On May 3, 2012, Rick Chafey spoke with KUT as part of the Wildfires Oral History Project.
Chafey: Yeah, well, I guess my story kind of begins on Sunday, the day before Labor Day when my son and I were on our way into church. I’m a volunteer firefighter in McMahan, so we were going to church in Lockhart and I got a call, actually heard a call go out for another volunteer fire department in the area and they had an oil field fire and so within about five minutes, they called mutual aid from all of the surrounding fire departments, so I left my son with another family and I went to that one and it turned out to be 500 acres of oil field and all this mesquite and, of course, you know there was the drought and it was hot and dry and so I got there and it was already just like a wasteland and I’ve only been a volunteer firefighter for a few years; I’d never really seen anything like that.
I thought it was pretty remarkable, so we fought that one for several hours and interesting note cause I had been at church so I had my bag in my truck, but I did not have my – I had on cowboy boots instead of like wild land boots, so I was out there fighting it in my ostrich boots so everybody noticed so they drove by and said whoa, I love your fancy boots, but anyway, so we fought that one for several hours and then we got it under control and we kind of pulled off and regrouped down the road and looked over on the horizon toward my house and there was just like a – it looked like a nuclear explosion. This huge bubbling cloud and, of course, when you see a fire column typically it is going to go up and then start to drift, right? Well, this one, it was still fresh and so you could still see the top. It hadn’t started to drift yet so it’s kind of mushrooming up, but it was already just gigantic and so I guess at that point the fire had only been burning for probably like ten minutes and it had already covered 100 acres or something like that because it was moving so fast.
KUT News: So this was about – if you said five hours, that was about five or four in the afternoon when you saw that?
Chafey: Yeah. I’m just guessing, yeah. That would kind of be my recollection and so I took a picture of it to send to my son, because it was just so visible; I think it was probably about25 miles away at that point and, so, of course, and it was in the direction of my house and blowing, moving towards my house so I got kind of shaky and so then, of course, we got the – and it was actually not in our district either, it was in the Delhi Volunteer Fire Department area and so we got the call to respond to it. Well, when we got there, the terrain is real hilly and there are sand hills there.
It is real hilly and forested so we couldn’t really get in and so the fire jumped this highway – the main highway that goes through there, 713 and so as we got there on 713, there was all this smoke and everything and we could kind of see where the fire had burned through and there were some stumps smoldering and this and that, but it had gone down into the steep ravine and we really didn’t know where it was headed at that point. No command had been set up or anything so we didn’t know what to do so we just got out and started putting it out around the road at least so it wouldn’t spread around the highway and so little by little, I guess, I don’t remember exactly what happened next.
The next thing I remember was I – we ended up going off road and we were in the sand in the fire truck and there were several fire trucks there, so I called my son; I remembered I better check on him, so I called him and asked him if he could see the smoke and he was like, see it? The sky is completely black. So, I said, oh my god, well you need to evacuate. The friends had dropped him off at his grandmother’s house. She lives about a half of mile from us and so I told them to evacuate and he said okay and so he took some pictures.
I saw the pictures afterwards and, sure enough, there is this smoke just boiling over this hill and so I called back like ten or 15 minutes later – well, part of which you need to know is where we live – we live the end of three miles of dirt road like trail; not like county road, like one lane trail with all brush encroaching on the sides so if you were trying to evacuate and the fire came through there, you’d be consumed. There is no way you could out of it right so this was a – just to avoid that situation and so I called back in about 15 minutes to ask him how it was going and he said well, Meme doesn’t want to evacuate; she wants to just wait and see what happens so here I am, in the middle of the fire, actually driving a fire truck and I just like come unglued. I’m like what do you mean?
