As fire chief, I was asked to share my personal perspective about what our department faced and maybe give an inside view of what happened on the large fire that encroached on Somervell County a couple weeks ago.
The department started that day by being requested to assist Erath County on a large grass fire. The department will usually send a number of fire trucks to other departments when they request help but will always leave a substantial amount of resources in place to protect our own county. While there, we kept noticing a larger fire brewing in Bosque County near Somervell County. As our units cleared the first fire, we cut across the county toward the second fire.
When our department arrived it was apparent that this fire was very large and not a grass fire but instead a forest/brush fire in the traditional sense. It was also apparent that this fire was outside the scope of any local fire department(s) and we therefore requested assistance from the Texas Forest Service, which brought in several aircraft to work in conjunction with ground crews. The forestry service later reported that the flames had breached well over 100 feet in height.
We also recognized early that while still several miles away, there was the definite potential for this fire to cross into Somervell County due to its size and the heavy winds. We made the decision to commit our entire department and all its resources to this fire with the goal of trying to reduce its four-mile width before it reached our county. County Judge Mike Ford was notified of the potential threat. He activated the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in order to plan, prepare and command all resources for any emergency that might come from the approaching fire.
The pictures in the paper caught some pivotal moments of the fire. You may recall the picture of one of our brush trucks up against flames that were easily five times higher than the truck itself. Directly to the right, not in the picture, is a farm in the path of the fire. There were several structures already being rained down on with embers and ashes. This picture shows exactly when our department first engaged the fire. The crews had to make several runs on that part of the fire only to circle out for a few seconds as needed to cool the truck and the firefighters before re-engaging.
This strategy called for the quick and more mobile fire trucks to wait for the fire to break out from the forest and into the pasture land. Then the crew would fight the side perimeters of the fire (flanks), causing the fire to go around homes and structures. These particular maneuvers were recently trained on by the department and were used numerous times that day. One fire truck had the paint scorched and one firefighter received minor burns during that particular attempt, which worked to reduce the size of the fire before it jumped into Somervell County.
It was when the fire did cross the county line that I starting seeing the efforts of our own citizens. I felt most proud to see their willingness to come together and fight to save the property and insure the safety of their neighbors. The community leaders staffing the EOC had already planned for and initiated the evacuation of several neighborhoods. Rehab (food, water, medical attention) was waiting for the firefighters when we got there. Law enforcement had locked down evacuated areas to safeguard from outsiders, established safe routes for fire trucks and served as recon for command.
City and county employees were operating large machinery making fire breaks and repairing damaged fire equipment. County Commissioners were bringing us fuel and other necessary resources to support the operation. Our surrounding fire departments (16 in total) sent all their available resources to help. State agencies arrived quickly after being requested by the EOC.
In the end, the forward advancement of the fire was stopped late that night but the overall incident wore on the department for four days. Thousands of acres burned, but no structures, animals or human lives were reported lost. The community and its emergency services were put to the test. We, along with other the other agencies involved ,have been brought together by the county judge to see what worked and what could have been done better.
I am very proud of the Somervell County Fire Department and am honored to serve with all the members who gave it their all, not only during this fire but in all their efforts. If only for myself I would like to list some of my personal memories from this fire:
The first familyís fear when we arrived, our own panic when our bolt cutters started failing after cutting scores of locks and chains, the quick team huddle of drivers after being beaten back by the heat, the convoy of our large 6 x 6 fire trucks driving in tandem toward the head of the fire, the command staff diligently talking on three radios and telephones simultaneously, the procession of bulldozers driving out of Glen Rose toward the fire, the deputies holding back traffic while quickly waiving us through road blocks, the first firefighter being driven away in the ambulance with complete exhaustion, seeing veterans quickly teaching less seasoned firefighters, drafting water from ponds, the scorched fire truck being refueled, firefighters cramming pizza as they fill their trucks back up with water, the authority and resolve from the EOC, the dispatchers systematically feeding us 911 calls and taking calls from the scared wives of the firefighters.
I would like to express how personally proud I am to be part of this community that came together as a whole. Additionally, the department wanted me to thank everyone for all the support we got. Some great people in the community have organized a celebration this Saturday night.
So finally, I would like to pass on the invitation to the community-wide gathering at 6 p.m. Saturday on the downtown square. Bring a chair, listen to the live band, eat free fried fish and enjoy each otherís fellowship.
Mark Crawford is the chief of the Somervell County Fire Department.