MISSION — The Mission Fire Department received a donation last month from the Texas Forest Service (TFS). With the donation came an additional responsibility for Mission firefighters – being on call to help the organization fight massive wildfires.
Gov. Rick Perry activated the Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System (TIFMAS) in February because of the threat of wildfires throughout the state. MFD was one of four fire departments that received the first round of TIFMAS grants – a truck specially designed to battle wildfires. Pharr Fire Department will be receiving a truck by the end of March.
“It is crucial that we take steps to prepare for and respond to the extreme wildfire conditions across our state and protect threatened communities,” Perry said after issuing TIFMAS last month. “Wildfires can start quickly, spread quickly and destroy quickly. I urge all Texans to heed warnings from their local officials, adhere to burn bans and make plans to keep their families out of harm’s way.”
Fire departments that received the donation are required to send two firefighters when TFS requests assistance. The firefighters are then placed near a high-risk location for a minimum of 72 hours, but can be in the field for as long as two weeks or more.
In less than a month, MFD has answered calls for assistance twice. The first two-person team dispatched on Feb. 26, with the second team dispatched on March 7.
According to the their website, in the past seven days, TFS has responded to 67 fires that have burned 14,726 acres. This year, TFS has responded to 364 fires burning 246,089 acres. TFS response has saved more than 1,750 structures, and only 170 structures have been lost.
Adrian Villarreal, a Mission firefighter for nearly three years, volunteered to go on the first call. His group joined a Strike Team in the Midland area.
“Compared to down here, it’s a real different experience,” he said. “It was good camaraderie and hospitality. We met up with our team the first day and they treated us like we’d been there for years.”
He said the fires are very different there because of the terrain, weather conditions and the actual fire fuels.
“I’d do it again,” Villarreal said. “In a heartbeat.”
Most of the time, Villarreal’s Strike Team was alone. There would be four TIFMAS trucks with one Strike Team leader at the location. The team would jump from one fire to another, depending on safety issues.
“The fires we would go to was usually because there was a neighborhood in danger, homes in danger, or lives in danger,” he said. “It was real different. Over here you have mutual aids, you can call in different departments. Over there, it was just us and the three other trucks.”
Depending on the size of the fire and the type of danger it presented, there would be more than one team battling the fire.
In the first fire his team was deployed to, 80 homes were in danger and two structures were already on fire. After that fire, the team was called to another fire where a neighborhood was in danger. While en route to the second fire the team stopped to assist with a different fire.
“We tried to put that out as best we could,” he said. “They say a fire moving four miles an hour can travel two football fields in a minute, and it did.”
The team was told to let that fire go and proceed to where they were called because houses and lives were in danger.
During another fire, a driver stopped on the road because of smoke covering the highway from a nearby grass fire, causing a seven-car pileup. One vehicle was engulfed in flames when it was thrown to the side of the road. A man with his niece and nephew were in the vehicle. The man managed to pull his nephew to safety, but was not able to save his five-year-old niece.
Villarreal said prevention is a big deal, but there are some things that are uncontrollable, like a fire that was started by a train going through the area. That fire burned over 30,000 acres.
“I had never seen fire move like that,” Villarreal said. “It’s one thing to see it in videos and see it in training, but when you actually see it in real life move two football fields in a minute, basically overrun you, and there is nothing you can do about it, it’s just a real different experience.”
Rene Alaniz assisted with the second deployment and has been with the MFD for almost eight years. Alaniz said they received training on the difference in the topography between the flat land in the Valley and the hill country in West Texas.
“This is something new for us,” Alaniz said about learning how fires travel uphill during his briefing.
Alaniz said he also learned about the command structure of the TFS. He explained that when a large grass fire occurs here, there is a unified command where all the chiefs are in one command post. With the TFS, there is one command post, and the firefighters are part of a Strike Team. The Strike Team consists of four units/trucks and one leader.
The Strike Team he was assigned to was stationed in Fredericksburg and on standby to go to Abilene or Midland.
“Part of being a Strike Team is waiting to see if you are going to go or not,” Alaniz said.
Although his team did not get a chance to assist in battling any fires, he said he benefited by learning from all the knowledge the TFS shared and seeing the command structure the TFS used to get the job done.
Both Villarreal and Alaniz said the command structure was what they learned about the most. When everything was laid out, they were called in and did the job they were asked to do. Both firefighters are ready to do it again if needed.
Mission Fire Chief Ricardo Saldaña said he knows his department will get more calls in the near future because of the dry weather conditions throughout the state. He said he has a good list of volunteers ready for when the TFS asks for their help again.
When responding to these calls, MFD initially pays for everything. Once the team is back, Saldaña submits receipts to the state for reimbursement on the equipment, fuel, meals and hours worked by the team. TFS provides room and board for the firefighters that respond.
Saldaña said the program is a good learning experience.
“They were able to see a different part of how the rest of the State of Texas fire service works; they were able to learn what a large incident is going to take and how to manage that incident,” Saldaña said. “They were able to learn self-sufficiency between four trucks and a command truck that they were going to protect each other.
“They have told me the experience they learned by being deployed was one in a million.”
The camaraderie and unity within the fire service when responding to these calls and the information they obtained, along with recommendations for their truck, were invaluable, he added.
“We have always wanted to be innovators, and I have allowed them to be innovators, because they’re the future of this organization,” Saldaña said. “And I guarantee you, they’ll learn to be good leaders and implement good, good methods to appropriately and smoothly run an organization or incident.”
Locally, Saldaña said prevention could go a long way in preventing big fires.
“We have that potential for it happening here as well,” he said.
Saldaña advises people with farmland, a ranch, or empty land to create a path, or firebreak, with a plow or just getting rid of the grass around the fence line at least one car-length wide. This will help alleviate the chance of a fire jumping from one piece of property to another.
Around town, residents who own one or two acre plots can still take preventative measures by making sure the grass is trimmed around fence lines.
He also said residents need to follow all burn bans and not burn unless they have a permit and follow TCEQ guidelines.
To stay updated with the current Texas wildfires go to http://texasforestservice.tamu.edu/main/article.aspx?id=12888.
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The Progress Times is the hometown newspaper for the local communities of Mission, Sharyland, Alton, Palmview, La Joya and surrounding areas in Western Hidalgo County. We have a staff of veteran reporters who work diligently every week to bring our readers the latest news as it affects their hometown area and people.