Coryell County wildfire burns more than 5,000 acres
By LYNETTE SOWELL
A wildfire that broke out on Wednesday afternoon near Harmon Road just north of Copperas Cove has turned into a fire covering more than 5,000 acres and as of Sunday evening, was 35 percent contained.
On Friday, residents in the Pearl area and along County Roads 140, 141, 142, 138, 139 and 137 as well as Star Road and Slater Road were evacuated. King Baptist Church, First United Methodist Church in Gatesville, along with the Boots and Saddle Cowboy Church in Gatesville, all offered space for evacuees until they were cleared to return to there homes.
Copperas Cove Deputy Fire Chief/Emergency Management Coordinator Gary Young has been on site at the fire since Wednesday, coordinating a firefighting effort that has brought in not only local agencies, but aid from beyond Central Texas.
“This particular portion of Coryell County is one of the areas that we cover in an agreement with the Coryell County Fire Chiefs Association and is one of our primary response areas.”
Representatives from the Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas A&M Forest Service, Fort Hood, as well as the Copperas Cove, Gatesville, Oakalla, Kempner, Evant, Killeen, and Harker Heights Fire Departments making up some of the more than 20 agencies on site combating the blaze.
“All of these agencies are coming in and working with us to get this out. They’re supporting us like nobody’s business,” Young said.
Copperas Cove had a big boost from DPS, with GPS tracking available, as well as Texas A&M Forest Service, which has provided ground and air support with as many as eight to nine planes and helicopters with the mission to get the fire contained, then extinguished.
From the command center, Young has been able to monitor the incident and see exactly where each and every vehicle is located.
“I can click and see, and know for a fact where a Copperas Cove truck is…we have GPS trackers on everything out there.”
The fire expanded swiftly to 600 acres the first night, to 1,300 acres by Thursday night.
As of Friday evening the fire’s reach had increased to 5,000 acres, said Clay Bales with Texas A&M Forest Service, who has been working on site with Young and the rest of the team.
Each evening, the team has worked make headway as temperatures decrease and humidity rises. Bales described Saturday night’s efforts.
“If we have a good three or four hours, then we’ll be able to make some major gains tonight on the night shift, and tomorrow morning because we have higher humidity, we’re able to get closer to the fire and hammer it down pretty hard when the humidity is up. So if we can make it through the next three or four hours, tomorrow you’ll see a pretty good jump in containment,” Bales said on Saturday evening.
By Sunday evening, however, the containment remained at about 35 percent, he said.
In addition to the 100-degree-plus temperatures and dry conditions, there have been other challenges facing the firefighters, said Young.
“We have wind, we have terrain issues. The terrain definitely has an impact on how the fire burns. It will always burn uphill faster than it does downhill. When it’s burning uphill, it’s heating everything up ahead of it, so that it’s already getting to condition to burn quickly and easily,” Young said.
He said depressions in the topography cause air currents that are at different rates of speed than the higher points, and when the current hits a valley, it can take that fire in a different direction than higher-surface winds.
“We’ve got juniper and cedar the size of buses out there, and we’re trying to figure out how to get through there. As soon as the fire hits those things, those cedar trees literally explode,” Young said. “We’re going in places where wild animals go, not vehicles. We’re having to cut our own roads. It’s been pretty tough at times.”
As far as the fire’s swift growth, Young said it grew by nearly 3,000 acres in 24 hours.
“I was sitting off 1783, sitting behind a house, and I watched as the wind kicked up and I could see the smoke lay down, and (the fire) started running. In three hours‘ time, it ran over three miles. And we were just going as fast as we could to catch it.”
Bales described some of the larger equipment used in the battle.
“As best I can count, we’ve had about 25 different fire departments all working the perimeter of this fire, mainly with water, and then the county has supplied some graders, Texas A&M Forest Service has supplied graders and bulldozers, and some of our engines,” said Bales. “In addition to that, we’ve got the aircraft.”
Aircraft included was one large heavy fixed-wing air tanker, a tanker helicopter dropping water, along with five single-engine fixed-wing air tankers carrying loads, and at least one scout plane, Bales added.
Young recognized the partnerships that have made the effort possible, even when one of Copperas Cove’s neighbors – Fort Hood – was battling fires of its own.
“Fort Hood’s helping us fight this fire. Regional resources are being split as evenly as we can. We’re not pulling or depleting any one department. We’re getting a little bit from everywhere,” Young said. “We also requested a TIFMAS (Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System) deployment. When you do a TIFMAS deployment, it rises to the state level.”
Young said that with this fire being a TIFMAS deployment, the state pays for the out-of-area agencies and personnel who come to support, such as places like Flower Mound, Boerne, and San Antonio.
“You’re supposed to rely on your neighbors first, and when your neighbors can no longer help you or it gets bigger than that, then you ask for help from the state. When the state comes in to help, they pay for the assets to come in.”
Young said that Copperas Cove couldn’t handle a fire like this by themselves.
“Without air assets, this fire might burn all the way to Abilene.”
The last time Coryell County had a fire this large, was back in 2011, Bales said, during a year when Texas saw record-breaking heat and drought along with devastating fires throughout the state.
Bales said on Sunday evening he expects the work to continue day and night for several more days.
The Harmon Road fire, along with other fires in the state, is being monitored at the Texas Wildfire Incident Response System website https://public.tfswildfires.com/.
Bales said the cause of the fire most likely will remain undetermined.