Escaped prescribed fire prompts evacuations southeast of Austin, Texas

The County Judge responsible for fire suppression in Bastrop County, said, “None of us can predict the weather more than 15 minutes ahead of time.”

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Updated at 9:13 a.m. CT Jan. 20, 2022

Map, Rolling Pines Fire Jan. 19, 2022
Map showing the location of the Rolling Pines Fire, 1:37 a.m. CT Jan. 19, 2022.

Maps of the Rolling Pines Fire near Bastrop 28 miles southeast of Austin, Texas.

Map, Rolling Pines Fire Jan. 19,2022

At least one large air tanker was used on the fire, including the RJ85 seen above.


Originally published at 9:03 p.m. Jan. 19, 2022

Rolling Pines Fire
Rolling Pines Fire, Jan. 18, 2022. Mario V.

A prescribed fire in Bastrop State Park 28 miles southeast of Austin, Texas escaped on Tuesday. County Judge Paul Pape said 250 families were required to evacuate as the fire that was intended to burn 150 acres grew to 783 acres by Wednesday morning. At 6 p.m. Wednesday some of those residents were allowed to return to their homes. The fire was named “Rolling Pines Fire.” There were no reports of injuries or any residences that burned.

At 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday Texas Parks and Wildlife Department initiated the prescribed fire at the State Park. Shortly after noon spot fires occurred outside the area that was intended to be burned, according to Carter Smith, Executive Director of Texas Parks and Wildlife.

Texas is one of a few states that designate a county judge or sheriff, rather than fire professionals, to be *responsible for suppression of wildfires outside of incorporated cities. In Texas, judges take on that role. In a news conference County Judge Paul Pape said he is responsible for emergency response in Bastrop county.

Judge Paul Pape
Basrop County Judge Paul Pape. KXAN.

Judge Pape was asked by a reporter in a news conference Tuesday why on a day when local fire departments were advising residents to not do any outdoor burning due to strong winds, the state park decided to conduct the prescribed fire. He deferred the question to Carter Smith, Executive Director of Texas Parks and Wildlife, who said, “It is my understanding that we were well within the prescription of the weather parameters that were called for in the plan.”

Judge Pape said, “Based on everything they knew this morning, it was an appropriate day to burn. None of us can predict the weather more than 15 minutes ahead of time, and sometimes things happen we just don’t anticipate. I’m not going to be critical of the efforts to protect our citizens from wildfire by using prescribed burns. I think it’s a great tool and one that we need to continue to encourage people to use.”

A weather station near Bastrop, BTRT2, at 12:08 p.m. on Tuesday January 18 recorded sustained wind speeds of 16 mph with gusts up to 25 mph out of the south-southwest while the relative humidity was 53 percent. During the next four hours the RH dropped to 40 percent with south winds of 13 mph gusting to 23 mph. The 10-hour time lag fuel moisture during that time dropped from 11 percent to 8 percent.

With gusts over 20 mph it can be very difficult to keep a prescribed fire contained.

*In Colorado and Wyoming the County Sheriffs have responsibility for suppression of fires outside incorporated cities.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Matt.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

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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.

43 thoughts on “Escaped prescribed fire prompts evacuations southeast of Austin, Texas”

  1. Rx in the western U.S. is silly and a complete waste of time/resources.

    Rx gets outpaced by wildfire by 200:1. We spend all summer fighting 2,3,6,900,000 acre wildfires…and the we go home and Rx 50 acres. Way too little too late, the time to start correcting our forests with Rx was 80 years ago. Wildfire is now “treating” the acres for us and we’ll never catch up. Ever.

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    1. We have to start somewhere. Those 50 acre burns expose and teach the public of the benefits of rx. Those 50 acre burns give fire organizations an opportunity work on their RX skills. Those 50 acre burns give the whole district the confidence to go after a 1000 acres over time.

      I’m going to list a few phrases that you may want to read to yourself when you decide to make statements like this. Piss poor planning leads to piss poor performance.
      Definition of insanity: doing the same thing expecting a different result. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast ( it takes years to build a burn program).

      Another example of stellar leadership in the US Forest Service. Keep up the good work Ranger Bro!

