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Rolling Pines fire 70% contained; mapping revisions expand burned area to 813 acres

Austin American-Statesman logo Austin American-Statesman 1/20/2022 Colleen DeGuzman, Andy Sevilla, Natalia E. Contreras, Sara Diggins and Nicole Foy, Austin American-Statesman

70% contained, acreage revised up

After more accurate mapping, the Texas A&M Forest Service announced that the Rolling Pines fire has burned 813 acres north of Bastrop State Park and is currently 70% contained. 

Crews have dug up a containment line that stretches 6.2 miles around the fire, which prevents the wildfire from growing by removing any brush, trees or grass in the area. 

Winter moisture could help fire crews

The Rolling Pines fire in Bastrop remained at 783 acres overnight as the cold front blew in, and crews have maintained 58% containment of the blaze, officials reported in a 9 a.m. briefing. 

Around 200 firefighters and first responders were on site throughout the night fighting to keep the wildfire under control, which burned areas north of the Bastrop State Park. 

Thursday's weather could cooperate with firefighter operations, according to Texas A&M Forest Service spokesperson Alex Bregenzer. The expected winter precipitation, whether it comes down in snow, sleet or rain in the afternoon, will help calm the fire and cool the ground.

Crews will continue to beef up containment of the southern edge of the fire's perimeter throughout the day by thickening the containment line there. 

Texas 21 is open to the public, but Bregenzer said residents should be extra cautious while driving on the highway because emergency personnel will be shuttling around the area.

"Please, please, please, if you're driving through that area, utilize caution and drive safely," Bregenzer said. "We want to make sure that everybody goes home at the end of the day." 

Authorities have not confirmed an official cause of the fire, but officials on Wednesday said they believe it was sparked by embers from a prescribed 150-acre fire on Tuesday.

"That is still, again, being under investigation," Bregenzer said. "That's going to be falling on the Texas Parks and Wildlife to investigate how the weather affected that." 

An outpouring of support has come from neighbors who have been donating water and food to fire crews, but the best way to help out firefighters, Bregenzer said, is to remain calm and stay put.

"We're going to urge everybody to kind of just hold still," he said. "We're working with the Office of Emergency Management to coordinate food donations with our firefighters. We have a significant amount of water currently. So, we're not asking for any donations currently, but again, we do really appreciate the outpouring of support that's come from the community." 

Rolling Pines fire 58% contained

Fire crews have contained 58% of the Rolling Pines fire in Bastrop County, officials announced in a 6 p.m. briefing.

The fire's burn has been limited to 783 acres, said Kari Hines, spokesperson for the Texas A&M Forest Service.

"That means we have not had any growth today — so that's good news," Hines said. 

No one has been reported injured and officials said no homes have been damaged.

All residents who had to evacuate their homes are allowed to return, Hines said, but they should be cautious and courteous to emergency personnel driving through on Texas 21. 

In preparation for the northern winds of 25 to 30 mph expected to come in late Wednesday, crews have been working to thicken the containment lines along the southern and southwestern areas of the blaze, Hines said.

About 200 first responders worked to put out the fire Tuesday, but fewer will be on site Wednesday night "because our local resources needed to get back to work responding to car crashes and medical needs," he said. 

Some allowed to return home

All residents who live northwest of Texas 21 — including Circle D and KC Estates — have been cleared to return to their homes, County Judge Paul Pape said in a 3 p.m. briefing. 

Additionally, residents in the Pine Hills Estates will be allowed to return home at 6 p.m. 

Wednesday's weather has been on firefighter's side, Texas A&M Forest Service incident coordinator Rich Gray said. 

Low winds and cooler weather has allowed crew to dig up containment lines around the Rolling Pines Fire, which officials say is still at 783 acres and 30% contained. 

All utility services has been restored in the areas where residents have been asked to evacuate, and Texas 21 has reopened to through traffic. 

Officials, however, are asking residents to stay off Texas 21 as much as possible. 

