Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Trailer Blows Tire, Comes Loose Starts Fire

Published: March 15, 2008 03:31 pm print this story email this story comment on this story

Rural inferno

Wildfire chars 680 acres; close call for homes

By Anita Miller
News Editor
San Marcos A lone Harris hawk swooped low over a charred Hays County pasture Saturday morning where a day before, cattle had grazed and field mice were plentiful.

The blackened field to the north of CR 266 was among an estimated 680 acres in Hays and Guadalupe counties that burned in a wildfire whipped by shifting wind gusts of 30 mph or more.

Dozens of homes were evacuated Friday afternoon after fire broke out near the intersection of CR 266 and FM 621 (Staples Road) around 3:30 p.m. For the next eight hours, about a dozen fire agencies plus state resources battled what authorities said began as four separate fires.

Three firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation, two at the scene and one at Central Texas Medical Center. No homes burned, though a couple of outbuildings and several abandoned cars were destroyed.

Nearly 100 personnel were involved, and evacuations ordered for the River Hills subdivision along with portions of the Dupuy Ranch. Also threatened was the Davis Ranch area. Firefighters were put on standby as far away as Spring River Estates near Martindale as flames neared the wooded banks of the San Marcos River and officials feared the fire would jump the stream.

For the most part, though, fields and pastures fed the flames that sent towering columns of smoke visible from miles away.

According to Jan Fulkerson of the Texas Forest Service, there were four “fire starts” along FM 621 from CR 266 to roughly the area of Scull Road. Though the cause is still under investigation, Hays Fire Marshal Carrol Czichos said he believes it was an accident, that “a vehicle pulling a utility type trailer on FM 621 may have experienced a tire blowing out or some other type of failure,” which led to the trailer coming in contact with the road surface and throwing sparks.

Of the four original fires, “three were under control right away but the fourth fire grew on them. That’s where the attention was throughout the day,” Fulkerson said.

It was a back and forth battle, as wind shifts complicated fire efforts. At one point two of the fires merged, Fulkerson, said, but the greater threat, of the whole fire complex coming together, was averted.

The effort included ground forces from San Marcos Fire Rescue, South Hays Fire Department and other area agencies, plus Forest Service personnel and bulldozers. An Air Attack pilot coordinated ground and air attacks, Fulkerson said, serving as the “eyes in the sky” for two Blackhawk helicopters from Austin and one helicopter tanker brought in from Fredericksburg.

All three choppers pulled water from area ponds, Fulkerson said, the Blackhawks picking up about 550 gallons at a time and the helicopter tanker about 1,000 gallons.

Residents along Picassio drive in River Hills were protecting their own property with garden hoses and buckets as firefighters rushed to control flare-ups. Among them was Robert Rodriguez, who has lived on Piccasio Drive for 50 years. “It’s the first time I’ve seen a fire like this,” he said. “I told my daughter ‘Get the kids and let’s get out.’”

Rodriguez, his daughter Linda Cantu and her three children were loading up to get out when neighbors showed up to help. Their home and backyard chicken coops were spared.

The Blackhawks returned to base around 6:30 p.m. Pam Robinson of the Hays County Sheriff’s Office said many fire crews began to leave around 10:30 p.m., though some stayed on scene throughout the night to check for hot spots.

The fires broke out on a day when the area was under a Red Flag Fire Warning, with local fire crews on high alert. Saturday morning, FEMA issued a news release saying President Bush has declared “an emergency exists in the state of Texas” and ordered federal aid “to supplement state and local response” in a long list of Texas counties including Hays, Caldwell, Guadalupe, Blanco, Comal and Travis.

Most Central Texas counties remain under a burn ban.