Robert Abbott: I’m Robert Abbott with Lake Travis Fire Rescue, Assistant Fire Chief. Well, as we went into the weekend, we had a heightened sense of response and also preparedness among all the stations and the system as a whole. We knew going into, the weather was going to be hot. The relative humidity was going to be low and it was really prime time for a fire to break out. So, knowing that in advance, we started to increase staffing levels, rearrange trucks to put them in better locations and keep a better handle on small calls that were starting to develop. I’m – I’m off on the weekends, so when I was contacted for the fire that started on Sunday, I was off and was given a briefing by the on-duty battalion chief who was the incident commander of the Steiner Ranch fire. At that point, it was a small fire that had jumped the road. It had not grown to the significance that we experienced just an hour later. He called me to give me an update of that they had and at that point, I kind of wrapped up what I was doing that weekend and prepared to come in just to see if there’s anything I can do to help the command staff. This is before it started getting large, though. So, we already kind of started the ball rolling on increasing the command presence out here.
KUT News: Right and so, then what happened after that?
Abbott: I think in the course of 30 minutes, from the time I got the phone call that he was on an incident with the probability of getting larger, to the second phone call I got from him saying he was upgrading the alarms, I had already told him I was already headed and I’d see him shortly. I arrived on – I was headed to headquarters, but I couldn’t get there because 620 was blocked off at the fire. So, I was able to team up with him and his team, in addition to Chief Linardos, and from there we started to develop a very, very large game plan, if you will, on what was going to happen if this fire hit the back side of Steiner Ranch which, in fact, it did. We – the things that were on our mind was first and foremost community safety. We didn’t want to lose any – any civilians or any firefighters in this fire and that was on our – our radar to get everybody evacuated as soon as we could. We did that in coordination with Travis County Sheriff’s Department, the Constables and any other law enforcement who was in the area who could assist us in doing that. We took steps to open up the EOC, the Emergency Operations Center, to get that rolling. Which they were already on the game as far as starting to open up their systems in place as well. So, a lot of the things that were in place to be deployed in a situation like this started probably within an hour and a half of that very small incident.
KUT News: And, you know, when I was talking to the chief about this, he said in the initial few hours, there was sort of struggle to get all of the resources that you needed considering the complexity of the layout of Steiner Ranch.
KUT News: You know, it’s like these – you know this, but you’ve go the fingers coming down and everyone’s got a nice view, everyone’s got some stuff in their backyard.
KUT News: So – so what was that like?
Abbott: Well putting together framework to request all the resources and to get them in there are two different things.
KUT News: Right.
Abbott: We can start with just requesting resources, for example. We had units in Pflugerville, only hours before this incident. We had units out in Pedernales only hours before this incident helping them with their fires. So, when this fire escalated, we were already kind of at our max as far as allowing and permitting our units to go anywhere else. We were pretty much tapped out at that point and had – had a small response that we were calling back. So, we started to develop that. The challenge with getting the residents out of Steiner Ranch is that. I think for some it was a shock. They couldn’t believe that was happening and while, I think, all the public safety agencies in this area have done a very good job educating the community, it’s a very smart community. It’s a very engaged community, when that day actually hits, I think that there is a – there’s a disconnect sometimes for some residents truly understanding this is actually what’s happening.
What they’re seeing in – in – in front of them is actually happening and there’s not much we can do about it right now. So, getting the units in there as they’re trying to come out of Steiner Ranch, which only has one true way in and out of it is difficult. We had units coming from Dallas through a regional Texas State interoperability plan that we have called TIFMAs. So, we had crews coming from Dallas that were requested a couple of hours into the incident. I mean, we had crews coming from everywhere. On top of handling all the other incidents that are happening, all the other calls for assistance, the medical calls, not mention the other fire that only – was going on only 20 miles away in Pedernales that we were sending units to as well. So, the coordination of trying to get our folks back in and getting the Steiner Ranch residents out to a safe point was probably the biggest challenge we had in the first couple of hours.
