“These people made a real difference in the lives of Texans.”
~ Laura Huffman
On April 9, 2011, Texas caught fire.
The flame sparked in a house on the outskirts of Marfa, a small town 20 miles south of Fort Davis and a few hours from Big Bend. Fueled by record drought conditions and whipped by stiff West Texas winds, the flames of what would come to be known as the Rock House fire quickly spread. Meanwhile, dry lightning ignited several other fires, stretching the limits of response personnel and leaving the entire state on high alert.
By the time it was contained, the Rock House fire would become the largest in Texas history, with more than 314,000 acres burned and 25 homes and businesses destroyed. Other fires ravaged another 100,000 acres across four counties. Some still burn today.
Answering the Call
Among the hundreds of firefighters who marshaled from across the state to battle these blazes were 16 members of The Nature Conservancy’s prescribed fire team, a group of highly trained and field-seasoned professionals who put themselves in harm’s way to protect the people and property of West Texas.
The 14 men and two women from the Conservancy’s Texas fire team came from all over the state—driving engines from chapter offices in Victoria, Barton Creek and Silsbee—to fight the wildfires and help coordinate response efforts.
According to Jason Wrinkle, Desert Program Manager for the Texas chapter and a Type 2 Burn Boss who acted as a Task Force Leader on the Rock House fire, Conservancy staff showed the commitment and professionalism that have come to be a hallmark of the entire fire team.
“I know of no other discipline within the Conservancy that holds such dedicated staff as fire management. When I asked for help, fire-trained employees dropped what they were doing, left their families behind and were on the road to help in a matter of hours. Once here, they worked 16-plus hour days, sleeping when and where they could. That kind of commitment is on display each and every time someone calls for help with a fire.”
Trust Earned Through Sacrifice
Many of the West Texas-based staff left their own families and homes to help, leaving some unsure if their homes would survive the fire’s spread. Davis Mountains Preserve Manager Chris Pipes, who lives in Fort Davis, was conducting bird surveys on the Conservancy’s Independence Creek Preserve when he learned of the fire.
“My wife and I spent five long hours driving home and working our way through checkpoints not knowing if our three dogs were alive or if our house had burned down,” Pipes says. “ To our great relief, we arrived to find all was well, although most of the grass on our property had burned and the electricity was out.” Pipes immediately joined other members of the team working the Rock House fire, leaving him out of contact with his wife, Pam, for long and anxious periods.
The difficult conditions were eased by moments of relief and kindness, though. Like other members of the team, Rebecca Flack, the Conservancy’s Southern Hill Country Project director, worked both the Rock House fire and the Little Smokey fire, which was ignited by dry lightning in Pecos County. “Wherever we went, there was an outpouring of hospitality and kindness,” she says. “At gas stations, people would stop to shake our hands and thank us for what we were doing. It was touching.”
Training Pays Off
Under the leadership of Larry Belles, Texas fire manager for the Conservancy and a thirty-year veteran of the fire service, the team worked side by side with firefighters from federal agencies including the National Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, state agencies from Texas and California, as well as personnel from numerous volunteer fire departments. As Belles says, their work included difficult assignments on “hot sections of the line,” as well as important leadership roles not normally handed off to non-governmental organizations. And with all five engines present, the chapter assembled its first-ever wildfire “strike team” of five engines with a full crew for each.
For years now, the Conservancy’s prescribed fire team has been honing its skills through continuous training, planned field work and wildfire response. Prescribed fire—or the careful application of fire under predefined weather conditions—can reduce the intensity and likelihood of wildfire by burning up their “fuel” and is a critical component of land stewardship throughout Texas. Working side-by-side in difficult conditions on prescribed fires and wildfire response, the team members forged bonds of trust and respect that served them well in the West Texas wildfires.
The Conservancy fire team’s effectiveness can be traced to its commitment to training and safety. Each member of the team follows rigorous certification criteria established by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, and progress through fire ranks is dependent on equal measures of field experience and classroom study. Most team members undergo this training and fieldwork in addition to other fulltime roles at the Conservancy as preserve managers, project directors or field technicians.
A History of Partnerships
Since 2008, the Texas chapter has been hosting annual fire training programs, which are attended by representatives from other Conservancy chapters, government agencies including the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, the United States Armed Forces, state forest services and metropolitan fire departments in Texas, Utah and Colorado. Those exchanges are a natural extension of the Conservancy’s longstanding partnerships with state and federal partners.
The chapter has Memorandums of Understanding in place with two national agencies (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service), two state agencies (the Texas Forest Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department) and the city of Austin to ensure cooperative fire management and shared fire resources. In addition, The Nature Conservancy of Texas has received nearly $300,000 in grants over the past few years from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to fund prescribed fire operations across the state.
Although most of the crew have returned home, or traveled east to tackle wildfires in other parts of the state, West Texas-based staff like Wrinkle, Pipes and Independence Creek Preserve Manager Scott McWilliams continue to work in their respective areas to coordinate with fire response commands.
Laura Huffman, state director for The Nature Conservancy of Texas, feels the work of the chapter’s prescribed fire team dovetails with the organization’s larger mission. “Conservation is about people,” she says. “Whether we’re stewarding the land, protecting freshwater or helping battle wildfires, our work gets down to improving the lives of Texans. I’m incredibly proud of the courage, heart and dedication of this chapter’s fire team. These people made a real difference in the lives of Texans.”
For Jason Wrinkle, that difference can be seen right in his own backyard. “I’ve been on many wildfires, but this one was different,” he says. “Being in charge of protecting the homes of people I knew made me feel the full weight of the situation. But we protected 22 structures and only lost a couple of small outbuildings. Most importantly, no team members or civilians were injured.”
For that, and for all the work put in by the Texas team and their partners, the whole state is grateful.
May 11, 2011
About the Author
Clay Carrington is a writer and marketer for The Nature Conservancy