You don’t understand the magnitude of this fire. This is not a little grass fire like we’re used to. This is an inferno and I mean it was crowning up into the tops of the trees, we have pine trees down there, it’s kind of – I guess the lost pines actually used to stretch all the way down that Bastrop all the way south down almost to Gonzales to where we are so there are still pine trees there and I mean this fire was crowning all the way to the tops of these200 foottall trees and so I called his mother. She lives in Louisiana. It’s her mother. I said you need to call Sylvia and tell her that they need to evacuate so she comes unglued and I kind of told her the situation and so I called him back and I said well, your mother’s going to call Sylvia and try to work this out, but in the meantime, I want you to go get in her ranch truck and go pick up our dogs and get out of there and just take her truck and I’ll deal with it later. He was 14 at the time. He knows how to drive so it was not an unsafe situation so anyway, so I guess in the meantime, his aunt showed up and was able to take him and the dogs and they went into Lockhart and stayed with a friend so that was kind of the human drama part of it for me.
KUT News: What about the grandma?
Chafey: She stayed and, as luck would have it, the fire never came to where we were. The closest it got was about a mile and a half away and another neighbor, another old hardheaded codger decided to stay and he said he was actually going to save his house; he was going to use his garden hose and I was like, you people just don’t understand. I mean, this is – they were thinking grass fire, little fire, push it with a tractor, put it out so this thing had traveled something I don’t really know – I know that in all it burned like6,000 acres and 30 structures.
They call it the Delhi Fire, but I would say it went like six or seven miles in the first two hours which is racing through all – cause it’s really – the underbrush there is really thick, it’s a terrible fire hazard cause the fire suppression that we’ve had since the white man came and conquered the land and so then there was like 24 hour a day firefighting. We sent up the command center at the Delhi Community Center and so I would work, well, I would go home when he got home from school I would go home and take care of him for a few hours and put him to bed and then I would go back and do patrols for the night so mainly, of course, we couldn’t stop the fire obviously so mainly we would just do structure protection and we saved a bunch of structures and lost a few and so then – go ahead
KUT News: How do you do that? By dousing them?
Chafey: Yeah, just fighting around the perimeter and keeping the building wet and so then – we did that for a few days. It kind of did its thing. Had to burn through and there was one road, Rifle Road, where there were like six houses sitting next to each other, of course, this is a really remote area, it’s really unpopulated, but on this one Rifle Road, these six houses and they just all got flattened just within an hour.
KUT News: But how could you be in the fire saving structures without being in danger?
Chafey: Well, I guess because that first leading edge came through and there would be no getting in front of it, but then there would be like, it would kind of like start flickering off to the sides, kind of little tangens going off to the sides and so also it would – it’s kind of unpredictable. It would go here and there would be a house sitting here and it would go past and it wouldn’t get the house on the first pass, but then there would be like flare ups, kind of in the trail of the main fire and then those flare ups then could come and so that’s what we were mainly fighting was flare ups and, but yeah that leading edge – there was no stopping it and it finally –
KUT News: And that was that first day? Or the first couple of days?
Chafey: Yeah, the first day I think.
KUT News: It was the first day?
Chafey: Yeah, of course, I’m not an expert in the actual research of it. I was just kind of doing my little bit.
KUT News: How many people were out there fighting the fire?
Chafey: I think they said there were 20 fire departments and probably a couple hundred firefighters off and on, but a lot of them still worked. I wasn’t working at the time so they would only come in for a few hours as they could, but I was there for the entire – I guess it was seven days I think until they closed it and so then like the third or fourth day I got a panic call from a neighbor saying that it was up to his fence line and he’s only like a mile from me, but again, since it’s real hilly out there we never really even knew where it was.
They brought in air support like, of course, there wouldn’t be a lot of resources cause there was the Bastrop fire and then Spicewood, I think had a fire so most of the resources were going there, but we did get helicopters to drop water and that was this one that actually got within about a mile and a half from my house. He called in the middle of the night and he said he had been watching it and, of course, all that you do is just it burn out. You try to like maybe get a head of it and block its progress and then let it burn back and so we knew that there were fires, of course, we were getting all of these calls.
I can see fire, I can see fire and stuff oh yeah we’re just letting that part burn out. And so, we’ve been watching this cause they keep telling us they’re letting it burn out and he said, it’s moving again so I went over there and sure enough it was like moving again towards his house and then if it kept going, it would go towards my house so in that next morning, we actually changed that to the new front and fought that back and actually stopped that one.
KUT News: You saved your house.
