As temperatures heated up Wednesday afternoon and the wind picked up, the County Road 1008 fire broke out again as hot spots ignited on the blackened land.
Somervell County firefighters returned to the scene with brush and tanker trucks and used big hoses to douse flames on the Engstrom Ranch.
Alan Steele, the ranch’s manager, has been on alert as well. Since the fire broke out Thursday, he estimated he’s spent 110 hours fighting the fires and helping firefighters repair equipment, cutting fire lines with his dozer or anything else that needed to be done.
He hopped in his dozer again Wednesday to help put out flames that popped and crackled as they consumed big tree stumps. His father, B.W., who also lives on CR 1008, took a hose attached to a water tank on his tractor and sprayed a blackened cedar that had caught fire again.
An estimated 500 acres have burned on the Engstrom place and neighboring properties.
On the Engstrom Ranch, blackened earth and gray ash lay on either side of the ranch road. Plumes of smoke shot up from the hills. Other parts of the ranch were untouched, with dry yellow grass and green cedar looking even brighter against the background of scorched earth.
Steele, who has worked for the Engstroms for more than 20 years, said he’s never seen it so dry.
“We’re sitting on a matchbox surrounded by a puddle of gasoline,” he said as he surveyed the scene.
“It ain’t over,” he added. “It’s contained. When it rains, it might be over.”
The fire began on the Engstrom Ranch a week ago last Sunday when a bolt of cloud-to-ground lightning struck. Steele and firefighters thought the fire was extinguished and pushed piles of earth on top to smother the blaze.
But last Thursday it ignited again. By that evening, a long, narrow strip of land, fueled by dry limbs, brush and grass on the ground, went up in tall flames. Hot spots flared up all weekend and on Monday and Tuesday.
Ironically, ranchers use fire as a tool to clean the land. Steele said it’s been so dry this year that the ranch hasn’t been able to do controlled burns. So undergrowth and brush piles became fuel.
Unfortunately, along with the underbrush, stands of live oaks and other hardwood trees have burned.
Steele spends hours driving and walking around the ranch, looking for anything that might ignite. He and firefighters urged residents to use extreme caution with daily activities that people often don’t think twice about.
“It doesn’t have to take a lightning bolt, it can be a spark off a lawn mower, a barbecue grill, a cigarette tossed out a car window, a blown-out tire or safety chains on a trailer dragging the ground,” Steele said. “One spark and it’s gone.”
Steele said Somervell County firefighters and Dwayne Griffin, the county’s emergency management coordinator and fire marshal, have done “an excellent job.”
“Words can’t express how thankful I am that we have a fire department like this,” Steele said.
By 5:30 p.m., Griffin radioed that he had made it to the top of a hill and that “everything looked very, very good.”
A few minutes, he added, "It looks they've got another large one going in Johnson County."
Fires tend to die down at night as humidity, temperatures and wind velocity drop. But first thing in the morning, a weary and wary Alan Steele will be up again, walking and watching for any sign of fire.