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      1. Those 50 acre burns (just to put smoke in the air) are also contributing to killing our great firefighters via lung cancer for seemingly specious benefits.

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    1. Either damn lucky it wasn’t in for A/B/C/D check or someone in the aviation world i.e. the vendor has the moxie and smarts to have one available. I could almost put some money on it…hell it could be someone that was/is a former firefighter and current employee/mechanic with a lil forward thinkning!!

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  2. One more time, Monty Python Channels Hannibal Lector.

    Why not put the judge in charge of Live Fire exercises at military bases on windy days ?

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  3. I talked to a friend today that I worked with at the TCEQ and he said that there will be an investigation to determine the RP (Responsible Party). Two possible RPs are the Judge and Texas Parks and Wildlife. If there was no damage, no people hurt or killed then the fine could be $1000, if there’s damage or people were hurt or killed than the fine will be higher, but most likely this would all be settled out of court. But, this is Texas and we are in mid-terms right now, so who knows how this will be handled.

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  4. Regardless of how and why the fire escaped, we are still talking about wildfire in January with people fleeing for their lives. In January when firefighting agencies used to be able to schedule winter maintenance on equipment and firefighters could rest up somewhat from the summer fire season.

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  5. And there’s Aviation Weather Center and Storm Prediction Center where one can look at the wind patterns and isobars. But if there is burn ban going on either by locale, Agency, whatnot….if I was a burn boss I’d be looking at ways to CYA in dry assed environments. YES, I was an IGNS before PTBs were vogue, before there was TREX and all the other burn schools and one thing I learned in NO CAL…..when the test burn was squirrelly and went haywire, it was time for later in the day. Christ with all the burns plans and WX graphics out there…you burn bosses have it a helluva better info including SPOT requests…things we never had much of in the 1980 and 1990s. When burn bans are on….most of us respected that….didn’t brag much about either “What I would have done” or telling some us we are “whining.”

    Seeing this little number:
    A weather station near Bastrop, BTRT2, at 12:08 p.m. on Tuesday January 18 recorded sustained wind speeds of 16 mph with gusts up to 25 mph out of the south-southwest while the relative humidity was 53 percent. During the next four hours the RH dropped to 40 percent with south winds of 13 mph gusting to 23 mph. The 10-hour time lag fuel moisture during that time dropped from 11 percent to 8 percent.

    Indicates to me that there was some sort of weather reporting

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  6. Who says it was the weather? Maybe they did not have all the qualified personnel and equipment called for in the Rx Burn Plan. Maybe the “contingency resources in event of an escape” were not available because, uh, er, they were on hold for wildfire response, or responding to other fires. Maybe they were eating lunch and nobody ran down the line with a UTV to check for spots. Maybe there was a mole arsonist on the crew. Who knows…

    P.S. Fire weather is posted twice a day:
    https://forecast.weather.gov/product.php?site=NWS&product=FWF&issuedby=EWX

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  7. What a bunch of whining hypercritical comments! No wonder our agencies are afraid to do anything but fight fire (which doesn’t prevent disasters). Anyone remember the Bastrop fire from 2011? There were really no damaging consequences to this lousy 740 ac Rx fire escape. At least they’re trying and they’re going in the right direction with fire management. They’ll learn from this and improve in the future. Mistakes will happen if you’re doing anything, and they need support and encouragement to do the right thing, even if the execution was flawed.

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  8. A judge who can’t get weather information more than 15 minutes out is responsible for prescribed fires. And he chooses to ignore the information issued to the public by other civic officials. Insert catch phrase HERE.

    When I read this story I shook my head and laughed a little. Then I thought about the hockey coach from a little TV show called Letterkenny. He has a somewhat vulgar catch phase which I will not repeat here. For those folks out there who are PROFESSIONAL WILDFIRE MANAGERS, the catch phrase is very applicable to this judge’s decision making process.

    If you can tolerate some blue language and need a little chuckle, go to YouTube and look for “Letterkenny – Kick A Garbage Can”. Pretty much sums it up nicely.