KUT News: I mean you were there to save your house as a firefighter.
Chafey: Yeah, yeah.
KUT News: So, go ahead.
Chafey: Well, I don’t know. I mean, at that point, there is really not a whole lot of story to tell; it was just kind of – well, yeah, I guess like the community would – the little community of Delhi where the command center was set up, of course, people were dropping off water and all kinds of snacks and everything, the community and some of the people would – they had it manned 24 hours a day and they were cooking home cooked meals and keeping hot coffee on and all of that kind of stuff so it was really a nice – that was kind of the good part of it you know this whole thing about when people are faced with adversity, you really see the best in people and so seeing the community come together like that; that was really nice and so we just – for several days, I mean after the initial – after that first day or two or really actively protecting structures, then it got of lulled and then we had that thing where we did about my house so that kept us busy for another day or two, but other than that, it was mainly just doing patrols, looking for flare ups.
KUT News: Did they evacuate anyone? Officially evacuate people?
Chafey: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, definitely. The people on Rifle Road. I guess that’s – when we were up there, cause I was on the backend, I was on the end where it had just started and, but the Delhi Fire Department actually had a handle on where it was headed and they went down and evacuated so they were just going through with loud speakers, evacuate immediately and I think – I heard that no pets were lost, but a lot of livestock was lost. Cattle they said. They found a lot of cattle stuck in the fence where they were trying to get away. Yeah, I know – that’s really really tragic and then, yeah, there was one place where I went that first night ’cause, again, it’s kind of weird, it’s kind of hard to imagine, but even though it’s this huge inferno, it’s kind of contained so you can stand by it like a waterfall.
It’s all of this power, but it’s just there and you can look at it so we were there at this one place and the fire is burning over here and burning down and, of course, the direction of the winds is the direction the fire is going to go so as long as the smoke is not blowing over you, you’re probably okay and there were all of these cattle in the field and we were actually discussing at that point whether we should cut the fence and let them go or not and the decision was made not yet, but if the fire turns and comes this direction, then we will, but it didn’t. Those cattle were safe. But yeah, a lot of people lost their homes and then when you went to where the fire had burned, there would be just like the charred trunks of the trees just like telephone poles and just fine white ash like snow so it was kind of like – it was almost like a winter scene with the bare trees and the snow, but it was like black and white and the fire was so hot.
I took my son actually to check it out like the second day we went into the tapped off area where the public wasn’t allowed cause I wanted to show him this is what happens. This is why I wanted you to evacuate and like fence posts, it was so hot the fence post would burn all the way into the ground so there would be just like the hole in the ground which is white ash on the bottom and tree trunks did the same thing and, of course, you don’t go around and try to put out every little thing that’s on fire so there would be little side fires here smoldering and we did have several flare ups and oh, then there was like a four wheeler – we went to this one place where the house had burned and there was like a side by side which is like a little four wheeler thing except it’s like a little car and so it was just, of course, just a burned frame and the aluminum in the wheels had melted and so there was like all of this molten metal so we just saw a lot of really visual evidence of the intensity of the heat and now I’m thinking about it, there were several little flare ups where the first couple of days we did stay pretty busy.
There were a couple of grass fires. You’d get a call and you’d go over and it would start off just being one little, like one acre on fire and within 30 minutes, it would just like burn out an entire100 acresor something like that and it was really – at the time you’re going through it, you kind of are just focused on where you are and what you’re doing cause I was in instant command and so, but then you stop and think about it afterwards and just realize the magnitude.
Of course, Bastrop, I guess, was even bigger, but this was our fire. It was the one we were dealing with, but the way it would move so fast across the grass ’cause everything was so dry and then, of course, we kept running out of water and trucks kept getting stuck, the tires, the tires, if you drive across – cause you’re supposed to fight from the black so you stay out of the fuel right? So, you try to drive where it has already burned. Well, of course, that’s hot and rubber burns and then also smoke will choke out an engine something that most people don’t really think about so you get into a situation where you’re trying to fight this grass fire and, at one point, in order to stay in the black because grass fires will travel into the winds sometimes cause that’s where the oxygen is, right? So, in order to stay on the black, we’re actually downwind so you kind of have this choice. It’s like, well, it’s not really a choice, you have to stay in the black, you don’t ever drive a truck into the fuel really so you’re getting covered with smoke, you can’t see where you’re going and you’re afraid your truck’s going to get bogged down and the thing you just have to keep going, I mean, that’s what you’re there for is to put the fire out. You’re not there to protect the equipment; you’re there to save lives and protect property.
