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Rock House fire sparked a year ago

April 16th, 2012 under Home Story Highlight


PRESIDIO, JEFF DAVIS counties – A year ago this week an electrical spark found fuel at the old rock shop west of Marfa and fanned by 50mph winds, one of the fastest moving wildfires in the history of Texas started the colossal burn of Fort Davis. More than 100 structures, including 25 homes, were destroyed, and before the combustion was over, the 28-day wildfire burned 315,000 acres from Marfa to north of Fort Davis.

“I’d never seen anything like it,” said Jeff Davis County Judge George Grubb, who by Texas law became the instant fire commander. “I’d seen a lot of fires. Fences charred, that sort of thing, but never one that burned fence posts 18 inches underground.”

Saturday, April 9, was just another hot, dry, windy day of 2011, a drought year some are calling a “500 year event.” Along with relative humidity at 12%, the day’s weather was one component of the soon to form perfect storm. The heavy summer rains of 2010 embellished the country with abundant grass, forbs and shrubs forging another link in the chain of cause and effect. Add a February freeze that had temperatures in the Big Bend hovering at zero for several days, neatly freeze-drying tons of Blue Grama, Jack Mormon’s Tea, Mexican Poppy and other rare gluts of West Texas bios.

Cattle in a pasture between Marfa and Fort Davis race from the flames of the Rock House fire on Saturday, April 9, 2011. (photo by ALBERTO TOMAS HALPERN)

Lessons have been learned since last year, and area residents have been schooled in fire prevention techniques, fire lines have been cut around some populated areas, some homes have been rebuilt, others won’t.

In Jeff Davis County, communications issues have been addressed.

“We lost some homes but not a single soul,” Grubbs said, adding that he wants to keep it that way. “Reverse 911 is one of the things that came out of it.”

In disaster situations, citizens who have registered their contact numbers with Reverse 911 will be notified of life threatening situations in the local area. Prior to the fire this service did not exist.

“We also learned real lessons in communications between local departments and the state and feds,” the judge said. “(Radio) frequencies and understanding the chain of command. Suppression and prevention too, we’re trimming trees and citizens are keeping their grass cut.

“We pulled together,” Grubb said. “Always knew we could do it. And we demonstrated it. Our tri-county neighbors, and Hudspeth and Culbertson, and all those volunteers – it’s a wonderful part of the state to get it done.”

FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) is still in the process of settling payments with some of the families that lost their homes and others who lost agricultural assets, including cattle.

“Six or seven houses have been rebuilt,” Grubb said. “This week we’ll finish the installation of the permanent communication tower at the state park. And a whole lot of fences have been replaced.”

Private donations came in from across the country, according to Adele Coffey, one of seven directors who compose the board of directors of the Fort Davis Fire Relief Fund.

“Very generous. Some folks gave $25 and others more, $10,000 and up,” Coffey said. “We’ve distributed to ten families who lost their homes and six for agricultural losses. Still have a few who are waiting.”

The cloudless blue sky of April 9 was observable only if you looked straight up, angles less than that caught the brown vistas of smoke. Another fire had broken out from a flicked cigarette. It ignited at a Sul Ross roping arena in Alpine and headed north along Highway 67 toward Fort Stockton. At one time it was thought the two wildfires might merge. Eventually burning nearly 8,000 acres, the Roper Fire was controlled several days later.

Yet other fires burned in Texas that day, including a 70,000 acre fire in the Hill Country that was evidenced by delayed aerial support on the Rock House Fire, as the Texas Forest Service was too pressed at other fronts to release equipment.

On the east end of Marfa, an Amtrak passenger train idled on the tracks while hurried Union Pacific crews worked to rebuild a burned bridge west of town, citizens carried casseroles and sandwiches, burritos and water to the fire station to feed the heroic volunteer firefighters who bustled in and out carrying axes and shovels, walkie-talkies and their IRPG’s (Incident Response Pocket Guide).

Back at the point of ignition, in the charred half acre surrounding the old rock shop, railroad ties sizzled in puffs of black smoke fueled by the creosote coal tar meant to preserve them. Across the road, where the fire had jumped Highway 90, half-gone cedar posts flamed and spoofed against a backdrop of still smoldering grassland, a dark swath that stamped the hills to the north as far as the eye could see. The wind whipped through the power lines, some dangling to the ground like black snakes as weird notes floated in the air and a baby doll, melted and singed, lay in the blackened earth face up, her hard glass eyes wide open.

Some criticized Grubbs for not authorizing a controlled burn during the peak of the fire. The fire consumed 60,000 acres in the first 48 hours.

“It was my decision,” Grubbs said. “I feel the same way now as I did then. They wanted to back burn the north part of the fire. Winds were favorable, we had the roads, they were afraid it’d go back to Marfa. Hornet’s nest. We’re still working on reconciling.”

The right flank of the fire jumped Texas 17 that afternoon. Flames and smoke engulfed the roadway as state troopers, along with other law enforcement officers, raced to evacuate Fort Davis, sometimes driving through flames and smoke. Seven DPS officers were later honored with awards of valor. Volunteers from around the country eventually landed in Fort Davis, fighting fire, providing food and clean-up crews like the Baptist Men and Mennonites who trailered bulldozers and dump trucks in from places like Houston, Dallas and Seminole to level the destruction.

The fire fighters came from all over; Wyoming, Maine, Georgia, Boquillas. Their convoys of jeeps, tankers and personnel transporters were sometimes spotted resupplying at Stripes or Pueblo. They wore uniforms from the Texas Forest Service, U.S. Forest Service, and the El Diablos. And the less formal blended garb of contract crews, hotshot crews, crews from local volunteer fire departments, spoke with different accents and tongues but with the same mission – and it took them all to quell the third largest wildfire in Texas history.

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