Prescribed burn gone wrong likely sparked wildfire in Bastrop County, officials say

A wildfire blazed through Bastrop State Park on Tuesday. (Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

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Bastrop County residents were allowed to return to their homes Wednesday, a day after a prescribed burn set by Texas Parks and Wildlife in Bastrop State Park escaped from fire managers, officials said, growing to about 780 acres — more than five times its intended size.

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About 150 households were forced to evacuate Tuesday, officials said. No injuries or property damage has been reported, and the 783-acre fire was 30% contained as of 3:30 p.m. Wednesday. Firefighters are expected to continue fighting hot spots in the area for several days, but officials said they are confident further evacuations will not be necessary.

The wildfire was likely caused by embers from the controlled burn, said Carter Smith, TPWD’s executive director, during a Tuesday press conference.

“We don’t know the particular cause [at this time]” Smith said. “Once we have completed putting out this fire … we will begin the review of the cause and origin.”

Some local residents used words like “incompetence” and “irresponsible” to characterize the situation. Bastrop County is just a decade removed from a massive 2011 Bastrop County Complex Fire that burned 32,000 acres of the iconic Lost Pines, destroyed more than 1,600 homes and killed two people.

“Why would they do a burn when everything is so dry and it’s windy?” said Danny Wheeler, a resident who was forced to evacuate. “That’s a terrible call in the first place.”

“I am very disappointed [in the state],” said Marla Ferris, who was unable to return to her home in Bastrop on Tuesday evening because of the evacuations and had to sleep in her car in a parking lot. “They could have picked another day. This one, I think, could have been prevented. Whoever decided to strike the match [is responsible].”

Prescribed burns are a critical tool to get rid of dry brush and other fuel that would otherwise lead to catastrophic wildfires, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife. Forest and fire management experts agree, and overwhelmingly endorse the use of prescribed burns, which are usually safe and rarely burn out of control.

In Texas, the practice can reduce the risk of massive fires, rejuvenate wildlife habitat, improve soil health, control invasive brush and benefit watersheds, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture, which administers a program to certify prescribed burn managers.

But on the rare occasions when prescribed fires burn out of control — like Tuesday’s fire, which was intended to burn only 150 acres — public opinion can sour, making it more difficult to conduct prescribed burns in the future, experts said.

“If you get a bad reputation for having prescribed burns turn into wildfires, people can become scared,” said Rebecca Miller, an expert on prescribed burns and researcher at the University of Southern California who has studied wildfire policy in California.

She said it is rare for prescribed burns to escape fire managers’ control and that the practice is overwhelmingly “safe and effective at reducing risk and reducing the likelihood of a severe wildfire in the future.”

In Texas, the ideal weather conditions for a prescribed burn include wind speeds of 5-15 miles per hour blowing in a steady direction; temperatures between 40 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit; and humidity between 25% and 60%, according to a report on prescribed range burning in Texas by experts at Texas A&M University’s Agricultural Extension Service. In addition, it’s best if the debris and grasses that will burn are uniformly distributed across the region.

Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape speaks to members of the media at a press conference at the park headquarters regarding the Rolling Pines Fire in Bastrop State Park on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.

Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape speaks to the media at Bastrop State Park headquarters. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

Bastrop County was not under a burn ban at the time of the controlled burn, nor is the county in a drought.

“Based on everything they knew this morning, it was an appropriate day to burn,” Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape said Tuesday. “None of us can predict the weather more than 15 minutes ahead of time, and sometimes things happen we just don’t anticipate.”

“Mother nature played a trick on us,” he added. “We have to live with that and learn from that.”

Smith, the TPWD director, said the area of Bastrop State Park where the prescribed burn happened has had two prescribed burns since 2011. The department said it has conducted 28 prescribed burns in the park since 2014.

On Tuesday, a prescribed fire specialist at the park noticed a fire outside of the boundaries.

“Prescribed burns are very complex and planned weeks to months in advance,” said Alex Bregenzer, a public information officer for Texas A&M Forest Service, which is assisting in fighting the fire. “From desired conditions to wind speed to weather, it’s a very complex task and planning process that goes into any sort of decision before you put fire on the ground.”

Bastrop County is in the Oak-Prairie Wildlife Management region, which is characterized by both post oak trees and coastal prairies. The natural fire frequency in the area ranged from every five to 30 years, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Service, and fire was a natural mechanism through which the prairie restored itself. Since the 1800s, however, fire suppression and land clearing for farming and ranching have caused higher density of small trees and thick undergrowth.

Most land in Texas is privately held, which can make it more difficult to have a statewide plan to manage and prevent fires, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture. In other large Western states, huge tracts of public land make statewide fire coordination easier.

Climate change has made the Texas heat both hotter and longer lasting. The average daily minimum and maximum temperatures in Texas have both increased by 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 125 years, with nearly half the increase since 2000, according to a 2021 report by the state climatologist. The state just experienced its hottest December on record since at least 1889.

The Rolling Pines Fire blazes through Bastrop State Park on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.

The fire grew to about 780 acres — more than five times its intended size. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

Officials largely blamed the weather for the prescribed burn escaping its intended perimeter. Pape, the county judge, said the investigation into the exact cause could begin as early as next week.

“We want [the state investigation] to turn over every stone and make sure every question is asked and answered,” he said. “I’ll hold their feet to the fire on that — pardon the pun.” ​

Jordan Vonderhaar contributed reporting.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Correction, Jan. 21, 2022: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of prescribed burns in Bastrop State Park. The park has had 28 prescribed burns since 2014, not two since 2011.

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