"We still have DPS and sheriff's deputy presence out there to help the people who are coming back into their homes," Pape said. "And we don't want to clog up that are any more than we have to."

Strong northern winds are expected to pick up at around 5 p.m., and Gray said crews are working on preparing the western and southern areas of the blaze by thickening containment lines. 

Containment lines are made by digging up land to expose soil and get rid of brush, trees or grass that provides fuel for the fire. 

Crews have also been working on mopping up the fire's hot spots within containment lines while helicopters and other air crafts are focusing on dumping water and retardant to cool down the area. 

Gray is optimistic about the progress firefighters have made to contain the fire. 

"Things are working very well at this time," he said. "And we are going to continue to watch the fire late into the night with that anticipated wind shift."

Though Wednesday's humid weather hid the Rolling Pines Fire's smoke well, the afternoon shift in wind may cause it to hover around the county at night and tomorrow, Pape warned. 

"(The smoke) will be headed to the south rather than the north," he said. "But I assure you that we will have firefighters and first responders on duty all night long tonight and all day long tomorrow." 

Like Gray, Pape is optimistic about the efforts of first responders to contain and extinguish the fire.

Earlier today, the judge and Bastrop Mayor Connie Schroeder took a helicopter tour of the fire to scope the perimeter of the burn scar. 

"I was very pleased that what I saw from the air that although we can't say that the fire's contained, I can tell you from layman's language that the fire is certainly under control at this time." 

An investigation on how the fire sparked will could begin as early as next week, Pape said, but "we're not going to put a deadline on it." 

Though there has been no confirmation of the cause of the Rolling Pines Fire, officials have been led to believe it ignited from a 150-acre prescribed fire on Tuesday at the Bastrop State Park. Officials proceeded with the prescribed fire despite Texas A&M Forest Service categorizing the county as an area "highly" vulnerable to forest fires.

"We want them to have the opportunity to turn over every stone and make sure that every question is asked and answered before we come back with findings and recommendations out of those findings." 

Uncertainty persists among evacuees

Hermelando Rivera, his wife, daughter and two dogs were parked at a Valero gas station off Texas 21 waiting for information. 

"We've been here since 7 a.m. and haven't heard anything from them," Rivera said in Spanish.

He and other families gathered at the gas station that's located at an intersection that has been blocked by officials working the fire. 

Rivera and his family have lived near Pine Tree Loop for seven years. 

He said he and his family evacuated last night and are staying a relative's house. But he's worried about 50 hens the family had to leave behind. 

"They know we are all here just waiting for them to say something and nothing," he said. "We really want to know who was in charge of this? There have been fires before. If they already know what can happen why do they do it? Who was responsible?" 

Gloria Adams said on Wednesday afternoon when she received phone calls and alerts to evacuate her property, located near the Lost Pines Boy Scout Reservation in Bastrop, she was only able to grab her medications and her family bible.

"(the Bible) was my mother's and it has all of our family history in it," she said.

For Adams, who has been a resident in Bastrop for 35 years, the evacuation Wednesday was like deja vu, she said.

"Back in 2011, the fire came within 1500 feet of our home," Adams said. "Back then we had looters. So right now I am worried about looters again."

Adams and her family were also waiting for answers from Bastrop County officials at the gas station Wednesday afternoon.

"And I want to know why would they do this? This isn't the first time a prescribed fire has gotten out of control. It's been too many times for me to count," she said. "This makes absolutely no sense. There's a pandemic, I have two immunocompromised diseases. But when it comes time to vote I will remember this. "

Crews hold fire at bay

The Rolling Pines fire's footprint remains at 783 acres in central Bastrop County, officials said in a 1 p.m. briefing Wednesday. 

Firefighters do not think the fire poses a threat of jumping over the containment lines that crews have put in place around the fire. 

A strong cold front could pose another challenge for firefighters working to contain the Rolling Pines fire that has burned about 780 acres in Bastrop county. High winds threaten to feed the fire before a round of wintry precipitation.