KUT News: So, did you lose any trucks?
Chafey: We didn’t lose any whole trucks; we lost a bunch of tires.
KUT News: And you saw your fire before you got the call from the Delhi Fire Department, right?
Chafey: Yeah, yeah, saw it on the horizon.
KUT News: That’s how new it was when you saw it before you even heard to go.
Chafey: Yeah, we could see how new it was because it was still – it was still low. Once that column will rise and then it will begin to drift. Well, this one hadn’t even started to rise, it still had that really, that kind of bubbling mushrooming shape to it.
KUT News: Was it just over the treetops or –
Chafey: Yeah, well I was like 20 miles away.
KUT News: Yeah, yeah.
Chafey: So, it was just like the horizon and it was just kind of like bubbling up over the horizon.
KUT News: And you say you could stand near it with the flames and the trees, right? Was it because there just weren’t any tall trees where you were standing?
Chafey: Yeah. Where we were was kind of – it was like pasture land. There were some roads. There was a bunch of houses up in there and so –
KUT News: How did it get out would you say – because you waited until it got to the pasture land and that’s when it kind of died out or you fought it there in the pasture?
Chafey: Yeah. When it would get into the grass cause then you can run up on it when it’s in the grass because it’s – so yeah, the place where it actually – the southern most point was down again towards my house, a place called Blueberg Ranch and they ended up – they had two structures on their place or Blueberg Retreat, I guess it’s called and they had two structures at their place and actually worked on defending one of them and we saved it, but another one got burned so that’s where it – where the forest kind of ended and then on the other side of this road there was just a big cattle ranch and so we cut that fence. We tried to stop it at that road, but it didn’t cause again the wind was blowing so it blows embers and then it jumped across the road and so we cut that fence and went in and stopped it there and that stopped it’s southern advance and then I guess largely it just kind of burns out; I don’t remember if the weather changed or I don’t remember. At that point, I was so exhausted, 24 hours a day and –
KUT News: So, you weren’t sleeping?
Chafey: Yeah, we would sleep. They had cots set up in the little church next door to the Community Center and so we would go in there and sleep for like four hours at a time.
KUT News: And so for days you did that?
KUT News: So, how long have you been a volunteer firefighter?
Chafey: I guess a couple of years. I’ve had that place down there for about four and a half years, so I think I’ve probably been on the fire department about three probably I was there about a year before I got on and the thing you know before this, the thing that really had me the most worried was car wrecks cause it’s fire and rescue and one of the main things we do is respond to vehicle accidents and so there were – I did the training for the jaws of life so that is the thing that really kind of had me most worried was having to respond to an accident where somebody was dead or pinned, trapped in the car, the car’s on fire and the person’s screaming because the first rule for a first responder is you never put yourself at risk because if you get yourself in a bind well, now you’ve made the problem worse, right?
So, even though you think you’ve got to be the hero, no. First you take care of yourself and so if you did happen and this is kind of off topic, but if you did happen on a burning vehicle with someone trapped inside, there may not be anything you can do. Try to put the fire out, but you may not be able to get them out and so they are in there screaming, please help me, help me, so that actually had me pretty worried and then this fire happened and so now, I’m a little shy of fire, I guess. I used to kind of not be scared of it because I’ve always seen it as something that’s manageable, but now I realize that when these forests start burning, it’s – there’s just no stopping it. You just have to get out of the way.
KUT News: Do you still have forest left?
Chafey: Oh, yeah, yeah. You can see where it burned through. It didn’t – that’s a vast area and so it really – you can – there’s one place where you have a pretty good perspective where you can almost see the whole6,000 acres that burned and it’s just kind of a little swath to the middle of this dense forest.
KUT News: Through the middle?