KUT News: That’s got to be a very traumatic experience for people. Not only are their homes in danger, but they’re not allowed to stick around and try and save them. Not that they should be allowed to sick around and try and save them, but what is it like trying to, you know, get people – I mean, do you have training in that in terms of dealing with – how do you deal with that situation?
Abbott: Well, we have training in the sense that we – we understand the value and significance of getting them out of their homes. Are we tactful about it? We could probably do a better job. When that moment happens and we are gong into an area and we’re telling people you should evacuate, we don’t necessarily have time for a long discussion. We don’t have time to explain the laws. We don’t have time to even to really explain the dangers other than saying, “Your house is in danger as is your family,” and if we have to explain any more than that, that takes a substantial amount of time. I found, when I got into the affected area, I had a few residents that wanted to argue about the evacuation and argue what we were doing was incorrect, the tactics that we were deploying. Understandably, they were concerned. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to explain our tactics and how we were prioritizing some of the homes and so forth because our number one goal was to get everybody out of he homes.
KUT News: So, okay, so then you get everyone out. You have the resources and now you’re just – you’re focused on – I mean, you’ve already been fighting this fire, what happens at that point once – once everyone’s out – when most people are out?
Abbott: Once we try to get every – once we have people out of the homes, we share this burden of just the management in it of itself from a law enforcement side, to the crew safety side to the fire suppression side, to all these things through a system of incident command and the incident command system which all the public safety agencies fall under. So, doing that, we break up into our special teams to fire, to law enforcement, to EMS, to evacuations. One of the biggest things which has come out of all of the fires this year was the need for timely information to the community, which has always been in our radar. It’s just a matter of time of – it’s just a matter of getting the right people in those positions quick enough to keep up with the social media that usually outpaces us. The social media will always get a jump on what we want to put out there just by – by virtue of how it’s designed. We like to capture that. We like to utilize that as best we can, but there was some information put out early on that wasn’t accurate and it did cause some issues. We had it resolved within about four or five hours, but it did create a lot of heartache for a lot of citizens, just because they had bad information.
KUT News: What was the information?
Abbott: Some of the information was you could go to these areas for assistance and those areas were either overloaded or just didn’t exist. Then also that we needed assistance and there were message put out there to the community that any firefighter within 200 to 300 square miles should come to Austin. Well, we don’t request services like that. We don’t request assistance like that and while there were many people even – who came from even out of state, the unfortunate part of that is there is an accountability system and when you’re managing an incident this large, in proximity to other incidents of equal size or even large, just having any firefighter whose ever picked up a hose or the retirees come back is not safe. There is a process involved and while a lot of people would say, “Well, they could – they could give some assistance,” when it comes to the actual firefighting, if we can’t account for them, and something happens, then now they’ve created another issue that we have to – we have to mitigate, we have to get involved with now and it’s something that we’d rather not have to deal with.
So, that information was put out there early on and I think not just the Steiner Ranch fire, but the Pedernales, the City of Austin, even some of the surrounding areas – Bastrop, I know, had an influx of freelance firefighters, if you will and free agents just coming in to lend a hand which – which is very commendable, but unfortunately the way – the way system really works is that we can’t track those folks so those folks engaged in fire suppression efforts unknown to the incident command and they weren’t accounted for, we cant provide them help because we don’t even know they exist. So, that was a problem that was put out in social media. We’re not blaming social media, but that was one of the vehicles in which that was put out. I think some areas were able to kind of capture those – those volunteer interests and put them in other areas, but that took time and unfortunately, it took more resources away from fighting the fire, to kind of control the influx of volunteerism.
