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FIRE & FLOODS: Rapid response and restoring power

1208
 2015


By Janet Wilson and Will Holford

(Sarah Beal)TOP LEFT: Bluebonnet’s field operations staff consulted a map of the Hidden Pines fire burn zone each morning to plan restoration efforts. TOP MIDDLE: Bluebonnet’s General Manager Mark Rose talks to crews about plans to assess damage, rebuild lines and restore power. TOP RIGHT: Bluebonnet crews line up to enter the burn zone to repair and replace damaged lines and equipment. BOTTOM: Storms in late October caused widespread flooding along the Colorado River, seen here from the Old Iron Bridge in Bastrop. 
 
FIRE 
By Janet Wilson
 
Mark Rose was in a morning meeting at Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative’s headquarters on Tuesday, Oct. 13, when he learned about a small grass fire on a large ranch in Bastrop County. The fire was only 8 acres and it was surrounded by pastures so it didn’t appear to be a threat to homes and businesses in the coop’s service area. By 2 p.m. the fire on the Luecke Ranch, which includes several thousand acres near Smithville, had grown to 125 acres. 

Austin American Statesman Map
 
Rose, Bluebonnet’s general manager, stood in the co-op’s parking lot on Electric Avenue east of Bastrop. He saw ominous clouds of smoke about 9 miles to the southeast.
 
Rose walked inside and straight into Bluebonnet’s control center, always his first stop when an emergency — big or small — looms. He began monitoring the fire — talking to staff members who were in touch with fire, county and emergency personnel — and contacting members of Bluebonnet’s management team. 
 
By Tuesday evening, the fire had grown to 325 acres. 
 
Rose didn’t know whether the fire would spread or how much work would be required. He did know one thing — Bluebonnet’s employees and the co-op’s outside contractors would perform superbly. 
 
They had been there before.


(Sarah Beal)TOP RIGHT: One of six Blackhawk helicopters scoops water from Buescher State Park Lake to drop on the Hidden Pines fire. TOP LEFT: Bluebonnet’s Randall Bownds consults a map showing the co-op’s 60 miles of power lines in the burn zone that had to be inspected before the power was turned back on. BOTTOM LEFT: At a makeshift workstation, Dana Barton, business manager for Bluebonnet, and Heidi Exner, assistant controller, work in the glow of a laptop before sunrise. BOTTOM RIGHT: Bluebonnet’s Jeff Hohlt and Penny Whisenant, a vegetation management contractor, inspect fire-damaged trees.

 
Veteran Bluebonnet lineman Daniel Fritsche was working in Paige, just west of Giddings, when he got the call that Tuesday. 

 
“I could already see the fire,” Fritsche said. “I thought, ‘Here we go again.’ ” 
 

(Sarah Beal)
Daniel Fritsche
Fritsche was on call in 2009 and 2011 when the fastmoving Wilderness Ridge and Bastrop County Complex forest fires swept through the same area. Wilderness Ridge destroyed 46 homes and businesses and 1,491 acres, while the Bastrop County Complex fire remains the most destructive wildfire in Texas history. It killed two people, burned more than 1,650 homes and businesses and destroyed more than 34,000 acres. Both fires were in areas served by Bluebonnet. 
 
Fritsche remembered the scorched trees, hot smoky ash, charred homes and widespread power outages from those earlier fires, and hoped this fire would be different. 
 
He and his three-person crew drove to Old Antioch Road, just west of where the fire started, to see where it was burning. They wanted to make sure it was no threat to the Lower Colorado River Authority’s big electric transmission lines or Bluebonnet’s power lines. Fritsche and his crew were relieved to report the fire appeared under control.
 
“It was about 1,000 feet away and headed in the opposite direction,” Fritsche remembers. 
 
But a weather front blew in on Wednesday. “The wind shifted,” he said.
 
By Wednesday morning the fire had officially been given the name “Hidden Pines” (for a nearby road) and it had seared 2,000 acres. 
 
Around noon, Bluebonnet officials cut power to more than 440 homes and businesses in and adjacent to the fire zone as a safety precaution. They worked closely with Bastrop County’s Office of Emergency Management, the Texas A&M Forest Service, numerous local fire departments and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, all of whom wanted to make sure emergency responders battling the blaze could work safely without coming into contact with live power lines. 
 
Smoke engulfed Bluebonnet’s headquarters building and surrounding property and it soon would be unsafe. 
 
Rose and Matt Bentke, Bluebonnet’s deputy general manager, decided to move the co-op’s control center to a backup location in another county Thursday morning and relocate headquarters personnel. 
 
Co-op field crews and contractors moved trucks and heavy equipment to Vernon L. Richards Riverbend Park on the Colorado River near Smithville. This would be their staging area until fire personnel gave them permission to enter the burn zone to assess the damage and restore power. By Wednesday evening the fire had grown to more than 4,000 acres. 
 
