Texas wildfire that forced evacuations likely a result of planned burn, officials say

What was supposed to have been a controlled burn outside Austin, Texas, evolved into a 630-acre wildfire Tuesday night, threatening homes and prompting the evacuation of about 250 families, officials said.

The Rolling Pines Fire near Bastrop State Park in Bastrop County, about 30 miles from downtown Austin, was about 10 percent contained by early evening, officials said at a news conference.

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Officials proceeded with the scheduled 10:30 a.m. burn despite the reservations of some residents who noted a warm forecast in the mid-70s and light winds. Federal forecasters have called for a “warming trend” for Central Texas since at least Sunday.

The Texas A&M Forest Service has reported that multiple wildfires have burned a few thousand acres across the state since Saturday. It prepared for “critical fire weather” Tuesday by pre-positioning 11 dozers and four engines in areas of concern.

“The fire environment will include elevated to critical fire weather, with above normal temperatures and wind speeds near 20 mph, aligned with freeze-cured grasses across the landscape,” the service said in a statement at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday.

The county was not under day-by-day prohibition on outdoor fires Tuesday, although many other counties were.

A prescribed burn in the parkland was badly needed to restore “the historic forest condition for which this iconic park is so well known,” said Carter Smith, the executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Paul Pape, the Bastrop County judge, or chief executive, said, “Based on everything they knew this morning, it was an appropriate day to burn.”

Pape suggested that such burns deserve the benefit of the doubt because they generally result in a safer environment.

“I’m not going to be critical of the efforts to protect our citizens from wildfire by using prescribed burn,” he said. “I think it’s a great tool and one we need to continue to encourage people to use.”

The area was affected by one of the state’s most destructive wildfires in 2011, which consumed more than 32,000 acres, led to two deaths and burned more than 1,600 homes.

Since then, prescribed burns have been part of a prevention regimen for the region.

“For years before that, we hadn’t had the ability to do prescribed burns,” Pape said. “So the forest grew up like a jungle.”

Officials said the planned 150-acre burn expanded outside its footprint some time after noon.

The fire had threatened about 100 homes, said Rich Gray, the chief regional fire coordinator for the Texas A&M Forest Service.

So far no homes were reported to have burned. No injuries were reported, either.

“We did have fire that came in very close to local structures,” Gray said. He estimated that local firefighters “saved a majority of all the occupied homes.”

By nightfall, 200 firefighters were working the blaze, officials said.

It erupted the month after Colorado’s disastrous Marshall Fire outside Boulder consumed nearly 10 square miles, destroyed 991 homes and damaged 127 other structures.

That blaze continued to raise concerns about wildfires that seem to ignore the imaginary wildland-urban border.

Experts have said global warming has helped to ripen the conditions for fires, including warmer weather and drier fuel, while also correlating with more intense, potent fires.

On Tuesday evening, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement that the state was sparing no resources. It was sending three strike teams and a military helicopter with a water bucket and putting more aircraft on standby, he said.

“We will continue to monitor the situation in Bastrop County and are ready to deploy additional state resources as needed to contain this wildfire and keep Texans safe,” he said.

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