KUT News: Right. I remember that. I remember seeing that, “All firefighters come.” Now, that brings up a really important point which is the social media aspect of it. I was reading the – I was reading Travis County’s after action report, I think it’s called, and one of the things it talked about was public information. I know that Travis County has hired another PIO to help Roger Way, but what have – I mean, do you – are you – I don’t know if you’re the one that deals with this necessarily, but a lot of the info that we were getting in the media was through Facebook, was through Twitter and I’m talking like the official Facebook pages of the fire departments. Have you – has that changed the way that you communicate with the public after like having learned those lessons or what’s happening there?
Abbott: Yes, definitely. The few things that we’ve learned from social media is have it controlled at some point and fire departments and public safety, we can control what’s put out by us. Now, if somebody takes what they see and alters it a little bit and then re-posts it, we can’t really control that, but we can do a good job and a better of putt out very simply instructions in a timely manner and also doing that in advance of an incident. So, we had a Facebook page before this incident and we had probably 200 followers. I think within a course of 72 hours, we had 1000 and everybody was using that as the go-to and while we didn’t have it staffed, if you will, we didn’t have somebody continually on Facebook or any other social media, we did turn to that a few times to clarify some information. What we’ve done since then is we’ve tried to put updates in advance of any incident so people have the same information, they will try and gather at the time of an incident if that makes sense. So, a little advance knowledge through social media, I think, would help and I think everybody learned that lesson is that it definitely pays dividends to put somebody on social media early on and if you have to dedicate it to that because that’s what people are really following.
KUT News: Right. That’s where they’re getting their info.
Abbott: That’s correct.
KUT News: I want to take – I just want to go back now to the fire for a second because you’re there behind the – the line where the public can’t go, the media can’t go and people, you know, in terms of what happened, don’t – haven’t necessarily heard all those stories. And so, what did you see as you were fighting the fire after everyone’s evacuated and what – sort of what went on from your perspective?
Abbott: Well, from the early stages of the fire front coming on to the portions of Steiner Ranch it was impacting, getting down there it was very quiet and I think that what was eerie because you could hear the homes burning in the back. You can hear explosions going off. It was just – it was almost a vacuum of presence other than just the fire department being there. We did have some folks that tried to defend their property but they – they realized early on that wasn’t going to work and even the fire department was having a problem. So, a garden hose is not going to – not going to do the – do the same. We had problems with large fire engines even keeping that fire at bay. That was what was eerie was the silence that was down there other than the fire suppression efforts because this is a very active community. It’s a very close knit community. Anytime I’ve ever been down there for anything else, you can always see somebody jogging down the road, out in their yard or whatever, in their garage working, but you went down block after block after block of beautiful homes, manicured lawns, just being annihilated this fire.
KUT News: And what does that sound like? I mean is it like a crackling or…
Abbott: Well, depends what street you were on. I mean there were some streets that were very bit of a definition of an inferno where you had four, five, six going all together or you’d get down to one street and there’d only be one house on fire and everything around it is completely untouched. In the back of your mind, you’re thinking, “Why is that one house on fire and all the other houses have survived? What did that one house do differently than the others?” Then you go to another – you go to a cul-de-sac, for example, where they’ve lost seven homes completely to – to the slab and you wonder if there was something the fire department could have done in advance of this fire and I think that’s always going through your mind. The other part of it is when you’re actually engaged in the firefighting operation. Our firefighters are so tied in with the community that it wouldn’t have been uncommon for some of our firefighters to know people who own those homes and in a few cases that was – that was real. You know, they arrived at a home where we go to often for medical assistance and they know the family very well. The family was gone and the house was completely engulfed in flames. That’s – that’ real to the firefighter. These aren’t just homes we just, you know, only – only respond to when they’re on fire, we go there for other things, for medicals, for public assistance and other things like that. Even birthday parties and when we used to go to the houses to have a small show and tell and we’d stop by and stop and say hi to the person wanting to see the fire truck for his or her birthday. You know, we knew the community in a different light and this was – this was very personal to all the firefighters in this fire department, as the other firefighters had in Pedernales and in Bastrop, very, very personal fire for everybody.
