Strong winds and dry conditions have fueled the need for firefighters to lend a hand in battling the large wildfires in East Texas. Earlier this month a taskforce of firefighters from Ellis and Johnson Counties were called on to assist in the piney woods region.

“I received a request from the Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System coordinator to put together a strike team to assist during the many wild fires. It took us two to three days to put a team together,” Red Oak Fire Chief Eric Thompson said.

“Between our department, Ferris and Cleburne we were able to put together a strike team to help. We were one of several strike teams across the state of Texas that deployed.”

The strike team deployed Sept. 7 and was assigned to the Bear Creek complex fire. Equipment that made up the task force included two-brush trucks, a fire engine, a water tanker and a command vehicle. The fire was spread out over 50,000 acres and was located between the cities of Jefferson and Linden.

“This is our fifth deployment this year. The other deployments we were in west Texas where it was relatively flat with different types of fuel loads, trees and grasses,” Thompson said.

“This was a new experience for us because this is forest firefighting where there are thick piney woods. In west Texas when they had fire in the trees it was in 10-foot junipers. Here we had fire in top of the pine trees that were 60 to 100 feet in the air. So you had to use totally different tactics to fight the fire.”

Thompson said the Bear Creek fire was not as populated area as the Bastrop or Montgomery County fires but had more acreage.

During the week-long deployment firefighters worked with members of the Texas Forestry Service, the U.S. Forestry Service, Texas Guard, Louisiana National Guard and other fire departments from across the state.  Along with teams of firefighters working on the ground the fire was also fought from the air with helicopters and several airplanes. Despite the efforts of many agencies and groups working together around 92 structures were lost to the fire.

Before heading out to the fire grounds each morning first responders were briefed on fire conditions, the weather and safety concerns. Training sessions were also held before heading out to a fire scene. Instruction was given on how to work around different types of equipment such as bulldozers that would work in the area making firebreaks.

The deployment of men and equipment did not impact fire protection in Ellis County.

The state will reimburse the fire departments for overtime that kept the minimum staffing levels the same. Also the state will reimburse fire departments for the salaries of firefighters who were deployed on the task force.

The state would also pay to have vehicles repaired if a mechanical issue came up.  Area residents took care of the firefighters needs by providing hot meals during the deployment.

Firefighters returned to Ellis County on Sept. 14 with no injuries to personnel or damage to equipment.

Thompson said the experience of working a large scale fire has provided firefighters with valuable training that will allow them to help protect the lives and property of residents in our county.  He is also really proud of all the agencies that have provided their assistance to combat these wildfires.

Even with weather cooling down Thompson cautions residents that the danger for grass fires is still there and that officials are predicting an active fire season up until spring. He reminds residents to follow the burn ban that is still in effect.

“It could start raining tomorrow and rain for a long time but the problem is that the grass, trees and the brush are already dead. Dead brush does not soak up moisture. So we are still going to have a problem,” he said.

To view a view a video of pictures taken from the Bear Creek Fire made by the Red Oak Fire Department go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=uBkTywpgWX4&feature=youtu.be.

Contact Andrew at andrew.branca@wninews.com or 469-517-1451.