BASTROP COUNTY, Texas — The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) will now implement new procedures for future prescribed burns after an independent review of the Rolling Pines fire in Bastrop County.
According to a TPWD press release, the review by a panel of independent experts looked at the preparation, planning and execution of the prescribed burn in addition to weather and wind speeds. It also looked a staff, equipment and safety resources.
The release stated that a prescribed burn requires low humidity for the fire to burn at a steady pace and winds of no less than 6 mph to move the fire across the designated area while pushing smoke away from urban areas.
The National Weather Service reported winds in the Austin area between 15 to 25 mph with gusts between 30 and 40 mph. A burn ban was not in effect for Bastrop County on Jan. 18, the day the fire started.
Park staff determined conditions were within parameters to proceed and ignited the fire at 10:30 a.m., per the release. An hour later, staff discovered the first fires outside of the designated area and tried to put them out, but more fires were found outside the area. The fire was considered to have escaped around 12:30 p.m.
Maintenance staff sought to take advantage of the prescribed burn window and ignited a second burn area at the same time, but left fewer staff members to maintain the fire line, according to the TWPD release. As a result, the panel recommended focusing on smaller burns.
The release states that bulldozers will also now be required to be on the fireline with firefighters before a fire begins and vehicle operators will need to attend pre-fire safety briefings with the burn team. The panel also recommended taking into account local rainfall amounts and social moisture on top of the national standards for prescribed fires, which are already followed.
Additionally, the panel recommended that, once burn plans have been drafted for high-risk areas such as Bastrop, TPWD create a process for an additional review by a third party. The panel said reviewers should be qualified burn bosses with significant experience in execution, planning, fire behavior, fire weather and area fuel conditions.
The panel also recommended that staff receive more fire-suppression training and assist in suppressing fires in Texas and the U.S. Currently, staff meet the minimum qualifications required in Texas.
Finally, the panel recommended additional funding, possibly through federal grants, to increase voluntary land maintenance of some neighboring properties plus working with State partners and nonprofits.
The Rolling Pines fire at Bastrop State Park burned through more than 800 acres of land and was declared 100% contained on Jan. 24, days after it started. It forced hundreds of families to evacuate their homes as a precaution but they were allowed to return after a day. The exact cause of the fire has not been determined at this time, but officials believe it might have started with embers escaping the prescribed burn area.
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