For the next week, Rose spent his days staying connected — with Bluebonnet teams, emergency and fire personnel, state and local officials, Bluebonnet members and the public. He shuttled between meetings, briefings, news conferences with dignitaries (including Gov. Greg Abbott, state Sen. Kirk Watson and state Rep. John Cyrier) and impromptu encounters with residents and homeowners wanting information. He took the time to answer when he could — he had friends and co-workers who lost their homes in the previous fires and he knew the emotional toll of such loss. 
 
The days always ended with two meetings: a community gathering to give the public updates and answer questions, and another to talk to his management and operations teams. 
 
“The Hidden Pines fire may not be as big physically as the 2011 fire,” Rose said, “but emotionally it affects all of us.” 
 

(Sarah Beal)
Bluebonnet’s Tim Mittasch makes sure power lines in the burn zone are de-energized so firefighters and first responders can safely work in the area. 
During the fire, at 7:30 a.m. daily, Rose reported to the Incident Command Center, initially set up at Buescher State Park then moved to the Texas A&M Forest Service’s office and a vacant field at Texas 71 and Kellar Road in Smithville. 
 
The regionally organized Southern Area Incident Command Blue Team, which includes highly trained federal, state and local individuals who coordinate and oversee groups working on the wildfire, had set up shop there. The Blue Team is one of two southern region incident management teams available nationally to respond to the most complex events, like the Hidden Pines fire. 
 
They are dispatched through the National Interagency Coordination Center, which supports federal, state and local wildfire suppression efforts by reducing duplication and costs and helping mobilize services. In 2011, the Red Team was dispatched to work on the Bastrop County Complex fires. 
 
At the daily meetings, the Blue Team shared its plan for the day, and others reported the number of firefighters on the ground, the planes and helicopters dropping water and retardant from the air, the number of acres burned, road closures, relief services for displaced residents and status of the fire. Rose briefed officials about construction crews and tree experts that Bluebonnet had on standby and updated them on the co-op’s readiness to help in any way needed. 

 
Then, Rose drove to Riverbend Park, where he was briefed by his operations team, making sure Bluebonnet had the necessary crews and resources deployed to assess damage and restore power the minute they were allowed into the burn zone. 
 
After evaluating each day’s plans, at daily news conferences Rose stood before a large Bluebonnet map that showed the burn zone, the homes and businesses without electricity and estimates of when power could be restored. It was important that co-op members and the public got the information they needed as quickly as possible. 
 
“As soon as it is safe to enter the area, we will evaluate any damage done to our power lines, poles, other equipment and surrounding vegetation,” Rose told the public. “We will restore power as quickly and as safely as we can.” 


(Sarah Beal)
TOP LEFT: At a news conference in Buescher State Park, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott thanks state and local officials, firefighters and first responders for their efforts during the Hidden Pines fire. From left are state Sen. Kirk Watson; Nim Kidd, Texas Division of Emergency Management chief; Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape; Bastrop County Sheriff Terry Pickering; and Sissy Jones, the sheriff’s public information officer. TOP RIGHT: Bluebonnet’s Safety and Compliance Manager Robert Thompson inspects a burned power line. BOTTOM LEFT: Bluebonnet’s Troy Moore, middle, uses a crane to unload one of the 45 power poles that were replaced in the burn zone. Jeffrey Bolding, left, and Chris Rivera, right, assist. BOTTOM RIGHT: Bluebonnet’s Doug Duncan, left, and David Davis document work in the burn zone using a global positioning system (GPS) as well as photographs and measurements of trees that were cut down.
 
On Friday, Oct. 17, the fourth day of the fire, Bluebonnet got the word: Crews could enter the burn zone. By then, 4,582 acres were involved, but fire officials were optimistic that they were now in control of it.
 
“It felt weird to walk through there – like a bomb had gone off,” said Fritsche, who had waited anxiously with co-workers at the Riverbend location. “You could still see fire in the distance. It was smoky and there were trees everywhere that were burned from the bottom up that could fall anytime.” 
 
Children’s red wagons and tricycles were overturned in yards where homes once stood. He thought of Easton, his 5-year-old son waiting at home, and the fire after a thunderstorm that destroyed the Fritsche family’s home in Dime Box when he was in junior high. 
 
“I know what it’s like to have only the clothes on your back,” Fritsche said. 
 
The burn zone, already filled with firefighters and first responders, was crowded but orderly. As many as 225 Bluebonnet employees and contractors were inspecting and cutting burned trees, removing and replacing poles, stringing wires, installing transformers and making the work zone safe. Power was restored quickly because of Bluebonnet’s advanced technology, Fritsche said. Crews evaluated what needed to be done, entered the information into their laptops, ordered materials — poles, transformers, and wire — and had them delivered. In a few hours, each individual job was finished. 

 
Bluebonnet’s Member Service Center in Bastrop remained open Saturday, Oct. 17, and Sunday, Oct. 18, to answer questions and help members displaced by the fire. 
 
