Many things blamed with starting Wildfires￼
By Kyle Mooty
It may begin with someone tossing a cigarette out of a window. Or someone could hitch a trailer as they’ve done dozens of times previously, only this time loose chains cause a spark. A farmer cutting hay may hit a rock that sets a blade of dead grass on fire, only to realize what has happened later, and by that point several acres of land are scorched.
It could also be Mother Nature, who has been in the worst of moods this summer in Texas. Caldwell County has been working overtime fighting her wrath as fires have become quite commonplace with prevailing winds, dry soil, and a surplus of natural tinder material to take a small fire to a big blaze.
Fire departments of all sizes have been physically taxed as they have been fighting wildfires on weekly basis.
Hector Rangel., Chief of Caldwell County Emergency Management, said his two-person department has been on call 24/7, but the heat and the fires have really been taking tolls on firefighters and their equipment.
“I know we are down in one area for brush trucks,” Rangel said. “That can really cause a problem. “
One of the largest fires was one burning 40 acres last week in the FM 713 and Old Colony Road area.
“That fire was within feet of several buildings (six) and some nice homes, but they did a good job of saving them,” Rangel said.
Emergency Management, with Rangel and Chief Deputy Hank Alex, attend the fires to help in any way possible, whether it is calling in additional support, setting up a command center, or just supplying water to the firefighters.
“It depends on the heat and humidity and when winds are prevalent, that’s when we’re really worried,” Rangel said. “We haven’t had significant rainfall, so there are big cracks in the ground, some big enough to fall in, almost. With the dryer grounds, electric poles are starting to lean. When they shift, the electrical lines have tension, or if they lean in the other way, they’re loose and they’re rubbing against each other. A farmer may want to cut hay for his cattle, and it may start a fire.
“The Delhi area has more Oak and is dense. We have to call in air support out there because we can’t get in with brush trucks. We’re doing the best we can. People can rest assured that we’re on top of it.”
Lockhart’s city limits have had just eight fires since June 1, according to Fire Chief Randy Jenkins, but his firefighters have provided mutual aid to many area towns and communities.
“We always could use more personnel and equipment,” Jenkins said. “We have one brush truck, and any big wildfire you need multiple brush trucks because out in the county there aren’t any fire hydrants, so you have to bring your own water.”
Jenkins is in his fifth year in Lockhart after spending 29 with Cleburne. He believes this year is the worst he’s seen.
“I think so. Of course, the bigger the drought the more dried grass you’re going to have,” Jenkins said. “It can be cigarettes or the dragging of a chain that makes sparks. Caldwell County has had a lot of tractors catch grass on fire while they’re in the fields and they don’t even know it until they look behind them. Hay is dangerous because it’s usually around farm equipment. There’s also welding going on farms. Sparks are everywhere.”
No local fire department has mentioned any serious injuries from fighting fires, although Maxwell Volunteer Fire Department did have two young firefighters — brothers Jonathan and Hunter Coco — die when they were returning after providing mutual aid at an area wildfire and their truck was hit by another vehicle.
Recently, Jenkins said his department fought a fire on the side of SH 130.
“That one was so dangerous because cars are still coming… and fast,” Jenkins said.
Maxwell VFD Fire Chief David Childress said his department averages about three wildfires per week, and the causes are for a wide variety of reasons.
“It’s a combination of problems,” Childress said. “A lot of them go undetermined. Some started on the roadside and went into the fields. People were pulling over in high grass and they don’t realize how hot the catalytic converter gets, or even the muffler. Some are dragging chains on trailers and that causes sparks, and with the winds we’re having it just intensifies the problem. There are also hot axles. With tractors a lot of times it’s them shredding and hitting flat rocks. Some people say electric fences causes them, but I’ve had about five miles of electric fence for a long time, and I’ve never had a fire. If it’s on the roadside, it’s usually from a car that pulled over.”
Personnel, particularly with the loss of the Coco brothers, is Maxwell’s biggest need. The Coco brothers almost always responded, according to several local fire chiefs.
“We may have four guys make it to a fire and we’ve got about 15 volunteer firefighters,” Childress said. “Of course, everybody has their jobs, so they have to get up and leave. It’s hard to replace Jonathan and Hunter because both were really hustlers. We are constantly looking for help.”
McMahan Fire Chief Ronnie Calaway said he only had three volunteer firefighters show up at the recent large fire off 713 and Old Colony Road.
Dale Assistant Fire Chief Michael Lumley said Dale and McMahan work well together, “toning each other” when they have a fire to fight.
“(McMahan) will always call us and we will call them for help,” Lumley said. “It’s just a matter of who will show up.”
Lumley said wildfires are often a combination of wind, drought and lack of common sense.
“Recently, we had 6 percent humidity and there was none in our area,” Lumley said. “Those are days where there should be none, but the winds picks up, and one to 10 acres are burned.”
Mid-County Volunteer Fire Department, located between Lockhart and Luling, assists in many cases, as does the Texas Forestry and U.S. Forestry.
“Mostly, it’s common sense,” Lumley said. “The fire won’t spread as far if there is no wind. It comes down to education. Some of them aren’t from here. Basically, we have to educate them. Some are habitual burners. We have some in Dale.”
Rekindled fires that were thought to be extinguished occur, many previously thought only to be smoldering ashes. If a tree rekindles 300 yards inside of a burn zone, many fire departments are not worried because the fire has nowhere to spread.
Asked if firefighters over-extend themselves when times are busy, Lumley said yes.
“I think a lot of us do,” Lumley said. “It’s stubbornness with us. Every fire department is different. We don’t have the luxury you find in large departments that are able to switch out. We don’t have that many volunteers.
“For three or four days recently, I coughed like crazy and was blowing basically black tar out of my nose. It’s not really adrenaline so much as you were just looking to help people. People don’t see what we see. We’re inhaling so much smoke.”
Some fires have been started by electrical wiring.
Calaway said his department has been “lucky” as a whole because it has avoided a high volume of fires. Nevertheless, the ones McMahan has fought has had a toll on the department’s equipment.
“Where it’s hurt us is cost and repairs,” Calaway said. “After that fire off 713, we went to another one and our pump went out on one truck. We need a motor on another truck. Every truck except two have broken down at some point.”
The Texas A&M Forest Service provides a list of current active and contained wildfires in the area at https://tfsweb.tamu.edu/CurrentSituation/.
Caldwell County is one of 225 Texas counties currently with burn bans.
The largest recent fire was a 1,400-acre fire in Gillespie County, followed by 800 acres burned in Hays County and 510 in Duval County.