Spring 2022 had already been a busy wildfire season for the Texas A&M Forest Service personnel based in Mineral Wells, and the wildfire risk showed no sign of stopping anytime soon. The extremely dry fuels of grass and brush paired with the high winds on March 20 to create a combination that could produce a difficult fire situation if one should occur that Sunday morning.
Unfortunately, it did.
More than 10,000 acres in Erath and Hood counties burned in the Big L Fire by the following morning. However, the heroic efforts of local responders, citizen volunteers and the Texas A&M Forest Service saved lives and property and prevented a much worse disaster.
Smoke in the distance
The Houston Ranch in Hood County has been family owned for almost 100 years. Emily Houston Barton and Amy Houston Bearden now own the cow-calf operation and produce hay from its Coastal Bermuda grass fields. Currently, the Barton family lives on the ranch.
As with any agricultural operation that relies so greatly on the land, the Houston Ranch has faced its share of environmental challenges over the years. However, the Big L Fire brought an emergency so great that it will not soon be forgotten.
On March 20, James Barton saw smoke a few miles to the southeast of the ranch around 11 a.m. and went to check it out.
“On my way there, some people flagged me down and said, ‘It’s coming right to you,’” Barton said.
He quickly returned to the ranch, where he and his wife, Emily, moved cattle out of the pastures that were in the line of the fire to a different part of the property.
“It would be easier to move them in any direction to hopefully save their lives,” Barton said. Meanwhile, his children evacuated the horses at the ranch headquarters.
The Bartons were not the only ones rushing to protect their livelihoods and homes from the wildfire. Families and businesses in Erath and Hood counties suddenly found themselves in harm’s way. They needed help and quickly.
Call to action
About 2 p.m., Boe Adler, task force coordinator with the Texas A&M Forest Service in Mineral Wells, got a call requesting multiple dozers for a large, fast-moving grass fire between Bluffdale in Erath County and Tolar in Hood County.
“I began the process to request additional heavy equipment as well as aviation resources to assist the ground resources,” Adler said. “Before we even left Mineral Wells, we could see the plume, and I knew we would be dealing with a pretty large fire.”
He was right. The wildfire began in Erath County off state Highway 377 on the Big L Ranch, burned through most of the Houston Ranch in Erath and Hood counties, and was stopped on the Baker Ranch in Hood County, burning 10,177 acres before it was controlled.
As an incident commander, Adler develops the strategies and oversees the implementation of the tactics to contain the wildfire. He assembles and identifies the appropriate personnel and resources to help local responders contain and suppress a wildland fire while providing for the safety of the public and all responders. He also coordinates aviation resources, ground firefighters, fire engines and dozers.
The Texas A&M Forest Service does not own aviation resources but uses federal aviation contracts through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management for firefighting aircraft.
Adler requested the three Fire Boss single-engine air tankers that were positioned in Mineral Wells. These tankers can scoop water from an open water source such as a lake. He also requested the three large tankers positioned in Abilene that carry fire retardant. Later, a helicopter was added to help fight the fire.
“I immediately ordered the air resources thinking they might actually beat me to the fire and start assisting where needed,” Adler said. “The planes work with an air attack platform, which is a person who is my contact from the ground to the sky, assessing priorities across the fire environment and deciding where to engage the air tankers.”
Barton said that while he was moving cattle at the Houston Ranch, he saw “lots of aircraft overhead, from prop planes to large planes that saved several houses to our south.” When he returned to the headquarters, a small dozer was already on-site to push a fire line around the old Houston family ranch house to help save it.
Making a battle plan
When Adler and his crew arrived on the scene at 2:30 p.m., the fire had burned about 200 acres. At the Big L Ranch entrance, he met with Chris Brooks, Erath County fire chief, and Brian Gall, assistant chief for the Tolar Volunteer Fire Department, to coordinate resources for containing the rapidly growing fire.
The plan was to contain or “box in” the wildfire with boundaries such as roads and dozer lines and to also initiate a burnout operation. A burnout operation is a tactic that removes fuel by burning it ahead of the main fire and also by using dozers to scrape away the fuel and create containment lines, Adler said.
Because the fire was rapidly spreading in one direction, the team identified two roads as boundaries that would serve as a natural break in the dry vegetation. The left flank, or boundary, would be County Road 145 and the north boundary would be Farm-to-Market Road 1189. The right flank would be built with dozers by the Texas A&M Forest Service personnel and private operators. The intent was to remove enough fuel that when the fire got to Farm-to-Market Road 1189, it could go no farther and would not reach the nearby town of Lipan.
“I wanted to make sure the people of Lipan were prepared to evacuate,” Adler said. “Talking with air attack, they gave me a timeline of how far the fire might be from Lipan. We wanted to give people a three-hour safety buffer so they could exit the town before it would be involved.”
When police told his family to evacuate the Houston Ranch, Barton made his way to the command center and visited with Adler about the ranch’s terrain and where the fire was headed.
“Boe had requested neighboring construction companies to send equipment to help fight the fire,” Barton said. “They were all on walkie-talkies and radios, coordinating where to go.”
By 4 p.m., the fire had grown to about 400 acres. Texas A&M Forest Service crews from McGregor and Mineral Wells worked with local resources to build the containment lines along the flanks of the fire, air resources reinforced holding lines and protected structures, and Lipan residents were placed on pre-alert for evacuation.
Generous response and support
Adler credits the combined efforts of local responders and surrounding counties, agencies and the resident’s spontaneous volunteerism for supporting the efforts to fight the fire. Parker, Bosque, Somervell and Palo Pinto counties as well as multiple private excavating companies sent additional equipment and resources to assist with the fire suppression.