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  9. You have to take the article with a grain of salt. The Judge is not the burn boss. He may have signed off on the burn permit but didn’t make the final call. Look at the spot forecast before the burn. If you were a burn boss this would probably be acceptable. There was a chance for 25 mph gusts but not listed in the hourly break down. This area has quite a bit of WUI and I would be cautious but 7-9 mph eye level winds is standard burning in most places. Even the spot forecast issued once the fire was declared a wildfire predicted temps in the mid 70’s and Rh’s in the mid 40’s with gusts of 17 at 20 ft. Spots happen and I wouldn’t want the fall out but I would have probably lit this Rx burn.

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    1. Rx Bro, there is no prescribe burn permitting in Texas. There’s Title V permits. Title V permits pertain to companies (including the military) who plan to add more emissions to the atmosphere. You’re right he was not a burn boss. He is not a meteorologist. He is not an air quality specialist. He is a Judge. And there are local, state, and federal laws that this Judge violated. By him saying, ” None of us can predict the weather more than 15 minutes ahead of time,” means he did not run a model, and apparently he didn’t even check the spot forecast. He is not a meteorologist. In 2005, Texas tried to pass a law that said it was a misdemeanor with a $500 fine if you claim to be a meteorologist. It did not pass. Some states even have penalties up to 90 days in prison if you make false claims about the weather. I know I am a meteorologist/an air quality specialist and when I worked for the Forest Service I was the Regulatory Lead. I also had to defend the Forest Service on multiple times for violating the conformity law, as this Judge has done. I lived in Austin, Round Rock, Bastrop for 11-12 years. I also worked for the TCEQ. So, I know the area (it’s a low income area with mostly minorities) and I know the laws. I am a strong proponent for prescribe burns, but you have to follow the law, especially if you are a Judge. A county Judge is not above local, state or federal law.

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      1. Can you explain conformity law and the others you say he violated? I frankly don’t understand what you are talking about. That’s not a jab, it’s my lack of law experience.
        I also dont see anything stating that the judge had anything to do with authorizing the burn. But i also appreciate his atypical, non-reactive, pro rx response. No risk, no reward.

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        1. Biscuits, I’d love to! So, first of all there are non-attainment areas https://www3.epa.gov/airquality/greenbook/mapnpoll.html . These are areas in the US that have violated the NAAQS (the standards of criteria pollutants) https://www3.epa.gov/airquality/greenbook/mapnpoll.html . One of the criteria pollutants is PM (PM2.5 and PM10), which is lead, dust, or smoke. Another, is ozone, which is a secondary pollutant, which is created by many of the primary pollutants found in smoke. According to the conformity law, you can’t add more smoke into a non-attainment area. Why? Because, 1) it will violate the NAAQS, and 2) each state writes a SIP (State Implementation Plan). In this plan it has strategies to make a non-attainment area an attainment area. SIPs take years of hard work. So, when federal agencies like the NPS and FS or state entities like the Texas Parks and Wildlife have prescribe burns they can’t put the smoke into nonattainment areas or they will violate the conformity law. To add to the confusion. If someone adds smoke to a nonattainment area and violates the conformity law their are fines. For example, a forest (yes, I know who you are) outside of Houston did 11 prescribed burns in one year. The winds took the smoke into Houston, on each of those days Houston had high ozone – Ozone Action Day. Houston argued they would not have an Ozone Action Day if the FS had not burned. The FS (ok the burn boss) lied and said he only burned once. The TCEQ showed the FS 11 satellite maps to show, yes they had burned 11 times and yes, the winds did go into Houston, and yes Houston had high ozone on those 11 days, proving 11 counts of violating the conformity law, which lead to fines. I hope that helps.

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      2. You mean Minorities as in Anglos, right???? We are NOT the majority and haven’t been for a LONG time! But what does that have to do with STUPIDITY?? A County Judge okayed a burn that came 8 miles close to our home!! We’re dang mad!!!! Has NOTHING to do with race. Geesh!

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  10. It’s not about how we fall, it’s about how we get back up. Prescribed fire in the SE has over a 99% success rate. I’ve been where TPWD is right now, and if you burn enough, it’ll happen to you. Learn from this, grow from this, and get back it.

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  11. It’s amazing what we forget (or ignore). While I have no experience in fighting wildfires, I had participated in a couple of controlled burns in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Where grass seed farmers, in the old days, burned their fields after harvest.

