you. We’ve got nine members there – eight members, I believe, excuse me. So, we’ve got eight members that do that. So, we’re doing that. We’re going to try to go out and work with land owners, cities, counties, whoever and try to work together with trying to remove some of these fuels like we did before. In my previous job, I was with a very successful program in Lake Tahoe that did that since 20 years ago and started a halo around the community. So, I was a party to a project like this and – and we actually brought those folks out to help us train on that and I can give you some more on that later. That was an interesting thing. We’re working on that. So, we’ve ponied up for that.
The community, after the fires, made some donations to us. We pooled those donations and we bought all-terrain vehicles, some small – people call them mules or whatever. We’ve got one with a little pump on it that gets us into our tougher areas. People don’t realize that from where that fire started in Steiner Ranch to where it hit those houses, it went across five major high tension lines that are hard to work around and one creek. So, it looks flat, but it isn’t flat in there. You can’t get engines in there. We actually had – we couldn’t get our bulldozer – the county couldn’t get their bulldozer in there it was so steep. So, these things will help us diversify our attack modes. The thing about wildfires is it’s – you know, structure fires, you go in with a couple of hose lines and that’s how you manage a fire.
A wildfire is handled in different parts, at different times, doing different work. Aircraft – we use air tankers around here and we saw a big flux of them. STAR Flight – I can’t speak enough for the county program, the STAR Flight program. It’s our – our three EMS helicopters. We used those all summer with using bucket drops and they saved – I can’t count the homes that STAR Flight saved. They were a great resource that the county used to help us with that. It’s probably one of the best – in most cases, the EMS helicopters don’t do this. We’ve been using them for that and they’re all set up to do that. We’ve worked collectively with them to make sure they’re trained and they work together with us. So, we’ve done that. We’ve actually amped that up and bought more resources for them to do that even since last year. So, they have three helicopters with three tanks called Bambi Buckets. That’s the brand name and then they have pumpkin tanks underneath that we dip out of.
We found early in the year because we couldn’t dip out of tanks anymore because there was no tanks left. People’s stock was drying out. There was nothing left and then we’re, you know, we’re stealing it from the ranchers. That’s not fair and not everyone’s got a lake in their backyard, so we ended up – we’ve changed that up too. So, we have done a lot of work. I think there’s been a whole metamorphosis of – of attitudes towards wildfires here and I think we’ve seen that change over the last year, two years and I think the fire community – the fire community saw this change happening and we started ramping up before it hit. So, we weren’t caught flat-footed with this, but – but I think we were – we were stood up for it, but I think we’re a lot further stood up now and I think people realize the importance of it. You know, a lot of the firefighters are – you know, didn’t – didn’t think it was going to happen year. You know, “Yeah, we’ll do the training,” and then they saw it and now they know what’s going to happen. I think for the next generation too of firefighters here in Central Texas, I think they’ll always remember the Labor Day fires and I think they all have a story and I think they’ve – they’ve all been affected by it and we’ve all learned from it just as the community has.
KUT News: How does this – how would this fire ranked in, you know, your career of fighting wildfires in terms of the severity of it?
Linardos: I would put it up there with any of the wild land urban interface fires that I’ve been on, you know, in – in my career. I’ve been on – the largest one I was on was the Cedar fire in 2003, in San Diego and that burned for about a week and a half and it was the largest fire. It was a mega fire and I remember we were assigned to western side of the fire and then they moved our strike team to the east side of the fire and it took us all day to drive there on a freeway at 50 miles an hour. That tells you the size of the incident. Again, there was a lot of deaths and fatalities and there was a lot of homes lost, but it’s the same thing and I think we – we – we had that same kind of thing here, that same kind of environment here, even thought it was smaller scale, Central Texas had its day where it dealt with that. Now, I know they’re all smaller fires, but it affects us all the same. We’re all kind of knitted together here.
So, the fire in Pedernales, the fires in Pflugerville, the fires we had here. We had the Moongo fire up in Cedar Park. They were all affecting each other and we knew at the same time and we could see it that we had Bastrop. Everyone knew what Bastrop was going to be. That wasn’t a surprise to anybody just because of the amount of fuel loading there and that – that’s traumatic because of the lost pines, you know, and it was traumatic that there was loss of life and it was traumatic that those thousands of homes were burned up. So, I think collectively, that was our San Diego moment and, you know, and again, that was a major day and they’re all little different fires, but really, they were all doing the same thing in a different world. But, I think we all kind of rallied together, the whole Central Texas area and all took care of each other like I’d never seen before. That’s one thing I’ve got to say. Central Texans, they came out and they came out strong.
Funny story is that things were getting out in the newspaper – not the newspaper, the radio and they were getting out obviously – we learned a whole bunch on social media also, but things were getting out real quick and somebody said we needed bananas or we needed fruit and this became our department operations center here and we ended up with a room full of bananas. The next day we ended up with a room full of fruit flies so, you know, we had to manage that also. I can’t get bananas out to guys in fire trucks, so that was a problem, but it was a good problem because we rallied. It’s just amazing to see everyone come together and help everybody.
KUT News: So you ask for one thing and you get 50 of them.
Linardos: Yeah, exactly.
KUT News: You know, you mentioned the social media component of it and I remember just as – when we were reporting of it, a lot of the information we were finding was through the social media, like the Facebook page of the various ESDs (Emergency Service Districts).
Linardos: That’s correct.
KUT News: How – what did you learn about the importance of social media?
Linardos: Yes, you’ve got to push that and you’ve got to stay on it hard. You know, we – we did okay. We could have done a lot better. We were doing our press releases as we’ve said, but it’s a new world out there and you’ve got to go fast and you’ve got to get the information out and it needs to be right. We have learned a ton since then. We’ve networked with some – everything from some more complicated things to some $0.99 apps on our different phones that will help you make this happen.
