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Texas firefighter pained by house he could not save

September 7, 2011 |  4:43 pm

Battalion Chief Ken Gold spent much of Tuesday on a street in Bastrop, Texas, called Pine Tree Loop, trying to shore up the few houses untouched by flames. Few homeowners there had bothered to clear away 6-inch-thick layers of pine needles, which were bone dry and fire-prone as matchsticks.

"They kind of let nature be nature," the 60-year-old from Denton, Texas, said. "It didn't seem very fire-aware."

The 10-person crew scattered among the houses and scraped potential fire fuel away. But the area was littered with smoldering stumps and pine needles. Spot fires flared up and the team had neither the manpower nor the water supply to douse them all.

"We didn't have enough resources to be everywhere at the same time," said Gold, a firefighter for nearly four decades. "We'd see a column of smoke and sometimes we'd get there and sometimes not."

Photos: Texas wildfires

Gold was among the weary-looking firefighters milling around the Bastrop County convention center Wednesday which served as a command post for firefighters. The area has been among the hardest hit in a state raging with fires. So far, that conflagration has swallowed up 34,000 acres, destroyed or damaged more than 785 homes and forced the evacuation of about 5,000 residents. It also has claimed two lives, a number that could rise as authorities sift through the debris and assess the damage. Authorities on Wednesday identified one of those victims as Michael Farr, 48, who worked for the city of Austin's electrical department, and was found in his home.

The fatigue is visible among the firefighters. Their eyes drooped from days on the line, either here or elsewhere in the state (Gold had been pulled here from a fire in Possum Kingdom, about 200 miles north). Many couldn't remember what day of the week it was.

"I hate to say this, but the only solution is a storm with a name. I hate to bring a hurricane to Texas, but maybe a little one, just to get some rain," he said.

Firefighter resources in the state have been stretched thin, allowing conflagrations to more quickly gain ground. The state recently cut funding for volunteer fire departments by 75% as a cost-saving measure. But that hasn't stopped firefighters such as Gold, who see it as their personal mission to save what they can from the fierce flames.

"It's whoever gets there first with the most -- you or the fire," he said.

Gold is used to fighting structure fires, which he said demand about 14 firefighters and four engines, depending on the size of the house. On Pine Tree Loop, his crew was equipped with far less.

Still, the loss of the blue house pained him.

It was a one-story, wood-0frame home with a yard full of pine trees and an above-ground pool. He and others spent an hour scraping away pine needles and hosing down things with water from the pool.

Before they could finish, the fire snaked through the 30-foot-tall pine trees behind them. The flames crept within a few feet of firefighters.

"I was calling for help," Gold said. "But everyone was busy somewhere else. Then it got real hot real fast and we had to go."

About two hours later, Gold returned. All that remained: some propane tanks from a barbecue pit and the above-ground pool.

"I sat in the driveway for 15 minutes looking at it," he said. "It was a real heart breaker."

-- Ashley Powers

Photo: Firefighter Todd Jamison looks on helplessly as a home burns to the ground on Pine Tree Loop in Bastrop, Texas. Credit: Jay Janner / Austin American-Statesman / Associated Press