KUT News: And what do they say – what do you say – what do they say? What are the words coming out of their mouths when they’re fighting – you know, when they see, you know a home that they’ve been to before, engulfed in flames?
Abbott: What do they say? The firefighters typically don’t say much.
KUT News: They’re just in the firefighting mode.
Abbott: Yeah, they focus on what they’re doing. Now, they’ll communicate, obviously, when needed, but they’re engaged in putting these – these fires out. I think what was tough for them, given this fire is that it didn’t seem like we could get enough resources there quick enough to make a difference and some of the firefighters may have felt defeated, if you would. Seeing a fire, let alone six house fires at once, is – is a tall task for any fire department in this nation to handle. I think for a firefighter who is very passionate and very competitive and wants to do a good job, that’s tough to swallow. What you’re doing is only keeping this fire at bay. The fire is going to win, you know, but we have to make sure that if the fire wins, it doesn’t win on our ground and it doesn’t win by taking lives. That’s our number one goal. So, while we did have some minor injuries, it could have been worse. Thankfully, it was not. We – we’re very blessed to think that we did not have any fatalities with this fire other than one of the Sheriff’s department officers who had a medical incident a couple days after the fire broke out and he was involved in the evacuation attempts and that process. But going to what a firefighter’s thinking and saying, you know, “Am I properly trained for this?” which a lot of our firefighters are and they’re going – they’re going to come out on top. Now, it may be at a loss of some homes, which is very dramatic, but as long as we can walk away and say that we’ve done the best job that we were able to do and nobody was killed or – or significantly injured, I think we’d feel a little bit better.
KUT News: Again, it could have been a lot worse. I think there were, what, 23 homes lost or something like that.
Abbott: Yeah, 23 homes and 30 – these are rough numbers. Twenty-three homes, I think, down to the slab and then 30 plus homes damaged in some way.
KUT News: At what point does that sort of sense of defeat turn into a sense of, you know, when – when does it turn around?
Abbott: I think after the initial stages of the fire, people realize how significant this fire was. This wasn’t your average house fire. This was 23 house fires in addition to all the evacuations on top of a fast-moving wild land fire. The conditions, I mean, you almost can’t make that up. The fire that start like that are historic, obviously. They’re not that common here in Central Texas. Now, we can say that knowing that they are and that the – this will always be on the horizon. I think it’s important for us to continue to remind people of this fire and the Bastrop fire. We don’t want people to forget these fires. Over time, they probably will because if they’re new to the area, they weren’t here when the fires happened, you know, it’s something that they heard at a party. “Oh, yeah, we had these fires years ago,” but this is real and I think we need to stay on our toes about reminding the community and don’t let your guard down. Stay ahead of this because this will – as we see people moving to the parts of Travis County out of the city and the city butts up into the wild land urban interface, they got to remember that this is an issue that they need to remember and take also matters in their own hands in preparing their homes. The fire department can do only so much. We need the support the of the community to prepare themselves for these fires if they should happen again.
KUT News: Now, how long were you – I mean, we’re just talking about your shifts over there, but how long – what kind of shifts were the firefighters working when they were fighting these and the chief had mentioned that, you know, he had to pull some of them off even though they didn’t really want to come off.
KUT News: But, you know, they will – the will like work themselves to death practically, right?
KUT News: What – what was that like?
