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October 18, 2011

From the Ashes, We will Rise…

By Jason Braunstein
VDOF GIS managerVDOF GIS Manager Jason Braunstein stands beside one of the maps he created during his deployment to Texas.

The call came in the morning of September 5th. The Virginia Interagency Coordination Center alerted me that the Red Team (a major incident management team) has been ordered to assist with a big fire burning in Texas. I’m supposed to get my gear ready and be prepared to go in short order. While my pack was ready, I needed to add a few things to my GIS kit. That afternoon, the final instructions came – I was to fly out at 6:30 the next morning.

Full of nervous energy and anticipation, I spent that night tossing and turning because the situation information I received said 600 homes had already burned and the Texas Forest Service was stretched thin. This would be my third wildfire deployment to Texas in 2011, and I was ready. At least I thought I was ready.

As our plane approached Austin, Texas, I started seeing spot fires out of the aircraft window. Then, off to the east, I saw a massive wall of smoke and fire burning. It had to be 20 miles wide. It was an awesome yet dangerous sight. My fellow passengers were awestruck of this image. It turns out that there were three other Red Team members on this flight, and all of us were stunned. This was just the first of many moments I hope I never forget.

Once on the ground, I picked up my rental car and headed east. I was en route to the convention center in Bastrop County. This was the site of the emergency operations center, the incident command post, the press conference area and the donation area -- it was Ground Zero for this wildfire. When I arrived, there were many Bastrop residents looking for answers. The roads were blocked because of this fire so the residents did not know if their homes were still standing or if their pets were still alive.

Less than 12 hours after the call for help came to me, the number of homes burned in this particular fire had reached 1,100. The Red Team got down to work immediately. We needed a roads map, a perimeter of the fire, a structure map, and an incident action plan map for the next shift. And we needed them now. The Red Team GIS lead was preparing the critical layers needed for these maps. We were fortunate to have two local GIS people on hand as they had the base data we needed to get our maps produced. More importantly, we needed intel from the local fire resources. This was provided by our operations section. My first project was getting the field intel into our mapping database. This involved editing the uncontrolled fire lines, the fire perimeter, the fire polygons and adding the fire points, such as the ICP, drop points, base camps, etc. We also had a second fire (Union Chapel Fire) that became part of the complex. We spent part of the day getting intel there, too.

The first day on the job, we worked 21 straight hours. But it was a job well done and well worth the effort. Over the course of the next two weeks, we worked an average of 15 hours each day.

Days 2 through 4 were spent getting the aerial operations maps as well as division maps produced. The division maps were crucial for our division supervisors as they spent their days dividing and conquering any spot fires. We had IR and FLIR flown each day to give the “troops” areas upon which to concentrate. (The IR and FLIR are heat sensitive making these spots easily visible on our maps.)

The troops consisted of hot shot crews and wildland fire crews from around the country. Those coming the farthest were the Midnight Suns from Alaska. We also had Native American fire crews- Zuni and Navajo, and the California Hot Shot crews- Whiskey Town, Texas Canyon, Sequoia, Los Padres, and so on. Each crew had the same objectives – keep the fire from spreading, and protect the structures still standing.

Back at the ICP, many political figures stopped by to assess the situation, and the fire gained national prominence as nearly 1,500 houses had burned. Residents continued to come to the ICP where there were two press conferences a day, and “lost pet” signs began appearing on the windows of the ICP. I noticed one family lost five dogs. Because we must detach ourselves from these situations, it’s often hard to show emotion. But this one got to me, and I had to go for a walk.

A second “emotional moment” occurred when a young girl entered the ICP. She handed out a cookie to everyone who was working/supporting the fire. I thought it was a nice gesture, but I was not prepared to hear that she and her family had lost everything in the fire. So, here was this young girl going through one of the most dramatic times in her life and she was serving us! I thought about my own girls for a moment and realized how lucky I was. It was then that it actually started hitting me how much destruction this fire caused. It was also then that I didn’t care how many hours I worked or how many hours I lacked of sleep. I was going to show up and continue to do my best to serve these Texans. View coming into Bastrop County [photo courtesy of The Statesman]

The following Thursday, the judge of Bastrop County invited us to attend the Bastrop High School football game. Eleven football players, four coaches and three cheerleaders had lost their homes in this fire. It would be an honor and privilege to be there. Once again, I was not ready to feel the emotion that I felt there. High school football in Texas is king, and Bastrop County was no exception.

As we walked into the stadium (which is larger than many college stadiums in Virginia), we were greeted with many thanks and expressions of love. At half time, they had all the firefighters and first responders come onto the field for a heroes’ welcome. It was another awesome sight. They cheered so loud for us that I got goosebumps. They ran a half-time video of the fire event and showed how this county rallied around each other. From the Ashes, We will Rise….

Several days later, the fire had reached a manageable state. A Type III team was ordered and monitored the fire after we departed. Because this was my third wildfire in Texas this year, I learned Texans are resilient people. And I was proud to help them restore order where there was total chaos and mass destruction.