“In the wake of the frontal passage, temperatures turn sharply colder and breezy to locally windy northerly winds,” the National Weather Service said in a bulletin Wednesday.

“Winds gusts of 35 to 40 mph are likely with wind chills falling into the teens and 20s on Thursday,” forecasters said.

Winter precipitation on Thursday is expected to begin in the Hill Country west of Austin.

“Elsewhere, rain and possibly freezing rain start, then turn to mostly sleet late afternoon into night,” the weather service said, adding that projections from computer models trended toward less precipitation.

'I know that sound'

Mary Bingman, 62, knew exactly what was coming when she heard airplanes flying over her home in Bastrop. 

"I said to myself, I know that sound," Bingman said. "I called my neighbors and they said there was a fire and that we'd probably have to evacuate." 

On Wednesday, Bingman was among about 11 people waiting at the Elgin Community Center after a prescribed fire Tuesday at Bastrop State Park got out of its boundaries.

For Bingman, who lives on High Timbers Road and FM 1441, about five miles from the fire, this is taking her back to the trauma and stress she went through in 2011. 

She and her husband lost her home, all of their possessions and their two dogs to the 2011 Bastrop Complex wildfire that burned more than 34,000 acres, destroyed about 1,600 homes and killed four people.

Bingman told the American-Statesman she wants Bastrop County officials to be transparent with residents about why this happened. 

"All the information is spotty," she said. "They're not being as forthcoming as they should be. We've been through this before. They should have been more careful." 

County officials said about 250 families evacuated their homes Tuesday evening. 

Amy Miller, Elgin Community Services director said evacuees started to arrive at the community center about 6 p.m. Tuesday. The center has provided cots, water, toiletries, food and has been updating residents on the status of the fire, she said.

— Natalia Contreras and Sara Diggins

Fire has burned 783 acres

The Rolling Pines Fire that ignited Tuesday afternoon was 30% contained and has burned through 783 acres in an area east of Bastrop in central Bastrop County.

No homes have been damaged so far and there have been no injuries, Kari Hines, spokesperson for the Texas Forest Service told reporters Wednesday morning. 

Bastrop County and local fire management officials told reporters Wednesday morning that though they are not certain about the cause of the wildfire yet, Carter Smith the executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said they "absolutely believe" that it sparked from lingering embers from a 150-acre prescribed fire on Tuesday. 

Prescribed fires are a critical tool in preventing wildfires, Smith said. 

Hundreds of firefighters from dozens of agencies across the state including the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department have been working overnight to contain and extinguish the blaze. 

"We know that our operation crews last night were able to make very good progress constructing containment lines with our heavy equipment, the bulldozers" she said. "We also had multiple fire engines throughout the residential areas patrolling and mopping up, which is an operation where they seek out heat near our containment lines and extinguish it."

It is estimated that more than 250 families have been asked to evacuate, of which 11 people found refuge at the Elgin Recreation Center overnight. One family stayed at a local hotel. 

"So that means the majority of people do what we know that they do, they found shelter with family and friends," Hines said. 

Wednesday's weather, Hines said, will cooperate with firefighters. Temperatures are expected to be slightly above normal in the afternoon, she said, but colder winds will blow through the area at around 5 p.m. ahead of a strong cold front. 

Crews are working to prepare for the colder weather. 

There currently are two helicopters dropping water on the fire, three air crafts dropping retardant and two overhead air crafts supervising the area. 

Bastrop County Judge Pape said he is "personally frustrated that we're having to go through this." 

The Texas parks department initiated the prescribed burn at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, and Pape said that sometimes, there are risks involved with taking safety precautions. 

"This is part of what taking care of our citizens involves, sometimes things happen that we can't predict and that we didn't want — fires, floods, freezes, pandemics," Pape said. 

"We will find out what happened here, and we'll get to the bottom of this and we'll be better for it."

The Rolling Pines Fire comes a few months after the 10th anniversary of the 2011 Bastrop Complex Fire which engulfed more than 1,600 homes and scorched 34,356 acres.  