Abbott: Well, in the early stages, it was pretty much all hands on deck, if you will. We had the on duty shift, plus we called in everybody else on the off – the off two shits. So, B and C shift personnel were called in. We’ve never had a call in or call back of that – of that size. At one point in the incident, I think, within 48 hours, we had everybody that was employed with the fire department, minus one person who was off on vacation, working in some capacity. They were either at the Steiner Ranch fire or they were running calls within the district, unrelated calls to the – to the fire or they were in other parts of the county. In Pedernales, we had – the Pedernales fire jumped the Pedernales River and crept back into our district. While it was still part of the Pedernales fire, we had 400 acres of it in our side of things. So, we had to have units down there as well as we got tremendous assistance from Hayes County Emergency Service District 6 that helped us balance that because they didn’t want it creeping into Hayes County. So, it was in their best interest to help us out which we – we had agreements in place in advance of this fire. So, the shift work started with 12-hour shifts back. We try to operate in a 12 – in incidents like this, in 12-hour operational periods. But, since a lot of our folks were already on duty when we implemented that 12-hour period, they were held over for 24 hours, 48 hours. We would send people back to the fire stations to sleep for a couple hours and then they’d come back into the fire line. Austin Travis County EMS was very helpful in putting additional units out here to lessen the demand on our services for medical calls. That was very helpful, in addition to just staffing up more reserve trucks.
KUT News: Doesn’t it get tiring working those crazy hours? I mean, I know it’s you’re fighting a fire and you’re saving people’s homes, but the human body can only take so much.
Abbott: Definitely. I – I – I think everybody was taxed. Forty-eight, 72 hours into it we were all spent in some regard. You have, obviously, the firefighters on the front lines who are combating the heat in addition to the structure fires, in addition to the wild land fires. You have the support staff that is trying to support logistically an operation like this, which we have never had to do before. Our logistics department is excellent, but they’re only so big and they can only be in so many places at once. So, we had the logistical and support functions taxed and then the command staff and the incident command post was taxed as well. You know, they’re fielding calls from the Governor’s office, from the county, from irate individuals, from corporations that want to come help, all these things. Everybody was taxed in their own way either physically or just mentally exhausted and that definitely yields burn out, safety concerns. You know, when you’re fatigued you rush, you cut corners unfortunately and – and this is the line of work where, you know, when you cut a corner it’s deadly. So, we had to balance that. We had to keep everybody in check. Everybody was doing a lot of status checks, probably to the point where it was a little bit annoying. You know, “You okay?” “I’m doing fine. Stop asking me,” you know, but and then also from a fire department side, you know, we think about the firefighters and the command staff and all that, but it’s the families of these firefighters, as well, that were taxed. When you call somebody in who’s used to staying home with their kids while their wife goes to work during the day on their day off, you just threw a huge wrench into their schedule.
Babysitters had to be contacted. You know, business trips – spouses business trips were having to be cancelled so they could stay home. There was a huge impact to the firefighters’ family as well. When they’re gone, they’re worried about them. They see all the news media. You know, maybe they haven’t gotten in touch with their loved one within a couple of hours or even a couple of days in some cases. Then when they get back, they’re – they’re burned out, they’re agitated and they’re physically exhausted. Some of them have injuries. You know, it definitely took a toll on the families as well and so we tried to open up our counseling and support services to the families as well because have to remember for every family, there is a group of loved ones thinking about them day and night no matter what functions they do at the command post or on the fire line or in logistics.
Just seeing that stuff is mentally draining. So, we try to support the families as well and we try our best early on not to forget them early on in the incident and I – I have to say the Lake Travis Fire Rescue families and all the fire families of all the other agencies allowed their loved ones to do what was needed to be done and if they didn’t have that support at home, I highly doubt we would have received you know, an additional 60 people back within 12 hours. I’m really doubtful we could have championed through this event without the support of the fire families.
KUT News: Now, you said looking at that stuff is draining. Looking at homes burning is emotionally draining? What do you mean by that?
Abbott: Well, I think depending on what your background is with fire and how long you’ve been in it, you know, somebody coming into fire for the first couple years, you see the physical damage it creates. When you look at how it displaces families and the things that are lost in the fires as far as momentums and heirlooms and so forth, the bigger impact of this fire can be devastating and seeing that and just – when you have moments to kind of ponder on it of what this will do to a tight knit community like Steiner Ranch or Pedernales or Bastrop, it – it just kind of wears on you and you don’t even have to lose a house to feel that affect.
