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The Art & Science of Battling, Containing & Controlling a Wildfire

Miguel Gutierrez Jr./KUT
Blackhawk helicopters refill water at the Buescher State Park Lake near Smithville on Oct. 15, 2015.

The Hidden Pines wildfire in Bastrop is now 80 percent contained, but just how do officials reach that determination? Well, it’s an art and a science.

First, there’s the science. Initially, firefighters estimate the size of a wildfire. Then, they determine what percent of that fire’s edges they’ve contained with a firebreak. Logan Scherschel with the Texas A&M Forest Service says that’s the line where firefighters have removed all the trees and fuel so the fire cannot pass. Fire breaks can come in natural varieties, as well – rivers, lakes, and canyons are all naturally occurring firebreaks.

Simply put, the percentage of the fire's perimeter that’s surrounded by the break, is the percent contained.

But, there’s where some of the art comes in. Firefighters want to be really careful about how they measure the strength of a firebreak. Scherchel says when he was in Bastrop County working on Hidden Pines, the fire was fully surrounded by a firebreak, but:

“Only 80 percent of it is to the point where we can guarantee or, well, guarantee somewhat that it will hold,” Sherchel says.

So that's why officials kept reporting the wildfire to be 80 percent contained.  He says firefighters start by creating lines around the parts of a fire that threaten lives and property, so the higher the percent a fire is contained the more secure the fire is overall.  However, if a fire is ninety percent contained but that remaining ten percent poses a major threat to lives or property, officials would not likely call the fire "mostly contained." 

As for containing those blazes, those fighting the fire use fire trucks, engines and bulldozers, as well as aerial options like helicopters and DC-10s dropping fire retardant, to stop the fire — a tactic Paul Hanneman of the Texas Forest Service's Incidence Response Department compares to armed combat.

"It’s no different than fighting a war," Hanneman says. "A war is not necessarily stopped by the air force coming in. It’s gonna be the ground forces – Army, Marines. It’s a similar situation in this case here."

In the air, they have tankers dropping fire retardant, and the National Guard is dropping water. On the ground, there’s the Bastrop County Emergency Coordinator, the Texas A&M Forest Service, a bunch of local fire departments, Texas Parks and Wildlife game wardens, University of Texas, MD Anderson police and the Bastrop Sheriff’s Department. 

Once the fire is out, and not just held back from moving forward, you’ll finally hear the word "controlled." 

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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