KVUE — All evacuated residents in Bastrop County have been allowed to return as first responders continue to work to get a large wildfire under control.
Crews worked throughout the night Wednesday, January 19 to continue to create a containment line and patrol nearby homes for any threats.
As of Thursday, January 20, the Rolling Pines Fire was 70 percent contained, with 813 acres burned. All evacuation orders have been lifted without any damage to residential properties.
According to the Bastrop County Office of Emergency Management, the wildfire started at 100 Park Road 1A in Bastrop, just north of SH 71 and south of SH 21.
As of 9 am Thursday, January 20, officials said that the day shift would continue the mission of securing containment lines, specifically focusing on the southern edge of the fire. Officials said there have been no reports of injuries or damage to residential structures. There are nearly 190 personnel responding, including fire engines, heavy equipment, and law enforcement. Officials advised people to continue to use extreme caution when driving along SH 21 and in impacted neighborhoods.
Earlier Thursday morning, officials said that even with the increased wind overnight, the fire remained quiet and fire behavior remained low. Crews patrolled through the night and continued to mop up to improve and secure containment lines.
A spokesperson for the Texas A&M Forest Service praised local residents for what they did to prepare their properties for wildfire risk using “defensible space.” These preparations helped save homes that might have been inaccessible to firefighters, the spokesperson said.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department staff continue to respond with agency partners to the Rolling Pines Fire in Bastrop County. TPWD said crews worked throughout the night and day to manage containment without injuries or loss of residential structures. Bastrop County Office of Emergency Management rescinded its evacuation order for most residents in the affected area as of Wednesday evening, January 19.
“We place the utmost importance on the safety of our fellow Texans, and our hearts go out to our neighbors who have been displaced or impacted by this fire,” said TPWD executive director Carter Smith. “At this juncture, we are fully focused on working with state and local partners to provide resources and support to protect those in this area. As pledged, and once this is accomplished, we will initiate a full review of what happened during this prescribed fire, and will share our findings and recommendations when that is complete.”
TPWD is asking residents to continue watching the Bastrop County Office of Emergency Management Facebook page for evacuation updates. Real-time information about the Rolling Pines Fire can be found on the Texas Wildfire Incident Response System website, and TPWD said it will update its webpage with alerts about the park. Visitors with existing overnight reservations are allowed to enter the park, but no new day use or overnight reservations will be accepted at this time. Park staff will continue to monitor the status of the fire and will evacuate the park if necessary.
Highway 21 has reopened to through traffic, but officials have asked drivers to avoid using the highway unless necessary as residents return home. Utilities have been restored.
In an update on Wednesday afternoon, officials said improved weather conditions meant the fire did not see any growth overnight. Firefighters are focusing on the west and south side of the fire due to wind shifts that will bring winds from the north.
Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape said he flew over the fire on Wednesday and believed the fire, while not yet fully contained, was “under control,” saying he saw no active flames and saw bulldozers maintaining a containment line.
Officials said thick smoke limiting visibility may continue to be a safety factor for drivers. Aircrafts were making water and retardant drops to help slow the spread of the fire and assist in protecting structures in the area.
The Texas A&M Forest Service said it responded to a request for assistance with the fire. TAMFS is responding with fire engines, heavy equipment, aviation, and support personnel. TAMFS activated three Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System strike teams, including approximately 75 firefighters.
An Emergency Medical Task Force Wildland Support Package is also responding to provide medical needs. The Texas Division of Emergency Management is responding with personnel support on the scene, and the Texas Military Department deployed a UH60 helicopter with a fire-suppression water bucket and has additional aircraft on standby.
The Winchester Fire Department also has three units and six crew members already on scene assisting. The department sent two brush trucks and a tanker/tender. Meanwhile, Lee County has four departments on the scene as well, and the Austin Fire Department also deployed nine members to assist.
The Elgin Recreational Center was used as a shelter for evacuees. The Bastrop Senior Center has been made available for first responders to rest, eat, and shower. Additionally, the Bastrop Area Livestock Show Barn and Bastrop Rodeo Arena are open for the evacuation of livestock. Officials ask residents to call Junior Tucker at 512-653-8903 or Hillary Long at 512-657-7056 before hauling their animals.
Pape said about 250 families were asked to evacuate as a precaution as some homes had power shut off to prevent further fire issues.
Bluebonnet Coop said Tuesday it was “de-energizing power lines for the safety of emergency crews and residents near the fire in Bastrop County, east of Bastrop State Park along Texas Highway 21.” The coop said it de-energized lines serving around 348 members in the area.
BCOEM confirmed the wildfire started in relation to a prescribed burn at Bastrop State Park. The burn was set to be conducted Tuesday, January 18 and possibly the next day as well. Park Road 1C from Harmon Road to Park Road 1A was closed for the prescribed burn.
Pape said the prescribed burn broke the lines and ignited new fires as winds picked up.
Rich Gray with the Texas A&M Forest Service said about 200 personnel members were on scene and that more were inbound from around the state.
Three subdivisions that are made up of about 100 homes were threatened by the fire Tuesday, Gray said, but no homes were damaged. He credited the effort of the firefighters in helping prevent the destruction of homes so far. On Wednesday morning, Bastrop Mayor Connie Schroeder said that no “occupied structures” were lost overnight.
Since Friday, January 14, the forest service reports the department, along with local fire departments, have responded to 97 wildfires that burned 7,460 acres of land around the state. Strong north winds and dry vegetation contributed to increased wildfire activity over the weekend, the forest service said.
Bastrop, Fayette, and Lee counties do not currently have burn bans in place.
Carter Smith, executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said a prescribed-fire specialist at the original burn site noticed spotting outside the burn boundaries caused by embers, which is thought to be the cause. However, Smith said further investigation into the cause will continue after the flames are put out.
When asked about the Forest Service warning about increased fire chances, Smith said that each prescribed fire is handled under a plan developed for the specific burn and that, at this time, the person or group responsible for the prescribed burn believed it was okay to move forward.
“At this juncture, it is my understanding that we were well within the prescription of the weather parameters that were called for within the plan and so our team felt that it was safe to proceed. And that’s all I know at this juncture,” Carter said.
Pape later added that prescribed burns by the TPWD are “very important” to protect the forest in the county, along with homes and families in the area, to prevent bigger wildfires like the devastating incident back in 2011.
A temporary flight restriction is also in place for the area over the fire.
Bastrop County has been home to a number of extreme fires over the past decade.
The Bastrop Complex fire of September 2011 at the time was the most destructive wildfire in state history. It burned through around 34,000 acres and destroyed approximately 1,700 homes and businesses. Two people died as a result of the fire.
The Hidden Pines Fire then occurred a few years later, in October 2015. About 4,600 acres were burned and 64 structures were destroyed.
Gray added that the ongoing fire is “much more subdued” than the fire of 2011, but that it is still a serious burn.
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