You can feel it just knowing the people who lost – lost their home and with – what we know of the Steiner Ranch community in addition to the others that suffered the fires is that they’re strong communities and they’re better than those fires and they will rebuild and this is only going to make them that much tighter together as a community and that was good knowing that. It wasn’t a surprise to me, while it was very overwhelming, the support the fire department received within hours of the fires breaking out in addition to weeks after that. I’m not surprised. This is a very, very supporting community to public safety and there’s other parts of the nation where public safety does not have the same relationship that we enjoy with the community and that’s unfortunate, but I – I will have to say we’re very honored to have it and we do not take it – take it for granted.
KUT News: What is the single biggest thing that people don’t realize that, you know, that the you wish the media – a story you wish the media had told that they’re not telling, maybe because they didn’t have access to behind the scenes kind of stuff that you saw. I mean, if you could think about something, what – what would that be?
Abbott: Something they didn’t do or…
KUT News: Just something that – something, yeah, whatever, I mean, something the media didn’t do, but I guess what I’m trying to find out is not so much – the media does a lot of things wrong. What is – what are the things – what is the story that hasn’t been told that either because the media didn’t have access to the story…
KUT News: Or because they just dropped the ball?
Abbott: Well, I think going into it, I can’t really think of too many things they did wrong. If anything, they were doing what they’re paid to do and they do it in a timely manner and I understand the competitiveness of the media market and you know, they’re trying to get the information out there accurately and timely. I think they did the best job they could given the circumstances. I mean, this was big for them, too. A lot of them didn’t have experience in, you know, a fire or fires I should way, pluralized, like this, so they were trying to capture a lot of different angles on these – on these stories. I think one thing I would have liked to see is the community coming together with the fire department and the media to – to establish what the ground rules and what the – what they play – what the game rules will be to these incidents as far as what the fire department is going to do, what can be expected, what we need to expect the residents to have in place and be prepared for so it can help us get them out quicker and then also mesh up with the media presence where the information flows accurately and timely.
Again, we try our best to keep up with social media, but it is a monster on these types of incidents and while we did have some set backs as I spoke about earlier, I have to say, all in all, the social media helped us without a doubt and we got a huge lesson out of how to better utilize it to our advantage to get that information out. So, I think realizing and going back and what we’d do different is realize it’s going to happen again somewhere in this county, somewhere in this area, this will happen again. I don’t know where. I don’t know when, but the – the conditions are there and everywhere you look. It could be in the city. It could be in the county and it’s not just going to be a county issue. It’s not just going to be a city issue. It’s going to be a city/county/state and federal issue like it was last year. These are not going to be – these fires are not going to – they’re only going to get bigger with more people moving in from cities and so forth.
You ask people from California, which I had – I had the – just for about five minutes, I spoke with a resident who had just moved from California about four weeks before the Steiner Ranch fire. He knows evacuations. He knows to have a go bag ready. He knows it. He’s been through it and while he loves his house here and, you know, new Austin to him, he’s not – he said he’s not going to lose any sleep over it because he understands this is what happens and this is what happens when you live close to the, you know, beautiful parts of the county that draws everybody there. It was a different perspective because I spoke with somebody 10 minutes before that who was just devastated and they still had a house standing. While it did suffer some damage, it wasn’t a complete loss. So, I think that knowing this will happen again, taking this as a lesson and just learning from it, which I think everybody’s doing collectively. You know, it’s – you know, reports like this and studies and groups and, you know, capturing what happened, people are going to need to hear all this again because they’re going to forget about it. We could go years without another large incident like this and then they’re going to remember. So, anything we can do to provide this in a means that’s easy to get to and it’s not confusing and there’s no agenda behind it. It’s just very raw. This is what happened. It could happen again. I think that’s – that will help people in the long run.