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Trial by fire: East Texans remember deadly 2011 Labor Day weekend wildfires

Ten years have passed since wildfires erupted across East Texas, leaving behind devastation and destruction. But when Jane McBride sits on a small concrete bench at the site of her former home, she feels her daughter and her granddaughter with her.

McBride says she chooses to focus her memories on the good when she thinks about the wildfires in 2011that claimed the lives of her 20-year-old daughter, Valerie, and her 19-month-old granddaughter, K’loe, in their Gladewater home.

“The main thing that I always think about is how lucky we are. Our family’s been very blessed,” she said. “That night, in fact, when we were out here and they had just found Valerie, I had a peace about me and the whole thing that I can’t really explain. There was nothing I could do but give it over to God. I thought, ‘I can either let this define me or I can make myself better.’ “

In the 10 years since, McBride has been part of self-help groups in which she strives to help others who are grieving. By sharing experiences, she said, it helps other people — and herself — to remember that they are never alone.

Today, McBride isn’t alone in remembering the 2011 wildfires that torched more than 50,000 acres of land in the region, claimed dozens of homes and the lives of Valerie and K’loe McBride.

“We don’t experience that very often here in East Texas, and to put that human element to it, it shows how fast these fires can spread and how fast you can become surrounded,” Longview Fire Chief J.P. Steelman said. “It’s hard to imagine that conditions got that bad here in Northeast Texas. We had never experienced something of that magnitude here before.”

Fueling the flame

Labor Day weekend in 2011 started off much like many others before it. East Texans visited area state parks and lakes, soaking up the last moments of summer.

That summer had been among the hottest on record, and East Texas had experienced an extreme drought that year. On Sept. 4, 2011 — the Sunday before Labor Day — warm, dry air from Tropical Storm Lee collided with a dry cold front coming in from the west.

The drought, the heat and the wind mixed — and East Texas went up in flames.

“All the fuels were ripe for burning,” Steelman said.

Steelman started in fire service in 1985 and had been named Longview’s fire chief in October 2010 when crews began hearing about wildfires in the Davis Mountains in West Texas.

According to the Texas A&M Forest Service, the state doesn’t have a set wildfire season, meaning wildfires can break out any time. However, there are typically two “peak” seasons. The first is from mid-February until the end of April. The second is typically from July through mid-September as heat and typically drier conditions lead to critically dry vegetation that can fuel wildfires.

However, the drought that plagued Texas in 2011 actually began in October 2010, and the 12-month period from October 2010 through September 2011 was the driest 12-month span in the state’s history, according to the forest service.

And the wildfires that started in West Texas slowly traveled across the state.

“Once they crossed I-35, it was just a matter of time,” Steelman said.

East Texas ignites

In the early afternoon of Sept. 4, 2011, an electrical line touched a tree just outside of Gladewater near the Sabine River on U.S. 271. The tree was extremely dry from the nearly 12-month drought, and the temperature that day hovered near 110 degrees.

A power line touched a tree. That tree caught fire. Wind created by the tropical storm picked up embers from that fire and dropped them on Lincoln Springs Road, almost due south of Gladewater between U.S. 271 and Texas 135.

On Lincoln Springs, 20-year-old Valerie McBride and her 19-month-old daughter, K’loe Jane McBride Cheek, had laid down for an afternoon nap before Valerie was scheduled to go to work that evening.

Lincoln Springs was filled with tall pine trees that were dry and ripe to fuel a fire. The embers landed and they grew into flames that transformed into a blaze that destroyed 1,556 acres of land, claimed a dozen homes on that road and the young lives of Valerie and K’loe.

Valerie McBride tried to escape the fire with her daughter, but she was unable to get out of the home, where she lived with her mother. Her body would later be found atop her daughter’s as she died trying to protect her child.

The fire that took Valerie and K’loe’s lives is referred to as the Moore Fire. It was one of three blazes in Gregg County, each of which destroyed approximately 1,000 to 1,500 acres of land, Steelman said.

Similar fires erupted elsewhere in East Texas on the same day, the largest of which was the Bear Creek Fire in Cass and Marion counties. The Bear Creek Fire is the largest single wildfire in East Texas history, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

The Bear Creek Fire spread across 41,050 acres of land. That land was primarily timber, but the fire still destroyed 66 homes as it ed for 51 days, according to the forest service. The cause of that wildfire was never identified.