In addition, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department provided two fire engines for the Texas A&M Forest Service personnel from Mineral Wells and McGregor. Volunteer firefighters worked many hours over several days, and private companies and residents joined in with about 20 dozers.
“There was a lot of heavy equipment on that fire,” Adler said. “Some of the dozers showed up on transports. Some neighboring ranchers literally drove their dozers to the fire and helped build containment lines through the night.”
Watching from afar
Debby Baker was out of the state when the fire crossed from the Houston Ranch to the Baker Ranch, a place where she and her family have built many memories over the last 20 years. She began getting text messages from friends, and the ranch foreman sent her a photo of smoke coming from the south.
“He told me the Houston Ranch was told to evacuate, so I knew we were in danger because we back up to a portion of their ranch,” Baker said. It was torture, she said, trying to glean information via text messages and phone calls and make decisions about what to do with the horses and cows. The foreman had to evacuate, and around 5:50 p.m., the fire reached the Baker Ranch.
“At about 7 p.m., I saw a picture from the camera on my front gate of fire trucks, firefighters and a truck with a bulldozer on the back of it pull in,” Baker said. Her son, who was in Fort Worth following the events on the Texas A&M Forest Service website, told her that planes were flying over the ranch, dropping water or retardant to protect the buildings and structures.
“And through the panic of it all, I knew we were in good hands, everybody was safe,” Baker said. “The main priority was to not put anybody else at risk and let these professionals do their jobs.”
Taking a stand
The battle to stop the fire before Farm-to-Market Road 1189 didn’t let up. The incident timeline shows conditions changed almost by the hour:
- By 4:30 p.m., the fire complexity was upgraded, additional aviation resources were requested and evacuations from Lipan began.
- By 5 p.m., the fire had grown to 3,000 acres and crossed County Road 145. Crews continued to build containment lines.
- By 5:30 p.m., additional Texas A&M Forest Service resources from Fredericksburg and Greenville were en route.
- By 6:30 p.m., the fire was now 6,000 acres and at least one structure was engulfed.
- By 7:30 p.m., Palo Pinto County fire resources conducted a burnout operation on the Baker Ranch to stop the front end of the fire by connecting the original containment area to ranch roads and the dozer line.
- At 10:30 p.m., John Fugitt, Texas A&M Forest Service regional fire coordinator IV and Type 3 incident commander, arrived to assume command of the fire, along with the additional Texas A&M Forest Service personnel and resources from Fredericksburg and Greenville.
- Around 12:30 a.m., forward progression on the now 10,177-acre fire was stopped, and Farm-to-Market Road 1189 was not breached.
- Throughout the night on March 20, the Texas A&M Forest Service crews continued to improve holding lines and any areas of concern along the containment lines, helped by more than 20 privately owned dozers.
- The following morning, a light rain further helped the containment efforts to secure the fire, and by Monday night, it was 70% contained.
Most of the Lipan residents who evacuated returned to their homes on Monday. In the days ahead, crews continued mop-up procedures and patrolled containment lines until reaching 100% fire containment on March 25. A total of eight homes and three outbuildings were lost in the fire, and no injuries were reported.
The Houston Ranch bore the brunt of the wildfire damage. They lost the old family ranch house and 80% of their land burned. They also lost 300 bales of hay, nine cows and several dozen calves out of 450 head.
“The Texas A&M Forest Service did an exceptional job coordinating the effort and kept the loss of livestock and structures to an absolute minimum,” Barton said.
“I believe it was their dozer and fire truck that pushed fire guards and saved 30 head of cows by themselves on the east side of the ranch. They had fire trucks here for a week afterward, making sure everything was contained and extinguished.”
Barton has moved cattle to the areas that didn’t burn, and he will supplement with hay and cattle cubes. With a couple of inches of rain since the wildfire, the pastures are growing back, and he hopes to be able to use them again this fall. The ranching community has helped the Houston family get through this tough time with donations of hay, cattle feed and fencing material.
The wildfire involved 820 acres of the Baker Ranch. Baker said they lost over 300 bales of hay, a 5,000-gallon water tank, irrigation lines and fences, but their structures and equipment were saved. The cattle were found in an area of the ranch where firefighters had successfully fought to protect a barn and were moved to a pasture saved by those responders. The horses remained close to their metal barn and were unharmed.
The community has also reached out to the Bakers. “The fire was on Sunday, and by Tuesday, people donated hay to us, and they have donated since then,” Baker said.
The day after the wildfire, she expressed her thanks in a note to the Texas A&M Forest Service:
“I simply cannot convey the depth of gratitude felt by the Baker family. We feel like we witnessed a miracle perfected by the professionalism exhibited yesterday and throughout the night and even this morning as firefighters continued to put out flare-ups before the rain came … May God bless each and every person that made it possible for us to continue our ranching operation at Baker Ranch, Lipan, Texas!”
Trained for all-hazard response
In addition to containing and suppressing wildfires, the Texas A&M Forest Service is prepared to respond to any emergencies and disasters.
“A lot of people think of the Texas A&M Forest Service as the guys who bring dozers to fires,” Adler said. “But our training is an all-hazard response. A storm system on March 21, the day after the Big L Fire, created tornadoes in other parts of the state and a blizzard in Amarillo. So, we can literally be fighting a wildfire one day and the next day clearing storm damage from tornadoes or doing ice response.”
And in each emergency, there are Texans who are incredibly grateful that the Texas A&M Forest Service is available to protect and assist whenever and wherever needed.