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Our trial by fire: East Texas wildfire outbreak began year ago

By Glenn Evans
Sept. 1, 2012 at 11 p.m.


It wasn't unusual that Longview firefighter Bert Scott was leaving the house on his day off to join fellow volunteers battling a Harrison County blaze.

After all, by Labor Day 2011, the state had experienced two summers in drought. Wildfires such as the one Scott was asked to help with - consuming 1,200 acres along Interstate 20 - were painfully commonplace as clouds stayed stingy, winds high and humidity low.

What was unusual, though, was contained in the phone call that redirected Scott back to his crew in Longview. The team was assisting White Oak and other units battling a wildfire that ultimately became known as the Moore fire and, with the blaze in Harrison County, helped launch a two-to three-week span of almost non-stop firefighting.

"They all pretty much started on the same day," Scott recalled this past week inside Longview Fire Station No. 2. "All of them kicked off on Labor Day weekend. Pretty much all of Northeast Texas was done in a 2½-week span."

The fire that took Scott south of Gladewater on his day off caused the only fatalities of the long emergency - the bodies of Valerie McBride, 20, and her 19-month-old baby were found inside their Lincoln Springs Road home.

The death of the young mother and her daughter was the biggest local loss from the Labor Day 2011 wildfire outbreak. The death toll here mirrored that of Bastrop County, where three wildfires merged that Labor Day and eventually destroyed almost 1,700 homes east of Austin.

Days earlier, the eyes of Texas were upon the Possum Kingdom Lake community in North Central Texas, where wildfires that chewed up 25 homes were only 60 percent contained by Aug. 31, 2011.

By Sept. 7, 2011, three days after Labor Day, Northeast Texans were battling 18 fires threatening 6,700 acres and one monster blaze along Cass County's Bear Creek that threatened 30,000 acres.

The Bear Creek Complex fire destroyed 83 homes and burned 41,050 acres.

"When it was all said and done, that fire had been 83 miles around, 11½ miles long and 7½ miles wide," said Lin Risner, the regional forester for the 20-county Texas Forest Service region stretching roughly from the Sabine River to the Red River. "And the miraculous thing was we had no serious injuries in the fire."

Texas was at war.

"It was a battle," Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt recalled. "We were having a battle with an enemy being a fire that was getting the upper hand in certain segments of the county. ... It was a complicated battle plan that had grown in size as the fires grew in size."

<strong>'Happened so fast'</strong>

A kind of backhanded blessing - recent hurricane mobilizations and the 2003 space shuttle Columbia explosion over East Texas - already had sharpened emergency coordination among local, state and federal responders.

"This community, we are quite well organized to deal with the unexpected and the tragedy of fire or storm," Stoudt said. "We'd had enough training in the last few years to know how to do that. ... It was a coordinated effort with literally hundreds of firemen and volunteer fire departments, law enforcement, (Department of Public Safety) aerial reconnaissance, the federal agencies."

As with Scott, the call that let Stoudt know Labor Day was the start of something bad came from the Longview Fire Department.

Chief J.P. Steelman wanted to meet, and he wanted Longview Mayor Jay Dean and Gregg County Sheriff Maxey Cerliano to be there.

"It happened so fast," Stoudt recalled. "It was like, one day it was peaceful and all of a sudden all hell broke lose, and we activated."

They "activated" the Emergency Operations Center, a communications nerve center in the AT&T Services building at 301 W. Whaley St.

Stoudt went airborne above his county, and the view had been better.

"It wasn't just one section of the county," he said. "It was every section of the county had some type of fire going on. ... The randomness of where the fires were - and where they started was in completely desolate areas - certainly made you wonder how they got started in the middle of nowhere."

No arson was ever proven, or any arrest made, but firefighters who took the heat for those two weeks still suspect at least some of the blazes were deliberate.

"Nobody ever came out and confirmed anything was intentionally set," Scott recalled, before turning to warmer memories. "The communities that we protected and worked for, they took care of us. We still have a stockpile of bottled water that they dropped off."

<strong>Double-dipping</strong>

It wasn't like firefighters had time to go shopping for granola bars and other items that community members delivered.

Scott would spend the first 12 hours of his 24-hour shift at the Moore fire, the second back at the station ready to pounce on house fires or other in-Longview calls. The 48 hours between his paying job were dedicated to the Elysian Fields and Waskom volunteer fire departments he still serves.

"There were a lot of people that were double-dipping," he said of firefighters who literally take their job into their off days. "We were coming here and working and going home and working and coming here and working. And that's common across the industry."

Judson, West Harrison County, Elderville/Lakeport and scores of other volunteer fire departments all stayed on the front lines.

Stoudt declared an emergency, officially activating the Emergency Operations Center and opening the way for state and federal assistance.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided personnel along with airplanes and helicopters equipped to scoop water from Cherokee Lake.

"They had people who could tell you which way the wind was going to blow the next day, so that would help you decide where to stage your assets the next day," Stoudt said.

Maude Cobb Convention and Activity Center was abuzz with fire response teams coming and going, and East Texas Regional Airport reprised its shuttle disaster role as a hub for federal responders.

"Oil field companies were bringing in tanker trucks full of water," Stoudt said. "We had a lot of outpouring; a lot of companies were donating water. People started seeing the seriousness."

The shuttle disaster also had hastened a technology upgrade that allowed East Texas emergency response agencies to communicate with each other.

"A lot of emergency management (units) that are cropping up around us are styling the way Longview and Gregg County put it together," Stoudt said. "We've become kind of an example."

As the smoke cleared weeks later, the judge realized it could have been worse.

"We lost some barns and some houses and some pasture land," Stoudt said. "But it could have been a whole lot worse if we didn't have the volunteer fire departments stepping up to the plate. ... You don't know how much you appreciate the firemen until the wolf shows up at the door. And those guys were a class act."

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