Residents of Bastrop County are battling flames again in the second crop of wildfires in the past five years.
So far, more than 4,200 acres are involved in what’s being called the Hidden Pines Fire, and it is far from contained. At least nine homes have been burned and scores more are in danger. No injuries have been reported.
Gov. Greg Abbott just declared it a disaster area, which will trigger additional resources for firefighters and ultimately for recovery efforts, but that phase still seems a ways off.
It’s a fire so intense and geographically large that the plume of smoke can be seen from space, stretching from just east of Bastrop City into Williamson County 50 miles away.
Reporter Ben Philpott of KUT Austin is on the ground in Bastrop County, where the smell and the sights are all too familiar. He’s been talking with those who lived through the 2011 Bastrop fires. He says one person he spoke to Wednesday said that the 2011 fire at least helped him understand what was important, what could be replaced, and how to move on.
“So when it came time for him to be evacuated again this year he said knew exactly what he needed to grab and was emotionally able to let go of everything else in the house and leave,” Philpott says.
Officials still haven’t pinpointed a cause for the fires. Wednesday morning, officials were reporting that the fires were almost halfway contained, but then windshifts caused the fire to continue to spread.
“The wind shifted about 90 degrees at one point, which just all the sudden pushed the fire in a way that they [firefighters] were not quite ready for,” Philpott says. “And then it shifted another 25 to 30 degrees later in the day and that just kind of – as they were saying yesterday – it just pushed it all over the place and then made it harder to contain.”
So far the city of Bastrop itself doesn’t appear to be in danger, but some firefighters are saying the fires are moving westward.
“At the moment they’re [officials] estimating that 150 homes are in danger of this fire, so those are their initial lines that they’re trying to protect those neighborhoods,” Philpott says. “It would have to shift pretty well to the west to start to get into the more populated areas of Bastrop.”
Tom Spencer is from the Texas A&M Forest Service. He says the dry weather caught everyone by surprise.
“The normal expectation was in an El Niño – which we are in – that you would expect a wet fall,” Specer says. “It kinda threw everybody off when we got the dry weather. They are still forecasting [El Niño] will bring moisture to the area, hopefully sooner rather than later. But in the time being, we’re still looking at more dry weather at least through the weekend.”
Spencer says don’t let the incoming news that the fire is 15 percent contained fool you, firefighters are working hard to stop the blaze.
“They’re really fighting to try to stop the spread of the fire,” he says. “Because of the low relative humidity and the dryness of the fuels, if a tree catches on fire and throws sparks up in the air and the wind carries it and then it falls back down on that fuel it starts up real easy.
“They’re really putting in a lot of fire lines to try to contain, it’s just that it’s escaping containment particularly during the afternoon when the winds kicked up.”