Power was fully restored at 4 p.m. Monday, Oct. 19, but Rose knew co-op members would still need help. So Bluebonnet created a team led by co-op project manager Tommy Higgins to reach out to members whose homes and property were damaged and let them know how Bluebonnet would help. Higgins lost his home in the 2011 fires and knew what the members whose lives had been upended by the fire were going through, the questions they would have and what they’d need. 
 
On Tuesday, Oct. 20, one week after Rose learned about a small pasture fire, the control center at headquarters was re-opened. Rose announced that Bluebonnet would donate $50,000 to the Bastrop Long Term Recovery Team, a nonprofit that helps uninsured or underinsured Bastrop County residents who suffer loss in disasters. 
 
Storms and remnants of a record-setting Pacific hurricane soaked Bastrop County a few days later. The Hidden Pines fire was declared contained on Sunday, Oct. 25. Sixty-four homes and 4,582 acres burned, but there were no deaths. 
 

(Sarah Beal)TOP LEFT: LCRA crews inspect downed transmission lines and toppled towers damaged by a tornado near San Marcos on Oct. 30.  TOP RIGHT: Torrential rain in late October forced rivers and streams out of their banks, flooding homes and businesses and damaging property, including this vintage Airstream trailer near Riverwood Road in Bastrop County. BOTTOM LEFT: Damage to LCRA’s transmission lines knocked out power to two Bluebonnet electrical substations, causing widespread outages to thousands in Caldwell, Hays and Travis counties. (Joe Stafford photo) BOTTOM RIGHT:A large tree damaged two Bluebonnet power poles along Riverside Drive in Tahitian Village in Bastrop the morning of Oct. 30. A crew was on the way to make repairs. (Kyle Kasper photo)
 
Rose praised his team publicly and privately. The leadership of Bastrop County officials — County Judge Paul Pape, Sheriff Terry Pickering, Commissioner Clara Beckett, Emergency Management Coordinator Mike Fisher and state Rep. John Cyrier — was “outstanding,” he said. 
 
Driving into the burn zone, Rose wasn’t surprised by what he saw. He had spent weeks in the massive Bastrop County Complex fire zone in 2011. 
 
“But this wasn’t the story of 2011,” he said. “That was so big and so hot and devastating that firefighters didn’t have the ability to fight it. It burned through and they came in behind and did the best to fight it on the edges. They fought this (Hidden Pines) fire driving down streets and among broken trees. 
 
“I saw smoldering embers and sparks and I’m thinking, ‘Men and women came in here at night and fought this fire.’ It was unbelievable.
 
I already had a healthy appreciation for what firefighters do, but in that situation I just don’t have any words for it. I heard so many people ask, ‘Who the hell does that?’ 
 
“I saw what those men and women do and the phenomenal courage to be there saving peoples’ homes in woods that are burning at night with smoke all around them. 
 
“So our work is important and it has an element of danger to it — especially with falling trees and energizing lines — but firefighters are the real heroes in this story.”

FLOOD 
By Will Holford 

After the fire, crews responded again to damaging winds and a downpour
First fire, then flood. There was hardly time to rest after the Hidden Pines fire before the skies opened up and delivered a tornado, severe thunderstorms and major flooding in Bluebonnet’s service area. 
 
The twister Oct. 30 near San Marcos brought down Lower Colorado River Authority transmission lines, knocking out power to two Bluebonnet electrical substations that serve more than 3,000 members in Caldwell, Hays and Travis counties. 
 
Rain was relentless. Raging rivers and local creeks escaped their banks, flooding major highways and leaving travelers stranded for hours. It was the third consecutive weekend co-op crews and outside contractors had to work in dangerous and challenging conditions. 
 
The Austin airport recorded more than 14 inches of rain and the Colorado River overflowed in the cities of Bastrop and Smithville. 


(Sarah Beal)ABOVE LEFT: Nick Barta, Bluebonnet’s safety compliance coordinator, checks on a crew cutting down a tree that fell across Wildwood Road in Bastrop during the storms. ABOVE RIGHT: With the guidance of arborists, crews place orange tags on burned trees that are deemed a safety hazard and need to be removed. After the fire, teams marked more than 1,900 damaged trees for removal. 
 
Bluebonnet’s crews were in the storms, ready and willing to repair and rebuild power lines, but the weather forced them to wait longer than they wanted. Rising water quickly cut off many areas and prolonged power outages — some for more than 24 hours — until water receded, allowing crews to assess the storm and flood damage and begin to restore power. 
 
In total, the Halloween weekend storms caused 150 individual power outages that affected 9,696 Bluebonnet members, mostly in Bastrop, Caldwell, Hays and Travis counties. 
 
Challenging weather conditions mean challenging times for our members. Yet, Bluebonnet’s members let us know they understood our limitations in the face of violent weather. 
 
The gratitude for our work kept our spirits up during the fire and epic storm.
 

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