East Texas wasn’t alone in experiencing wildfires on Sept. 4, 2011. Two others erupted in Travis County, and one of the state’s most devastating blazes ignited in Bastrop County.

The Bastrop Complex Fire destroyed 32,400 acres of land and 1,660 homes, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. It also claimed two lives. The blaze, which was caused by power lines, burned for 37 days.

Fear amid the flames

Steelman had been in Maryland taking a course for an executive fire officer program when wildfires spread to East Texas. As he drove home, he was struck by the magnitude of the situation as he immediately began coordinating with the county for a response plan.

The three fires in Gregg County were between Gladewater and Kilgore. A field command site was set up outside of Gladewater to coordinate plans for those three separate blazes, he said.

“Each of those fires were in isolated areas of bottomlands,” Steelman recalled. “We had real accessibility problems getting into them and figuring out where to set up perimeters. There was not a lot we could save in the washed out, bottomland areas. We had to look at where the biggest threats were to life and property.”

Jane McBride had left her home on Lincoln Springs Road around 10:30 a.m. Sept. 4, 2011, to go to Longview. Around 2:30 p.m. that day, she received a phone call from her son, Valerie’s twin brother, Greg McBride. He had called to ask his mother if she was home.

“He had gotten a call from a friend. He said, ‘Lincoln Springs Road is on fire,’ “ Jane McBride recalled.

She immediately left Longview to head back to her house, but barricades had been placed at either end of Lincoln Springs, blocking her path. Feeling frantic, she called her daughter, Danielle Brown, who lived in Kilgore at the time.

“I couldn’t even talk. I said, ‘There’s fire all over out here and I can’t find Valerie.’ Valerie was supposed to be at work at 7 that night, so I knew that she was probably still at home,” Jane McBride said. “I couldn’t find Valerie, and everything out here was on fire.”

When her mother called, Brown immediately left Kilgore to help.

It’s been a decade, but the memories of that day remain vivid to Jane McBride and Brown. They recall every road they traveled as they tried different pathways to get to the house on Lincoln Springs Road, as they drove to the airport where they’d heard evacuees may have been sent, as they drove to an RV park where they’d heard there might be people.

They recall nearly every moment as if it happened yesterday.

Eventually, they were allowed to come down Lincoln Springs. When they arrived at Jane McBride’s home, the ground was black.

“But it wasn’t on fire,” Brown said. “The woods were on fire but the ground wasn’t. The house was still smoking.”

They walked the property but didn’t find Valerie. They wondered if she’d escaped the house and run to the creek, but then they pondered why she would have gone to the creek when the woods around it were on fire. Her car was still there — the front end was melted but it was relatively in tact.

McBride felt like something wasn’t right, but Brown held out hope.

Brown said she especially felt a sense of hope when she heard on a scanner that someone may have been seen running through the woods.

At that moment, no one other than Brown and Janet McBride were actively searching for Valerie and K’loe. Fire crews were trying to get a handle on the situation, but eventually a fire official did come to McBride to begin filing a missing person report.

“It wasn’t long after that that a swarm of vehicles — police, state troopers, fire department people — everybody just fell right in here. It was like they came out of nowhere,” Brown said. “I remember an unmarked car pulling up over there, under the tree. He stopped and got out. He had on a shirt and jeans. He was just walking around; there was a police officer with him. They walked around on the other side of the house. They kind of stopped and they were looking around at things and then he walked back over there. It maybe was 10 minutes later that they started putting the tape up.”

In that moment, Janet McBride said, she knew they had found Valerie and K’loe.

Brown recalled being angry with the officers because she wanted to watch what was unfolding. They told her, “No, ma’am, you don’t want to see this,” she recalled as she began to cry.

They watched as Valerie’s and K’loe’s remains were recovered from the home.

The blaze grows

The Moore Fire took days to extinguish, and its embers were carried by the wind to Smith County, where crews had heard about what was happening in Gregg County. They knew it was likely the flames could be carried into Smith County, and when they did, they were quickly extinguished.

But elsewhere in East Texas, flames were only continuing to grow.

In Cass and Marion counties, the Bear Creek Fire was growing exponentially, and the local fire departments had few resources equipped to combat such a blaze.

