A Geographic Information Systems specialist, Karen Ridenour, has been researching the history of the wildfire that became the most disastrous wildfire in Texas history. Several decisions made on that September 4 day helped to mitigate the potential impacts on the residents in the path of the fire, which still burned 34,000 acres and destroyed 1,600 homes.
…The first decision was made before the fire even began on Sunday, Sept. 4. Mike Fisher, Bastrop County’s emergency management coordinator, already knew that the conditions were perfect for wildfires: drought-baked vegetation, low humidity and a steady north wind caused in part by Tropical Storm Lee, which had made landfall on the Louisiana coast that morning.
By early afternoon, fires were burning across the state. Local fire departments would end up responding to 227 fires that day, and for 57 of them, the locals called the Texas Forest Service for assistance, Ridenour said. The agency assisted with nine fires in Central Texas.
Fisher had been monitoring radio traffic about the fires in Travis and Fayette counties, and he decided to activate his county’s emergency operations center. By 2 p.m., County Judge Ronnie McDonald, Sheriff Terry Pickering, Fire Chief Henry Perry and public information officer Gayle Wilhelm had joined Fisher at the operations center in the Grady Tuck Building on Loop 150.
At 2:16 p.m., emergency center staffer Steve Long called the 911 dispatcher to put everyone on alert. “We suggested if they were understaffed, they better start calling people in,” Fisher said.
Four minutes later, at 2:20 p.m., the first 911 call came in from a homeowner on Charolais Drive, just west of Texas 21 in the Circle D neighborhood. A dead pine had snapped and fallen on a power line. The homeowner reported flames near her backyard.
“This fire didn’t seem to travel in a line,” said Scott Sutcliffe, the assistant chief for the Heart of the Pines Volunteer Fire Department. “It was just popping up everywhere. It was raining embers.”
The embers created hundreds of spot fires, which would then merge and become a new fire front, Sutcliffe said.
“How do you fight something that’s moving that fluidly?” Sutcliffe said. “You really can’t. You run, try to get in front of it again, because you don’t want to be caught in the middle.”
Sean Rissel, a Forest Service resource specialist, would later get permission from homeowners to collect seven trampolines that had survived the fire.
A square meter of one trampoline from McAllister Road was peppered with 250 burn holes, Rissel said.
The wind blew embers for miles; residents reported finding chunks of blackened pine bark the size of softballs in Rosanky, 15 miles south of the Colorado River. As the fire grew, smoke and heat and energy billowed into the sky and created horizontal roll vortices: slowly turning cylinders that roiled above the fire. Ridenour said they are a sign of “very extreme fire behavior.” Aerial maps would later show what looked like long stripes of blackened forest within the fire scar — a sign, Ridenour said, that the vortices became so massive that they crashed back to earth along the fire’s flanks.
“When it crashes,” Ridenour said, “it nukes everything.”