BASTROP, Texas — The Rolling Pines fire in Bastrop County that was supposed to be a “prescribed burn” before growing out of control is putting a new focus on a sometimes-controversial land management practice and wildfire prevention practice.
As crews continued working to extinguish the estimated 800-acre fire, some experts joined residents in questioning doing a controlled burn on a day in which forecasters predicted up to 30 mph wind gusts, while others contend weather conditions, including higher winds, often are ideal for certain kinds of prescribed burns.
“When I heard it was a prescribed burn, my honest reaction was, 'no way,’” said Kevin Baum, a retired assistant Austin fire chief who spent years studying wildfire response and prevention.
Although he said he has no first-hand knowledge of the plan for the Rolling Pines prescribed burn, “under those conditions on Tuesday, I would not have burned,'' Baum said. “Not only would I not have burned, I wouldn’t have burned a brush pile in those conditions.”
The morning officials planned the prescribed burn of 150 acres in Bastrop State Park, the National Weather Service issued a forecast calling for south winds from 15 to 20 mph and gusts up to 30.
About eight hours later, the Rolling Pines fire began to flame out of control – just as winds blew as predicted.
According to readings from nearby Camp Swift, the winds at 10 a.m. blew at 11 mph, gusting at 17. The winds gusted at 20 mph or more during the next seven hours.
Heath Starns, a certified wildland fire ecologist and research scientist with Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, said that although he has not reviewed plans for the Rolling Pines prescribed burn, performing such burns in wind gusts can be ideal and necessary.
“The fire has to move from one plant to the next, and your wind is a variable for how well the fire moves,” he said. “You always want some wind because you need the smoke to dissipate, you need the fire to move in a certain direction. If you have no wind at all, then you have no idea which direction the fire is going to move in.”
Much of the determination about whether the Rolling Pines prescribed burn was acceptable as it started will come down to whether officials followed their plan. The KVUE Defenders have filed a request with Texas Parks & Wildlife (TPWD) for a copy of the prescribed burn plan but have not yet obtained it.
At the scene this week, officials acknowledged the fire didn’t go as intended.
“What we don’t know is how that happened, but we will get to the bottom of it,” said Carter Smith, TPWD executive director.
It is unclear when the TPWD will complete its review.
No homes were damaged, but the fire prompted the evacuation of about 250 residents.
Just two hours after the prescribed burn started, the Texas A&M Forest Service issued a public news release saying that it was preparing for elevated wildfire conditions, including “above normal temperatures and wind speeds near 20 mph.”
According to Bastrop County officials, they are only notified that the State plans to do a prescribed burn. In November, they received this letter from park superintendent Jamie Creacy saying that the agency plans to do one or more prescribed burns between January 2022 and March 2022.
Smith says the burn was orchestrated with other agencies and experts but that, ultimately, the decision to go forward was made by staff on the ground.
“I am unequivocally convinced that the burn boss thought it was safe to carry out that fire,” he said.
Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape said he also is eager for the TPWD to fully understand what happened.
"I am confident that Texas Parks and Wildlife is committed to doing that, and we will hold their feet to the fire, pardon the pun ... we will let the public know what the findings are. They have a right to know what went wrong, and that we are going to stop it from happening again," he said.
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