“The biggest fire in our area was the Bear Creek Fire. It was a 40,000-plus acre fire,” Steelman recalled. “When you have a wildland fire that extreme, firefighting aircraft is one of the key components in getting control of it and the perimeter around it. All of those resources were tied up in Bastrop.”

The state’s resources were limited, and the Bastrop Complex Fire that had erupted the same day posed a bigger threat to people’s lives than the Bear Creek Fire, Steelman said. The Bear Creek Fire was primarily timber, but the Bastrop Complex Fire was in an urban area where it was destroying hundreds upon hundreds of homes.

East Texas officials put in a request to the state for aid and waited for resources to free up.

Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt took a plane ride over his county and the region in the early days of the wildfires. Stoudt recalled that fire could be seen “everywhere.”

“It was so dry everywhere. Cinders could be blown anywhere by the wind, and all of a sudden we’d have another fire and there wouldn’t be anybody at it, because there hadn’t been a fire there a few minutes ago,” he said.

In Longview, fire made its way into McWhorter Park in the Pine Tree area where it burned 11 acres.

That moment was terrifying to Longview firefighters, Steelman recalled.

“We’re in a populated urban center, and when you see fire running through treetops,” Steelman said as he paused. “We realized we weren’t prepared for what this could mean.”

If it had spread, it could have meant a similar situation to what happened in Bastrop where more than 1,000 homes were lost. But crews contained the McWhorter Park fire, and it didn’t spread in Longview.

Fighting the East Texas wildfires was a challenge that fire departments across the area battled in partnership with each other.

“It was a challenge that everybody stepped up to,” Stoudt said.

Eventually, the Bear Creek Fire received aid. Steelman said a Type 1 Incident Management Team from the Pacific Northwest came to East Texas to battle that blaze. A “Type 1” team is one equipped to respond to an incident of “national significance,” he said.

The Bear Creek Fire was the final East Texas wildfire to be extinguished. It took 51 days to put out all the flames.

Developing a plan

Almost as soon as the wildfires came under control, Steelman began developing a plan that would help ensure that East Texas will never again be as unprepared as it was in 2011.

“The biggest thing that came out of the 2011 wildfires, for me, was that it was a big wake-up call for those of us at the Longview Fire Department,” Steelman said. “We operated in an urban center as a municipal-based fire department. Fighting wildland fires was not something we’d really done. ... It was an unprecedented time that we found ourselves in as we were introduced to these fires.”

Wildland blazes are now part of the fire department’s hazard mitigation plan, Steelman said, and the department now prepares for wildfires just as it does tornadoes and floods.

Additionally, today, more than half of all Longview firefighters are certified as wildland firefighters, Steelman said.

There’s a difference between studying and training to be a “structural” firefighter versus a “wildland” firefighter. Steelman said it’s commonplace for most cities to have fire personnel who are trained primarily as structural firefighters as that is the most common type of blaze they will encounter in an urban area.

Being certified as a structural firefighter doesn’t mean crews can’t put out small wildfires, he noted. The difference in 2011 was the extremity of the wildfires, which were more akin to those that are typically experienced on the West Coast.

“We have worked to close that training gap, and a large number of our fire personnel are dual-certified for both structural and wildland fires,” he said. “Being certified for wildland fires is its own discipline. You have to understand how to operate in that environment.”

Additionally, the Longview Fire Department now has equipment that is designed to operate in a wildland fire environment.

To help ensure that its crews are properly trained, the Longview Fire Department also sends crews to other areas of the state and country to combat wildland fires.

“To have those wildland-trained firefighters go in-state to different types of topography and out of state, it helps build and boost their confidence,” Steelman said.

The training and the equipment was all part of a strategic plan that developed after the 2011 wildfires.

“For us, that was a sentinel event when we realized we needed to improve,” Steelman said.

Sparking hope

While planning might have improved, for those who were impacted by the 2011 wildfires, life will never be the same.

On Lincoln Springs Road, the Lawson family still lives in a storage building that Dennis Lawson converted into a home after his was destroyed 10 years ago.

The Lawson family’s house was the first on Lincoln Springs to be destroyed in the Moore Fire in September 2011. One year after the fires, Lawson said, he didn’t have anything to complain about. All he has to do is think of the McBrides to know how lucky he is.

