Following the Rock House fire, Texas residents seek explanations

Don't Mess With Texas
Jeff Davis County Courthouse in Fort Davis, TX
The meeting was held at Jeff Davis County Courthouse in Fort Davis, TX

A group of residents with questions about the management of the Rock House Fire, which burned over 314,000 acres in west Texas in April, and destroyed 24 homes in Fort Davis, packed a meeting room in the Davis County Courthouse Tuesday night. An article at written by Sara Higgins indicates that it was an extraordinary meeting.

The state of Texas has, lets just say it, a stupid system for determining who will be the Incident Commander (IC) of “disasters”. In the case of the Rock House fire, the town of Fort Davis is unincorporated and does not have a mayor, so by default, in Texas the County Judge is automatically the IC of a fire affecting the town, and apparently within the entire County, as well. The state of Colorado has a similar system, but in that case the County Sheriff is responsible for fire protection on unincorporated private land.

Judge George Grubb
Judge George Grubb

County Judge George Grubb, who claims to have been a firefighter for 50 years, became the IC of the Rock House fire. Grubb worked at the nearby McDonald Observatory for 25 years before becoming the County Judge.

Capt. Jay Webster with the Texas Department of Public Safety evidently had a major role in the fire as well, and was featured in the newspaper article. About Mike Quesinberry’s Type 1 “Blue” Incident Management Team assuming command of the fire, Capt. Webster said:

Communication went down the drain right off the bat because they’re not used to communicating with who we communicate with. I had to come over and correct that — that was a communication mistake.

It turned out that the local officials took the blame for the communication issues. One of their own employees “disseminated false information without permission”. But that person, according to Capt. Webster, “doesn’t work for us anymore because of that”. A person has to wonder, do the local officials sometimes give permission to disseminate false information?

One citizen at the meeting complained that the IMTeam did not seek out advice about local conditions, roads, and possible control points from the residents.

During the management of the fire there were major disagreements between Judge Grubb, chief regional fire coordinator Paul Hannemann of the Texas Forest Service, and the Blue IMTeam. After the fire had burned 202,654 acres, the IMTeam proposed to conduct a burnout consisting of 92,840 acres. Judge Grubb vetoed that burnout and later another one which would have burned 80,267 acres. Grubb said said the burnouts already being performed were simply starting more fires, and:

Basically the decision was, what they were doing wasn’t working. The problem with these burnouts was that they were doing it with no anchor points and no backups.

According to InciWeb, the Rock House fire was contained at 314,444 acres.

A local resident, Steve Bickerstaff, has taken issue with some of the actions and decisions made by the County officials during the fire. Bickerstaff is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Texas School of Law, author of the book “Lines in the Sand”, he served as Parliamentarian of the Texas Senate, and was special assistant Texas Attorney General before founding the private law firm of Bickerstaff & Heath.

Bickerstaff has proposed that a citizen commission be created to explore how the County officials handled the fire. While commending the firefighters who fought the blaze, he said:

..serious questions exist about the county’s preparedness and decision-making that unnecessarily prolonged the fire, allowed tens of thousands of additional acres to burn, put firefighters at increased risk and placed additional homes in jeopardy.

He submitted to the County a draft resolution that calls for the appointment of an unpaid citizen commission which would take testimony about the fire and produce a report about the role local officials played.

According to an article at

“The effect of this ostensible provincial and biased decision [to veto the proposed burnouts] was to allow the fire to greatly expand, to needlessly burn tens of thousands of acres in Jeff Davis County, and to needlessly endanger lives and homes,” Bickerstaff wrote. “Questions for the citizen commission include whether this decision was made in the manner it is being portrayed and whether it was intended to benefit certain landowners while potentially endangering others.”

A commission, he concludes, could take public input, arrive at answers, and formulate recommendations regarding emergency preparedness.

According to the article at, Capt. Webster said:

So what if somebody’s house burned — we can fix that. It’s a successful incident when nobody died. … What I hope is that, as a community, you can get together, recover and help each other move forward.

Capt. Webster sets a pretty low bar for measuring the quality of incident management.


Don't Mess With TexasI try not to be the arm chair Incident Commander from hundreds of miles away, second-guessing the strategy and tactics of the incident managers and fire professionals who are immersed in a wildfire incident. But in this case the professionals who manage large wildfires for a living provided their advice, twice, to the retired observatory manager/County Judge, who rejected their strategic advice, twice. The retired observatory manager/County Judge said the proposed burnouts were too large, but the fire eventually burned up more additional acres than were in the proposed burnouts.

I don’t envy the Blue team that attempted to manage this fire, or the Red team that relieved them after two or three weeks. It must have been frustrating as hell, trying to do the best they could under very trying circumstances.

Texas has had numerous very large fires this year. The primary reason was the drought and strong winds. There may be other contributing reasons, too.

And Governor Rick Perry keeps saying over and over again that the 25 FEMA wildfire grants the state of Texas has received from the federal government since February 27  is not enough. He wants all but two counties in the state declared federal wildfire disaster areas so he can get even more money from FEMA. I’m not sure that would help.

Burnout and fire activity near McDonald Observatory, Hobby-Eberly Telescope
The Rock House wildfire and a burnout operation near the Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the McDonald Observatory in west Texas on Monday, April 18, 2011. Credit: Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory


Thanks Ken

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

2 thoughts on “Following the Rock House fire, Texas residents seek explanations”

  1. There should be absolutely no doubt that Judge George Grubb has been an involved and valued firefighter in Ft. Davis. In the 70’s I worked at McDonald Obs. We were the only firefighters in the county with any ability to fight fires. We had a fire truck and pump truck for getting out into the brush. George Grubb was the head of the Physical Plant for the Observatory and trained anyone who would volunteer to help out in these terrible fires that flare up in West TX. George Grubb, the Sheriff and ranchers along with astronomers, technicians and spouses of the Observatory fought and saved lives, homes, ranches and livestock every year. He deserves high praise from everyone living in the Ft. Davis area. Michelle (Hansen) Chaput, Austin TX.

  2. Can you clarify ref the “county judge”…I’ve heard this before, and have wondered, is this person literally a judge, as in the highest ranking Jurist in the county, or is that just a title for an elected official…a commissioner, alderman, councilman sort of position?


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