As wildfires raged through West Texas last weekend, Steve Pollock, a regional fire coordinator for the Texas Forest Service, was near the front lines of a 100,000-acre blaze that swept through Stonewall and King counties. At one point the so-called "Swenson Fire" was the largest in the country. Pollock worked near Aspermont, an area about 60 miles north of Abilene — "rough country," he says, served by a few oil roads. His job was coordinating with Forest Service and local fire officials and making sure everyone had the equipment and other help they needed to fight the fires. More bad fire conditions — hot, windy weather — are expected in Texas on Thursday.
Pollock, who is normally based near Houston, spoke with the Tribune earlier today from the Forest Service's wildfire command center in Merkel. Below is an edited and abridged transcript, as well as audio.
TT: What caused the Swenson fire?
Pollock: My understanding is it was caused by somebody using a cutting torch — some scrap iron or something, and obviously a spark or some slag coming off there ignited those grasses or those light fuels, and it took off from there.
TT: How bad a fire was this compared to others you've been combating?
Pollock: This was on the high end of the scale. Geographically, it was a little over 100,000 acres. So it's a big fire. But we had some rough country in there, you know. And with the weather conditions we experienced, and the dryness of the fuels — I mean, it [was] initially a wind-driven fire. Then our winds calmed down, but the fuels are so dry it became a fuel-driven fire. And we have real heavy fuels [i.e., a lot of plant growth] because we did have good rain in the last year. But now we're back in the drought cycle. So — this was pretty extreme. We were experiencing extreme fire behavior. [I actually saw the fire spreading] up to 4-5 miles per hour, and I know in some others areas it was even faster. So you think of that — fire spreading at 6 mph you may have a town downwind. [The town may be] 10-12 miles away, but the reality is the fire could be there in two hours with that rate of spread.
TT: Were there any structures damaged in this?
Pollock: There was some outbuilding type structures. There were actually no homes that I know of lost. There were many many homes saved.
TT: Were there any injuries to the firefighters?
Pollock: No — nothing of consequence. I'm sure there was a cut-finger type thing.
TT: What is the mood of the firefighters there? This has obviously been an extremely busy fire season. How long have some of those folks been out? How are they doing?
Pollock: It's two things. You have the locals — predominantly in a lot of areas in Texas the locals are volunteer firefighters. These men and women, they're out there obviously every day. Some of them — until they're called to assist, they've been working that fire along with other fires for last 3-4-5 days. So they're extremely dedicated but they're getting tired. This season has been going on for 130-plus days.
Now, from the Forest Service perspective — our folks are coming in and working anywhere from 14-21 days at a time with a two-day rest. So we kind of have an opportunity to get a break in there. But you know, the morale is good. Everybody's been extremely positive about taking this challenge on. I haven't seen anything negative — other than just people are tired and some of the equipment is getting tore up. But we're trying to make those repairs as we go.
TT: What kind of equipment, for example?
Pollock: The engine and stuff — tires getting tore up and stuff out in that the terrain, maybe some breakdowns. Getting equipment getting stuck in the sand, you have to get it out. Nothing that can't be fixed.
TT: Were there firefighters from other states joining the effort for the Swenson fire?
Pollock: Yes. We had people I worked with from California, Georgia, Mississippi and, of course, Texas. I believe we had some from Alabama and possibly I think Arizona, and then New Mexico. Seemed like I saw one from South Carolina. So yeah, obviously, resources from around the country are in the state of Texas right now.
TT: And how long do folks work on shifts?
Pollock: Our standard day is 12 hours, but today the way we're going with these fires, everybody's working 16. We are mandated to do a 2:1 work ratio, so every 16 we work we have to have at least eight off. But now some of our days might run 18-20 hours, and what happens is we have to have eight off. So the next morning we have to push that start time out for those resources that worked a long day before. So generally I think you could make a point that the day is 16-plus hours.
TT: Are there enough firefighters on the job?
Pollock: Yeah, I think so. We're using everything we have. But the Forest Service has ordered up enough resources, I think, with the fire starts we're experiencing. So I think we're in good shape. But we're using everything we have.
TT: What is the status of the Swenson fire? Is it contained? Extinguished?
Pollock: It's about 80 percent contained. It's looking real good. We left there yesterday. We've got some fresh resources up there today. And I think probably over the next couple of days they're going to be working hot spots and tying it in, and then I think we can call that good. But it's about 80, 85 percent contained as we speak.
TT: And would some of the firefighters head to other fires, like Fort Davis?
TT: Is the weather looking better now than it was over the weekend?
Pollock: Today it's not too bad. [But] I believe Thursday we're going to be entering another bad period. So the answer to your question is no. And for the extended forecast out — we're not expecting anything to get better for a at least the next month or so. This week on Thursday we're expecting some bad fire weather, and we'll see some areas with extreme fire issues.