At the time Lt. Lynn Hicks of the Blanco Volunteer Fire Department was scheduled to begin a presentation on wildfires to the Blanco County Disaster Response Group Saturday morning, he was nowhere to be found.
The group waiting at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Blanco could hardly complain; Hicks had arrived early to set up his projector, but almost immediately was called away...to a fire!
"It was only a small grass fire along US 281," Hicks explained later, "probably caused by a spark from a passing vehicle or a carelessly tossed cigarette, but it could have turned into something much bigger and more dangerous in a hurry."
It was the meeting's second fire loss. A second speaker, from the Texas Forest Service, already had been pulled out to the State Operations Center in Austin to help fight the hundreds of wildfires statewide.
Once back from the local emergency, Hicks explained how and why wildfires are so dangerous in rural areas just now, and what can be done about them.
"Wildfires are driven by three things," he said, "fuel, weather and topography -- the lay of the land. And right now, all three elements are working against us in Blanco County."
Fuel is the grass, leaves and wood that a fire consumes. Last year's heavy rains left us plenty of it, and the drought which followed made sure all of it is now dry and ready to burn.
Part of that is due to weather, and weather is still fire-hostile with no rain to return moisture to tinder-dry wood and grass. Also a part of weather is the low humidity that further dries the fuel, and the high winds that make any fire take off and race across the countryside.
The countryside itself is not the fire fighter's friend, either. Water is scarce in this part of Texas, and hills are plentiful.
"A fire blowing across a flat pasture can move fast," Hicks explained, "but a fire moving up a hill goes even faster, because the heat rising ahead of it dries the fuel upslope and makes it even more ready to burst into flame."
Add to that the man-made obstacles fire fighters encounter long, narrow lanes, long stretches of fence with no gate, large areas of uncut grass and brush and it's easy to see how a fire can get ahead and stay ahead of fire fighters.
"The best thing a homeowner can do is keep fuel away from the house," advised Hicks. "You wouldn't store gasoline beside your house, but people let cedar brush grow there, and dry cedar can go up like a gas can, and burn longer."
He advised removing flammable plants 30 feet from buildings, and keeping grass and brush trimmed for another 100 feet. Low tree limbs -- those within six feet of the ground -- should be cut away to keep fire on the ground from getting up into the crowns of the trees.
"A grass fire will burn right past a tree trunk without damaging the tree," he said. "But if it can grab a low limb and climb up into the crown, that tree's a goner, and so is the next one it can jump to, and the next. As valuable as mature trees are, that's thousands and thousands of dollars in loss in just a few minutes."
Hicks recommended that citizens not try to fight wildfires themselves, but to leave that to trained pros. If the homeowner feels compelled to fight the fire, though, do it from the rear. Fighting a moving fire from the front means it's chasing you, and sometimes the fire wins. Fighting it from the rear means it and its heat and smoke are going away from you. If the wind shifts and the fire turns, you're in the blackened area where there's not much left to burn.
What else can a resident do to protect himself against fires? Hicks' advice was simple: "Don't start one."
"Be careful with fire or anything that can start a fire at any time, and in weather and fuel conditions like these, don't burn anything outdoors for any reason."
The meeting was hosted by the Blanco County Disaster Response Group. The group's next meeting, Saturday, March 8, will be a full day of American Red Cross training in how to set up and run an emergency shelter. For information, call JoAnn Routh at 868-7414 or check the group web sites at http://www.hillcountryportal.com/web/blancocountydisasterresponsegroup/ or http://www.fumcjctx.org/Disaster%20Response.htm.