We – we – I – I think I can safely guarantee, on behalf of the fire fighting community here that our next incidents will have better, faster, more accurate information out quicker through all the different modes. The county – Travis County has stepped up and hired another information office for that, you know, to help with that for emergency services. The City of Austin worked really well. As a matter of fact, we used theirs for starters. It really didn’t matter. We didn’t care whose fire it was. Everyone worked together real well on this and I was real happy when we put together our “Ready, Set, Go” program with both the county and city logo on that with the same message for our community, not one for the city and one for the county or each jurisdiction doing their own thing.
We collectively came up with this and we’re excited to share it with everyone to get one message out so we can get prepared. Central Texans, they live in a fire environment, especially folks here on – I’d say, here on the west side of Austin where our jurisdiction is on the west side. This is a fire environment. You need to live to learn with fire because when the cycles come through, fire’s going to come with it. When we hit the droughts, when we hit the cycles where the fuels are dry and the winds are high and the relative humidity drops, when those things all come together, those three sevens on the slot machine, you’re going to have a fire and if you have a fire start, it’s going to be very hard to contain. So, I think we’ve learned that and I think we need to learn to live with fire here and make it part of our life.
KUT News: What are the seven – what’s the sevens on the slot machine?
Linardos: Well, the first seven would be your fuels. When the fuels dry out, both your grasses, your brushes and your trees, when they get to where they’re available to burn, that’s a problem. Your second seven, you have fuels, the second one is your weather. When the weather hits hard – hits a hard seven stop, which is going to be your winds are up, your relative humidity low. Relative humidity is a major driver in fire. When the relative humidity gets low, temperatures up and your winds hit, that’ s your second seven and the third one is your topography. That’s how the lay of the land is. Fire likes to run uphill and, if it’s, you know, if that’s it, your third one, seven, is topography. Those are your three sevens.
KUT News: Can you repeat that metaphor for me?
KUT News: Not what just what you said, but how the triple seven applies. It’s like a slot machine, you said.
Linardos: Yeah, it’s just like, you know, I’ve spent most of my firefighting in Nevada, so I had to use a Nevada metaphor, but it’s the three sevens on the slot machine. When they line up, you’ve got a disaster and the first seven is, you know, weather. The second one is – the first one is fuels, the second one weather and the third one is topography.
KUT News: Last question for you. You’ve been super generous with your time. You know, are we ready for the next – you kind of answered this. Are we ready for the next one?
KUT News: Is there more, I mean, are you getting the resources that you need?
Linardos: I’m getting the resources that I need within normal – within reasonable limits. My organization, Travis County ST-6, which is Lake Travis Fire and Rescue, is – is – is grossly underfunded. I’ve got studies to prove that. I don’t want to get into that. I’m not crying woe is me. I’m capped at 10 cents. That’s all I can do by state law and that’s in the Constitution. We’ve tried to change that. We’re not going to change it. So, I can’t go out and do some really cool things. I can’t put more firefighters on. I can’t do a lot of things. I can’t open stations. That’s what it’s going to take, but with what I’ve got, we try to think outside the box in what can we do. Community ponied up, they helped us get some more vehicles. That was a big help.
We’ve taken some of our money and put it toward these firefighters – these fuels reduction guys that will go out and help do some work. We, you know, we know we can’t – we can’t get 20 more firefighters, but we can do other things. We’ve trained at what we have. We’ve taken our current staff and trained them up. We’ve made them more agile. I think they’re a lot smarter and put their experience with they’re training, I think they’re a lot better ready. I think we’ve done enough within my current budget allotment to make things happen. So, there’s a lot more happening, so I think we’ve come a long way and I think we’re ready to handle your incident. The issue here should be – it’s kind of interesting. Fire should be – if we get them right, we should keep them under two to three acres, where they’re barely even newsworthy. What you need to look at is what makes the two to three acre fires work? Meaning, okay, I know Pflugerville had an urban interface fire the other day.
I listened to it on the radio and it sounded very organized and well. They did a good job. The incident management system, we all worked together. They worked closely with Austin and put the thing out. What we need to look at is what made that work. They’ve got enough resources there at the right time to make a stop on it, plus the weather wasn’t horrible and, you know, those three sevens hadn’t lined up on the slot machines. So, what we try to do is we try to do as much as we can with what we have. I think we’ve done a pretty good job and I think the fire community is a lot better organized to manage these larger incidents because of the experiences we shared last year.
I really do think that’s – that’s – you know, we had a sentinel event. I really do think that helped. I really think that helped get everyone’s attention and it got the folks that – that support us involved, too. But, the community stepping forward wanting to know more – now, we’ve got more planning to do. We’re working on things. We have a wild land task force that’s joined by the city and county resources. We’ve all together – there’s 30 of us in there and we’re trying to work on better evacuation plans. We’re trying to work on – on – on stronger message. One of our first things we came up with was this message of “Ready, Set, Go,” which is a national model which we give to the homeowners in either card format or large format saying, “Here’s your plan. Please read it and go through it.” So, they can do the work ahead of time. So, I think if the community pitches in and the fire service pitches in, I think maybe the next wildfire won’t be so disastrous.
You know, maybe we will have a 50-acre fire that we don’t lose any homes. That would be great. We would love that. You know, maybe that fire – 50-acre fire should have been 500 acres with 500 homes lost and maybe we can prevent that and that’s – that’s what we’ve got to work towards and maybe we’ve already done that. I don’t know, but I don’t think we’ve hit a day where those three sevens have lined up as powerful as – as that September day. I think the next time those line up, we got to take a look at where we’re at. We may not know for a while. That’s not up to us. We don’t – we don’t set the weather. We don’t set the fuel, we don’t set all of that up. We just have to be ready for it.