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Texas firefighters battling scarce resources as well as fierce flames

September 7, 2011 |  1:57 pm

Del Birdwell and Kevin Wright were beating back flames near Fort Worth, Texas, just last week. Over the weekend, they began fielding urgent calls from Bastrop County, about 200 miles south.

The men are part of a firefighting brotherhood, Texas Interagency Fire Mutual Aid System. They hopscotch the state helping battle blazes, which this year haven't let up since the spring.

"We had guys saying 'If y'all can get here, get here,'" Wright said of the weekend phone calls. "They basically said: 'Come, run.' They really needed help."

Photos: Texas wildfires

Earlier this week, Birdwell, 41, a division chief from Nacogdoches, and Wright, 30, a firefighter from Galveston, were at the Bastrop Convention Center, which has served as a command post for what is arguably the most destructive of the fires raging in Texas. It has swallowed up 34,000 acres, destroyed or damaged more than 785 homes, and forced the evacuation of about 5,000 residents.

The men were preparing to jump back on the fire lines as soon as possible. "It's been like that off and on since March or April," Birdwell said. He pointed to a squat white truck nearby. "We got that in February and it has 10,000 miles on it," he said. Wright nodded to his own truck and added, "We put 2,000 miles on ours since last week."

Firefighting resources are stretched thin in Texas. The state recently cut funding for volunteer fire departments by 75% as a cost-saving measure. Birdwell and Wright feel the brunt of those cuts -- but wouldn't consider walking away.

"This fire grew faster than anything," Birdwell said. "It just grew horribly fast."

He said that any department would be overwhelmed by such a conflagration, even as he conceded that the state's resources have been stretched.

"Texas has a lot of resources," he continued. "But this year is like no other. There's such a huge area to cover and everything's on fire."

Elsewhere, the scarce resources were more apparent.

When the blaze flared up Sunday, Bastrop County largely relied on its nine volunteer fire departments; each have about 30 members, said Mike Fisher, the county's emergency management coordinator. But they had no aircraft to survey the blaze or to drop water and fire retardant.

"Every aircraft in Texas was in the air," he said, because much of the state was in flames.

The first firefighters to arrive at the conflagration quickly decided: "We've got to get the hell out of here," he said. Had they not made that choice, he said, some of them might have died. For the first several hours, "the fire was in control," he said.

Some of the firefighters initially called to the blaze ended up working 52 straight hours.

Zane Sharp, 33, and Chad Minton, 27, were among those who responded to Bastrop County's call for help. They raced from Humble, a city outside Houston, and arrived about 10:30 p.m. Sunday. But they were sidelined until the morning.

There had been no helicopters dispatched to survey the fire and determine its size, direction and ferocity, they said. From what they knew, none had been available. With so many unknowns, the fire crews could not be sent out into the dark.

"Most people here didn't realize how big it was and how fast it was moving," said Minton, a fire captain. "If another fire popped up near the first one, you might not know until it was too late."

Sharp echoed that concern. "They didn't know if anyone was killed or how many homes were lost," he said.

The next morning, the men arrived at the emptied-out Tahitian Village neighborhood. (The region is known as the "Lost Pines" area for the thick stretch of trees that unexpectedly pops up. Those very same trees are fuel for the fires, along with severe drought conditions and intense summer heat.)

"Everything was on fire," Minton said. "Houses, cars, woods, power lines."

The fire had already gutted most of the well-appointed homes. The men went to work scraping away pine needles and clearing gutters at the ones that remained. The fire hydrants in the area weren't working.

"We'd run out of water and have to go fill up," Sharp said. "For the most part it worked out, but it still kind of sucked."

Before heading back to the fires Wednesday, Minton blamed the wrenching firefight on the prolonged drought, not a lack of manpower.

"Texas is never this dry," he said. "If we had the resources being used this summer all the time, we'd have a lot of people sitting around doing nothing."


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--Ashley Powers, reporting from Bastrop, Texas.

Photo: Volunteer firefighters in Rugby, Texas, tackling one of the many blazes bedeviling the state. Credit: Sam Craft / Paris News