    The first condition was there could be no stable low atmospheric layer to trap the smoke at low altitudes. I do not know about the speed of the wind but I do know the fire was started downwind where bare soil, maybe 10ft or so wide was prepared to contain this fire. I was stationed upwind and as the fire slowly burned against the wind I know the wind got very hot. I do not remember how wide (far) this backfire was allowed to burn before the edge of the field downwind was ignited and the 50+ acre field was completely burned in less than 15 minutes and the smoke quickly rose to the tropopause where a mushroom cloud formed at its top. And these controlled burns were safely conducted by these experienced farmers until city people complained about ‘cloudy’ skies.

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    1. My in-laws (deceased) had their home that my husband helped build burned to the ground! He watched in disbelief! I’ll never forget the horror in his voice in 2011 on his birthday! Crying watching his home burn to the ground! ???

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  12. This story as written is incomplete since it does not say if it was out of prescription at time of igniton or not and how far along the RX burn may have been before it went out of prescription. Without this info nobody should be pointing finger. Just because weather officials were saying this or that without a timeline it is not a complete story.
    And anyone who has any practical experience with RX fire knows the best days to burn typically are the days the weather is pushing the envelope of the RX and those are also the days the weatherman is telling everyone to restrict their outdoor burning practices

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  13. I applaud Judge Pape on recognizing the critical role of prescribed fire in preventing future wildfires and also recognizing that sometimes things don’t go as planned. I appreciate that he didn’t have a knee-jerk reaction to shut down all future prescribed fires. Sure, we can argue about whether or not County Judges should be given the authority to be in charge of fire suppression, but this is another good example of why the SE US is ahead of most of the rest of the US in using prescribed fire as a valuable land management tool.

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      1. SR, obviously you missed my point. You’ve made it no secret here on WFT that you are largely opposed to prescribed fire. I don’t want to get in a back and forth with you as you are very firmly set in your ideas and views, as am I.

        I’m not interested in armchair quarterbacking mishaps and unintended outcomes.

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        1. SR, I don’t know how you got that I “don’t like” you from a comment. If you take every disagreement as a personal insult then you will never be open to a healthy conversation with opposing views.

          31+years with the USFS, RXB2 in three regions — pretty sure I know the laws, policies, and regulations. I’ve been on the not fun end of a really bad escape, back in the day when folks doing the burn were actually punished (letters in files, quals removed, time off). No one sets out to have an rx burn end up as an escape. I’m happy the agencies are moving away from blaming and moving towards learning. It’s sad to me that you are still on the side of blame.

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    1. Have to strongly disagree….
      Yes, prescribed fire is good, and beneficial
      Not following known protocol is bad.
      If you aren’t going to do it correctly, why do it at all?
      It’s 2022, if we haven’t learned anything from prior prescribed fires escaping and causing untold millions in damages, then we will continue to have incidents like this. A simple phone call to the local NWS office could have given the needed information prior to the start of this escaped burn.
      No excuses, this was uncalled for and completely avoidable Ol’Paul screwed up…end of story

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    2. Nice for him to recognize the advantage of RX burns. When everyone else is told about not burning and for Christ’s sake look at the weather and winds. When an agency is advising others NOT to burn and go out and conduct a RX burn and NOT look at the weather….makes me wonder about leadership and setting examples or pain ignorance….maybe the judge needs to slap a 10K fine or reduce some of their funding for a little education

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      1. Completely absurd that a County Judge is given that type of authority! STUPIDITY RUN-A-MUCK!! Bunch of hicks!!

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  14. They were out of variance and violated the conformity law, which means they should not have burned. Jurisdiction issues aside, this decision should not have been decided by a Judge (who can apparently only predict 15 mins out), it should have been decided by a meteorologist or air quality specialist (who can predict 3-7 days out). I hope the TCEQ fines them and I wish the the Texas legislature would create a permitting process that enforces NOVs. I know, I know, if wishes were…blah, blah, blah!!! Peace out!

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  15. Meanwhile in January 1917, Texan’s are just learning about earth wind and fire.

    I wonder when the NWS will show up in texas and assist them in figuring out the weather more then 15 minutes in advance….

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