KUT News: I wonder why through the middle. Just cause the wind took it that way?
Chafey: Yeah. It’s just the way it goes.
KUT News: So, no one was injured?
Chafey: Nope, nobody was injured, no firefighters were injured.
KUT News: What would you do without volunteer firefighters? I mean – there’s so much rural in Texas and it’s been so dry.
Chafey: Yep. We’re mainly supported by donations from the community. We get $600 a month from the County, which I don’t have to tell you is barely enough to pay to keep the lights on at the station and the grass cut and all of that kind of stuff so we have fundraisers to buy our equipment. We do get grants from Texas Forest Service and FEMA. We’re always short on volunteers and, of course, the people in the community who have – especially if they have ever been affected by some kind of fire or disaster, they really appreciate us so that’s probably the payoff is the respect you get from the people you live with, but it’s also kind of frustrating. We’ve got – I think we have like 1,200 people in our district and nine firefighters, maybe more than that in terms of the population – I’m not very good at carrying numbers around, but –
KUT News: I wonder if you’re going to have more volunteers now that this has happened.
Chafey: Well, we had a bunch of new people join right after that Delhi fire and so far they’re – most of them are kind of sticking it out so –
KUT News: You get training for fires and Jaws of Life?
Chafey: Some, yeah. Well, the Jaws of Life is a – they’ll pay to send you to training. The main school is at A&M, A&M Academy there. They’ll pay – I haven’t done it just because I’m single so leaving; I’ve got livestock and all of this stuff so leaving for a week is not easy for me.
KUT News: They’ll pay for firefighting training?
Chafey: Yeah. And then the Jaws of Life that was a class. They’ll send you to training, but mainly we just train there on our own equipment and with each other.
KUT News: How many trucks do you all have?
Chafey: Five that are in operation and one that belongs to the County. It’s called a tender. People will call it a tanker, but they’ll correct you and say a tanker has wings, a tanker is actually an aircraft and it’s called a tender when it’s on the ground. It belongs to the County, but it’s housed at our station and –
KUT News: But it is an aircraft?
Chafey: No, no, it’s a tender.
KUT News: It’s a tender, which is a truck that carries a bunch of water.
Chafey: Yeah, like 50,000 gallons I think or something like that and it – where the average brush truck carries like 350 to500 gallons.
KUT News: And where did the helicopters come from? Were they Star Flight?
Chafey: I guess Texas Forest Service.
KUT News: Did you get firefighters from all over or was it mainly within your county?
Chafey: No, it was mainly – Gonzales came up, Gonzales County, but no, it was mainly from our area that – of course, you know Bastrop I guess had them from all over the nation. We had Gonzales and then, of course, all of the local fire departments and again, I’m with McMahan and the fire was actually in Delhi District so we were actually there as mutual aid to, but the Chief of my department is also the President of the Fire Chiefs Association there in Caldwell County and so he was – he and the Chief of Delhi were the two incident commanders.
KUT News: I read the article.
Chafey: Oh you did?
KUT News: That quoted quite a bit.
Chafey: He’s actually also – Chuck is the pastor of the church that I was going to when the fire started and I guess he finished preaching and went and changed clothes and came out and started fighting it and then, of course, the Delhi fire started cause that first one I think they called it the Petty Town Road Fire or something, but, of course, it just paled in comparison to the big one.
KUT News: And how did it start?
Chafey: They think it was electrical wires ’cause I guess those electrical wires are not insulated, which is kind of odd, but yeah they’re just bare wires and so they can – like if a tree like brushes up against them it will cause sparks.
KUT News: Is that a telephone pole or –
KUT News: Okay.
Chafey: Yeah, the actual transmission lines.
KUT News: And how about the first fire? How did that start? Same thing?
Chafey: You know, I never – that’s a good question. I don’t know. I never – after that Delhi fire broke out nobody really thought much about the Petty Town, I think they called it Petty Town. That’s a road out there.
KUT News: And your county is?
KUT News: Caldwell. A lot was going on that day, my god.