”I think about the McBrides who lost their lives,” Lawson said in September 2012. “I don’t have anything to complain about myself. I think about the baby. ... I’m blessed. My wife is blessed. My neighbors are blessed.”In 2011, Valerie McBride was a young mother. Her daughter was the apple of her eye. K’loe was mischievous and would get into everything that she knew she shouldn’t, Jane McBride recalled with a smile.

Greg McBride has an 8-year-old daughter, Kamdyn, who Jane McBride and Brown said reminds them so much of who Valerie was at that age and who K’loe might have been.

“Because I am 11 years older than Valerie, I do remember her when she was younger. The mannerisms that Kamdyn has now just remind me so much of Valerie,” Brown said. “It’s kind of nice. It’s kind of comforting to know that she is here with us.”

For Jane McBride and Brown, every Labor Day weekend is tough. Some years are worse than others. This year is one of the hardest.

There’s just something about knowing that it’s been 10 years, McBride said.

Brown said she can’t help but think about what could have been. A man who Valerie knew was at the home when the fire started. He escaped. He could have helped Valerie. He could have saved K’loe.

He didn’t.

McBride and Brown said they know he didn’t set the fire, but that isn’t what plagues them. They just don’t understand why he didn’t choose to help Valerie and K’loe.

“That’s what I’m wrestling with this year. Why? Why didn’t he do something?” Brown said through tears. “It’s not going to help. It’s not going to bring her back.”

Janet McBride said she has made peace with it. She’s forgiven him — it’s a choice she made for herself. She said it was the only way forward.

McBride and Brown reside together now in Longview. They enjoy traveling and try to stay busy. Brown’s son is a high school senior this year; her daughter graduated a couple of years ago.

Faith has helped McBride through the last 10 years, and today, when she comes to the land on Lincoln Springs Road, she sits on a concrete bench amid crosses that bear Valerie and K’loe’s names.

“In times like these, you’ve got to have faith. You’ve got to just say, ‘Here it is God. I’m tired. I can’t do this alone,’ “ she said. “Initially, when it first happened, it was like Valerie was right behind me saying, ‘Don’t stop. You’ve got to keep going. One foot in front of the other.’ That’s what I tell everybody who loses someone now. Just don’t stop. Keep going forward.”

Longview doctors implore community in letter: Get vaccinated
  • Updated

Get vaccinated.

That’s the simple message in a letter signed by almost 100 doctors and other providers from both ends of Longview’s Fourth Street medical community and in between.

Christus Good Shepherd and Trinity Clinic. Diagnostic Clinic of Longview. Longview Regional Medical Center. Texas Oncology. Longview Orthopaedic Clinic Association. Physicians from all those entities and others signed their names to the letter urging residents to consider “this life-saving intervention” and to talk to the physicians about any “reservations” people might have. The letter wasn’t able to circulate to all local physicians in the couple of weeks it made the rounds.

“We, the physicians of East Texas take our charge seriously to provide you, our patients, the best possible health care, as well as providing accurate input into the medical decision making that directly affects your health,” the letter says. “For this reason, we can, without reservation, encourage you, our longstanding patients, to take the COVID vaccines. We have assessed the inaccuracies and myths surrounding the vaccines and have noted these assertions unfounded. According to the American Medical Association, 96% of all the physicians in the United States are fully vaccinated. We agree and stand with our colleagues throughout this great nation.”

Doctors who signed the letter saw importance in expressing their support for vaccination as they shed light on the local COVID-19 situation.

“I don’t think people realize how serious a problem this is,” said Dr. Robert M. Wheeler with Diagnostic Clinic of Longview, describing talking to patients every day about getting vaccinated if they haven’t been.

It’s smart, he said, for people to educate themselves before taking any kind of action.

“The problem we have is most people get their education from the wrong places,” he said, such as Facebook.

The point of the letter, he said, is to hopefully influence people’s decision about COVID-19 vaccination by showing them local doctors who support it.

“I don’t know where you go to convince people that this is a serious illness and they need to be vaccinated,” Wheeler said.

“It’s very obvious to me the right thing to do,” he said of vaccination.

COVID-19 kills about 1 to 2% of people who catch it, he said.

