Firefighters have contingency plans in case prescribed burns get out of control

Posted at 8:31 PM, Jan 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-26 21:31:44-05

CENTRAL TEXAS — Controlled burns are meant to take place under supervision but even under a watchful eye, fires can be unpredictable.

Any time a prescribed burn is approved, fire crews create a detailed plan outlining how they will contain the burn, and if necessary, how to stop it. Richard Gray, Chief Regional Fire Coordinator with Texas A&M Forest Service, says a meeting always takes place beforehand.

"In the briefing, they will brief the crews: here are the actions we need to take if we get a spot outside the line," Gray said.

The "line" Gray refers to is the boundary of the zone marked for the fire. He says only one in 100 planned fires involve a minor escape from designated boundaries, but a fire last week in Bastrop County certainly was the exception to the rule.

"That is kind of a bad area that can get out of hand during the wildfire season," said Groesbeck Fire Department Assistant Chief Catlin Samuels.

Initially a prescribed burn set by Texas Parks and Wildlife around January 18, the fire grew into an 800-acre wildfire and prompted evacuations. Fortunately no structures were damaged, but it left the county judge wanting answers. Gray says that what happened in Bastrop County is unusual, but crews know what to do if the line is breached.

"On the very rare chance that the fire does escape completely from the burn area, then we do what's called wildfire conversion," said Gray. "Declare the fire a wildfire."

Samuels's department actually got involved in treating the fire.

"We don't have a lot of prescribed burns in our area here in Limestone County, but we did have a truck that was down there on our deployment that ended up going to that fire," said Samuels.

Gray says if a prescribed burn does get out of hand, it may not be due to negligence, but simply factors beyond the burn team's control. His advice for keeping a planned fire in check can be applied to anyone doing legal burning on their property.

"Prepare for the unexpected," said Gray. "Have a contingency plan, even if the burn is going great all day long."

According to the US Drought Monitor, conditions were "abnormally dry" in Bastrop County at the time of the burn. No burn ban was in effect. There are several active burn bans in Central Texas right now, but the 25 Weather team advises that all outdoor burning be avoided at this time, regardless of burn ban status.

When outdoor burning is safe to resume, Samuels says it's a good idea to have a couple buckets of water or a garden hose near your burn spot, just in case stray embers ignite unwanted brush. That way, you won't have to call your local fire department to take care of your mistake.