Chafey: Yeah, it really was and we kept – go into the Community Center at the command post and see the newspapers and there’d be pictures of, of course, the Bastrop fire, I realize that was just vast, but they were talking about – they would list there’s five different fires burning, not a single mention of ours. A lot of people would say, that’s okay, we don’t really want them to know we’re down here anyway and it’s true. When I was looking – cause when I was living in Austin, in fact, my partner still lives here. We have a house in town in Bolding Creek and so I was looking for a place to kind of get away and you look at Caldwell County and I mean, there’s like hardly any roads, it’s just really really unpopulated area and it’s been a great location.
It’s close to Houston, San Antonio, Austin, of course, an hour out of Austin, two hours out of Houston. It’s a good location, but now it’s starting to grow a lot because of the I-30 going through, or I guess it’s 130, SH 130, which is a toll road and all of that stuff going through there. They’re saying that Lockhart’s about to really start growing. Not that I really, I mean, Lockhart just happens to be kind of the closest town and, of course, I go through there on the way to Austin. We’re in Lockhart School District.
KUT News: Well, it was for seven days, 6,000 acres, loblolly pines, as well?
Chafey: Yeah, mainly loblolly and mixed hardwood and pine forest.
KUT News: How many homes?
Chafey: They said 30 structures which, of course, that could include barns and all kinds of stuff and I think they said I’m just trying to remember I think there was like six vacation homes and two primary residences.
KUT News: Boy, y’all did a good job. My goodness.
KUT News: So, you ready for the next one? Not one, but sorry, next summer, ready for summer?
KUT News: Oops. Hold on. Where did it go? There it is. So, have you learned anything from all of this about – I’m sure you have about how your own home and the safety of your family.
Chafey: Oh, sure. You definitely want to keep the – ’cause people want to go build a house in the woods right? That’s the whole idea. You want to be right there in the woods. Well, now I see that’s just really not safe so and I had done that. I left trees just right around my house so as much as you hate to do it, I mean – there’s some mid ground as long as you have I think they say a100 foot barrier, a 100 or150 foot barrier of open land and then you have green grass. Of course, at the time, all of the grass was dead too so you definitely want to keep any flammable materials away from the house, have100 feet of open space, so I’ve been working on clearing back a bunch of brush farther away from the house and keeping the grass cut low and all of that kind of stuff, but I mean in terms of risk – you know there’s nothing riskier than getting in a car and driving somewhere so that really does still remain probably the greatest threat to my safety and to yours so I try not to get too worried about fire. I mean, if it comes, it comes. What can you do?
KUT News: Do you think your son is going to be interested in being a volunteer firefighter?
Chafey: Oh, yeah. He’s already a cadet.
KUT News: Oh, he is?
Chafey: Oh, yeah. He likes to wear my fire t-shirts to school and so yeah, he was real proud of me at the time cause suddenly the six or nine guys become local heroes during the fire.
KUT News: How long has he been a cadet?
Chafey: I think they just started that cadet program after the Delhi fire, so it’s been just several months and it’s funny because the principal at the school called me. I had told her that I would volunteer at school and so she was calling me back about that and so I was driving the fire truck and my phone rang and I answered it. She said, “Mr. Chafey. This is Ms. Stahl and I was just calling you back about your volunteering.” And I was like, “Well, Ms. Stahl; I’m kind of busy right now.” She said, “Oh, okay. I’m sorry.” She said, “What are you up to?” I said, “Oh, I’m driving a fire truck and fighting this wild fire.” She’s like, “Oh, my gosh. I didn’t know you were a firefighter.” Well, then she told me that she got all kinds of mileage out of that story how she called a parent and he was in the middle of fighting the fire and she lives down there, too, and so she said, “Oh, thank you so much. Everybody’s really appreciative. That’s nice.”
KUT News: That is nice. Anything else you’d like to add about your fire?
Chafey: Oh, I’m trying to remember. It doesn’t seem like I’ve told very many good stories.
KUT News: You got good food; you got to sleep a bit.
KUT News: For about seven days.
Chafey: I think it was seven. It sounds about right. And then, yeah, I guess that’s probably it.
KUT News: Well, we’re so glad you came into share the Delhi story with us, fire story.