“Everybody thinks they’re going to be the lucky one that doesn’t die,” Wheeler said, but he’s seen patients as well as their husbands and their friends and family members who died from the illness.

COVID-19 is as contagious as Chickenpox, he said. The country eventually will reach herd immunity — with some estimates showing five or six years, he said. If it kills 1 to 2% of people who catch it, estimates place the number of deaths between 3.3 million and as many as 6 million people, he said.

“That’s a lot of people to die,” Wheeler said.

In the meantime, the virus will continue to mutate, he said, expressing concern that a strain could develop that won’t respond to medicine or the vaccine.

“What we really need to do is stamp this out and get rid of it,” so it doesn’t have time to mutate, Wheeler said.

Vaccines have been around for centuries, he said, and he noted that he studied messenger RNA, the method used to develop COVID-19 vaccines, when he was in medical school in 1976.

“This is not something they’ve newly discovered,” Wheeler said.

Dr. Rick Earnest, Christus Trinity Clinic, said he was proud to sign the letter “because I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there.”

He added that almost 100% of doctors support vaccination.

“Our hospital is full right now, and the majority of people have not been vaccinated,” he said, describing how patients have been seeking treatments such as ivermectin, even though there’s no evidence it works.

“There’s evidence showing vaccines work,” he said.

Earnest recalled a nursing home he worked with when the pandemic began, and 50% of the patients who contracted COVID-19 died. Now that the virus is surging again, none of the nursing home patients are dying because they’ve all been vaccinated, he said.

Dr. Chris Yancey with Diagnostic Clinic of Longview said the fact that East Texas is one of the most under-vaccinated regions in the state makes it a prime target for “more disease and more death.”

“For physicians, the COVID-related illnesses and deaths are not just some abstract idea they are reading about in newspapers or social media. Health care providers are experiencing these horrific and emotional outcomes firsthand and thus have a unique perspective that no one else has,” Yancey said. “Ninety-six percent of physicians are vaccinated. Over 99% of COVID deaths occur in the unvaccinated.

“Our only agenda is the health and well-being of our patients for whom we have each sworn an oath to protect. This vaccine is safe and effective. The alternative is deadly. We have to have help from the community if we ever expect to contain this. We implore this community to please help us become part of the solution. Help us to slow the spread of this horrible disease in our community.”

The safety of patients and staff is the top priority during the pandemic, said Dr. Bill Taylor with Texas Oncology--Longview

“We have been committed to following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines throughout the pandemic,” he said. “We serve a uniquely vulnerable patient population — cancer patients — and we strongly urge them and the people they live with to get vaccinated for protection against COVID-19.”

Dr. John Dipasquale, emergency medicine physician at Christus Good Shepherd Medical Center said all hospitals in the Christus system “are experiencing an unprecedented surge of COVID-19, with the number of positive cases, patients in the hospital and ICU patients that have surpassed the high points seen in 2020 and earlier this year.”

“While the recent rise in COVID cases has resulted in devoting more of our resources to COVID care, our emergency rooms are open and treating patients, and our providers, nurses and all of our associates are rising to this challenge and to meet the needs of our community,” he said. “However, we need our community’s help — we continue to urge our communities to protect themselves, their loved ones and their neighbors.”

Dr. Julie Lundy with Diagnostic Clinic of Longview advised people to get vaccinated in a personal Facebook post she made this past week describing what she said was “the most difficult week of my career.”

“I had two beloved patients pass away from COVID. They were patients I have known for years, and I know and take care of their families as well — my heart is broken for them,” she said. “I also had two patients who lost their adult children to COVID last week; no parent should have to bury a child, and it is gut wrenching to watch them grieve. I worked long hours, far longer than normal, treating patient after patient who is positive for COVID. I missed dinners with my family and homework with my kids; my staff is working on the weekends in an attempt to keep up with our patients who need us, and yet, we are still falling short.

“As I am preparing to start a new week, I am filled with dread because I know this week is going to be even worse. Our local hospitals are full and care is already being delayed. Local ICUs are housing twice as many patients as they are equipped to handle, patients are ‘holding’ in the ER or days because there are no hospital beds available. ... I fear the medical system is near the breaking point... where people die before they can get the care and resources they need to save them. Never, in my wildest imagination, did I think this would happen in the U.S. ....”