Firefighters from Somervell County and nearby towns on Monday continued to battle “hot spots” fanned by the wind into more brush fires and remained on alert as windy conditions are forecast for the next several days.
County Judge Mike Ford called the huge blaze that began late last week “one of the largest fires we’ve ever dealt with, if not the largest.”
Mark McGuire, regional fire coordinator of the Texas Forest Service, estimated that at least 6,200 acres were burned or affected by two separate blazes — a massive wildfire that began in Bosque County and a smaller one that started along FM 202 south of Glen Rose.
Dewey Ratliff, Bosque County’s emergency management coordinator, said that the large fire began on the Antler Ranch, which was conducting a “prescribed burn,” meaning one that is supposed to be closely watched by a licensed burn manager with a nearby accessible water supply. The fire flared up during Friday’s high winds and began burning out of control.
“It had fingers all over the place,” Ratliff said.
The Antler Ranch is a premier deer-breeding ranch owned by C. Donavan Williamson of the Williamson-Dickie clothing company in Fort Worth.
The fire raced northward and spread into Somervell County Friday afternoon after jumping CR 2007, the county line road. A smaller fire started along FM 202 south of Glen Rose.
“The risk to homes was enormous,” Ford said during Monday’s County Commissioners Court meeting. “This was an incredibly fast-moving fire.”
The first call about the fires came in to Somervell County authorities around 1:15 p.m. Friday. Ford declared a local emergency, which puts the county in position to qualify for grants and state assistance.
An Emergency Operations Center was set at the Sheriff’s Office to monitor the situation and mobilize a multi-pronged response. The EOC included the county judge, both Justices of the Peace, Jo Spurger of the sheriff’s department, county commissioners, Mayor Pro Tem Johnny Martin and City Superintendent Ronald Bruce. Glen Rose Medical Center Chief Executive Gary Marks and Glen Rose ISD Superintendent Wayne Rotan also were part of the planning and logistical coordination effort. Emergency Management Coordinator and County Fire Marshall Dwayne Griffin was out of the state.
County Commissioner John Curtis, whose precinct includes the area where the fires burned, was out on the scene throughout Friday afternoon, dispatching updates to the command center. He and this reporter watched as the fire raced toward Somervell County and jumped CR 2007 (see “Reporter’s Notebook” for a firsthand account of chasing a racing fire).
The FM 202 fire had surrounded a home, but firefighters, aided by a Texas Forest Service helicopter that carried water from a stock pond across the road and dumped it from the air, saved it. A Forest Service plane also sprayed orange fire retardant on flames.
As emergency sirens sounded, sheriff’s deputies went door-to-door, warning residents in The Oaks and Hill Country Estates developments, as well as those along CR 2007, to evacuate.
The situation grew tense and emotional as deputies closed CR 2007 and residents who were trying to retrieve cars and other belongings were turned away as the fire drew closer and smoke filled The Oaks.
“We’ve got to get our car,” one resident told a deputy.
“I’m sorry, sir, I can’t let you in,” the deputy responded. “They’re evacuating everyone now on 2007.”
A teenage girl cried as she and her mother tried to arrange to get her horse, Molly, out of the area. They were waiting on friends to bring a trailer,
About 18 people reported in to the American Red Cross shelter set up at Glen Rose High School. But they arranged to stay with family and friends Friday night rather than sleep at the school. First Baptist Church also opened its doors and prepared to cook a hot meal and offer shelter to those who needed it.
Ford said that he was “incredibly proud” of the county’s fire department.
“We in this county owe a great deal to this fire department for the way they handled this fire battle,” Ford said.
About 16 other fire departments responded as well, including those from Bono, Walnut Springs, Brazos Point, Pecan Plantation, Iredell, Lakeside Village, Selden, Clifton, Peoria and Whitney.
“We were very thankful they were here,” Ford said.
He quoted McGuire as saying that he had worked with a lot of different fire departments before, “but had not worked with any volunteer fire department that was better trained” than Somervell County’s.
Ford also praised others involved in working the fire, including sheriff’s deputies, constables, game wardens, the Glen Rose Police Department and Emergency Medical Service personnel.
Phone calls poured into the EOC from citizens and businesses wanting to help. People who operate bulldozing and heavy equipment companies offered their services to cut fire lines, and stores and restaurants donated bottled water and food for those in the EOC and those working the fire, Ford said.
“This was extremely helpful because it was a long fire battle,” Ford said. “It’s why we live here. We may have our other battles, but this is one of those times when everyone stood shoulder-to-shoulder. It was just a yeoman’s effort on everybody’s part.”
Miraculously, no homes burned. Ratliff said that a barn burned and that one Bosque County firefighter injured a hand and was admitted to Glen Rose Medical Center and later released.
John Cummins, the Somervell County Fire Department’s operations chief, said that three firefighters had suffered heat exhaustion and one had a minor injury.
“We’re still working on spot fires,” which he estimated could go on for days or even weeks.
Cummins said that new radios the department received last Thursday came in the nick of time to help with communications while battling the blazes. Last Tuesday night the department also had a session on fighting ground fires.
“Thank goodness we did,” Cummins said. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back to the troops.”
Later Monday morning a call came into the sheriff’s dispatcher that another fire had broken out on some property along CR 2007. At first it looked manageable and county workers sprayed water on smoldering trees and debris. But as the wind kicked up, the fire spread into thick brush and more firefighters and trucks were called to the scene.
Then in the afternoon, large plumes of white smoke rose from Crystal Springs Ranch where Alice Longfellow raises bison. She estimated that 2,500 acres of her ranch had burned — land that she had worked to reestablish native grasses after clearing cedar.
Longfellow was angry that a prescribed burn was allowed on the Antler Ranch during such dry conditions. She called it an “act of reckless endangerment.”
“To me, it’s just wasted water,” she said Monday afternoon as she watched fire crews spray cedar and grass that were burning. “That water is more precious that any gas and oil you’ll ever find. It makes me sick.”
Prescribed burns are allowed even when counties have burn bans in place. Bosque County, unlike Somervell, did not have a burn ban in effect when the fires began, but the County Judge Cole Word ordered one to begin.
Somervell County commissioners ordered a burn ban last month after McGuire and another Forest Service official appeared before the Commissioners Court just two weeks to warn of the high dangers of fires because of the abundance of dry wood, low humidity and likelihood of high winds. The commissioners immediately voted unanimously to order a 90-day burn ban.
Please continue to check the Reporter’s Web site this week for updates as they develop.