More than 250 families ousted by fire

More than 250 families in the path of the Rolling Pines Fire in Bastrop County were asked to flee their homes Tuesday night, but local officials said no homes had been damaged so far. The fire, which has burned about 640 acres, grew quickly during the day's windy conditions and is still only 10% contained.

Bastrop County and local fire management officials told reporters Tuesday night that while it was too early to conclusively determine the cause of the fire, it was likely linked to the planned 150-acre prescribed burn in Bastrop County State Park. 

“We do think that it is likely that embers from the prescribed fire were the cause of the fire outside the park," said Carter Smith, the executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

From a prescribed burn to a wildfire: Here's what we know about the fire in Bastrop

The Texas parks department initiated the prescribed burn at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Smith said. It's the second prescribed burn in that area of Bastrop County State Park since the Bastrop Complex wildfire of 2011 that burned more than 34,000 acres and destroyed nearly 1,700 homes. 

Bastrop county officials had previously warned local residents about wildfire risks, but Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape said fire management officials followed the criteria for prescribed burns. 

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

The National Weather Service reported winds in the Austin area ranging from 15 to 25 mph with gusts ranging from 30 to 40 mph.

Dozens of Texas fire and public safety agencies are working to contain the fire and protect homes. Officials urged local residents to heed any evacuation orders and to avoid the area. The Elgin Recreation Center, 361 Texas 95, will serve as a shelter for families and the Bastrop Senior Center is open for first responders. 

Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative reported that the utility was asked by the Bastrop County Office of Emergency Management to "de-energize power lines serving 348 members in an area along Texas 21 to ensure the area is safe for emergency crews and residents."

Fire near Bastrop that led to evacuations now spans more than 600 acres

The Texas A&M Forest Service is responding to a "very active," 630-acre wildfire in Bastrop County. (For reference, Austin's Zilker Park is 351 acres.)

The fire north of Bastrop State Park, which officials have named the Rolling Pines Fire, appears to be linked to a Tuesday prescribed burn in the park. Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape told the American-Statesman the fire broke the lines and ignited new fires as winds picked up on Tuesday.

“The winds were just stronger than anyone anticipated," Pape said. The National Weather Service reported winds in the Austin area ranging from 10 to 15 mph with gusts ranging from 25 to 40 mph.

At least 30 families were evacuated from the area, but no injuries are currently reported. If needed, the Elgin Recreation Center, 361 Texas 95, will serve as a shelter for families and the Bastrop Senior Center will open for first responders.

Officials have closed Texas 21 East, between South Shore Road and FM 1441, the Bastrop County Office of Emergency Management said. Texas 71 remains unaffected and open as of Tuesday afternoon.  

Photos: Fire and smoke seen as wildfire burns near Bastrop

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Bastrop State Park fire acreage continues to grow 

The fire is now reportedly covering more than 600 acres of land north of Bastrop State Park, and has continued to grow steadily since it was initially reported. 

The fire was initially estimated to have burned about 150 acres, and the service was requesting assistance to contain it. Aviation resources were ordered to help out.

At 3:40 p.m. the forest service said the fire had grown to about 300 acres with none of it contained. 

The forest service ordered a temporary flight restriction over the area at 3:48 p.m. to allow firefighting aircraft free access to help contain the fire.

Evacuations underway in Rolling Pines 

Officials have evacuated the homes along Pine Tree Loop, Linda Lane, Lisa Lane and Pine Hill Estates, including Pine Hill Drive and the roads in between, according to the Bastrop County Office of Emergency Management. 

At least 30 families have been forced to leave so far.

The Texas A&M Forest Service sent out a warning of the day’s increased wildfire danger because of the warm, dry and windy forecast at noon. At 2 p.m., the service announced it was responding to a wildfire spreading in the Rolling Pines area. 

The fire at that time was estimated to have burned about 150 acres. 

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Rolling Pines fire 70% contained; mapping revisions expand burned area to 813 acres

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