The burning question about wildfire protection

Buses lineup to evacuate students at the Walsh Elementary school on Monday as a large grass fire moves towards the building.
Buses lineup to evacuate students at the Walsh Elementary school on Monday as a large grass fire moves towards the building. Special to the Star Telegram

The images were frightening.

Dense smoke from an out of control grass fire looms over Walsh Ranch Elementary School as buses line up to take students away and officials order a widespread evacuation.

Thick smoke from the wildfires shut down Interstate 20 and Interstate 30 west of Fort Worth — visibility is so low it is difficult to see more than a few feet ahead.

Dozens of firefighters from across North Texas scramble to battle the fires in eastern Parker and western Tarrant counties — where more than 1,700 acres is burning. Others rush to fight a blaze in Wichita County that is turning another 1,000 acres of rolling prairie black.

Welcome to the winter wildfire season!

Luckily, no one was hurt and no homes were lost in the fires west of Fort Worth Monday, thanks in no small part to the rapid response by state and local firefighters.

But the burning question that flares up along with these fires — described as the Red Buffalo by the Plains Indians who saw them sweeping across the tallgrass prairies — is are we prepared to fight them? Still flickering in our memories are the devastating fires in Poolville, Cross Plains and Possum Kingdom Lake.

The issue becomes even more pressing as Fort Worth and other North Texas communities expand outward into what is called the wildland urban interface. For example Walsh Ranch, which is expected to be home for 50,000 people, is now mostly 7,000 acres of undeveloped land. Fort Worth has plans in to build Fire Station 43 there by 2020. It will be the first of three fire stations in the Walsh Ranch development.

Parker County also has undergone rapid growth. The 2000 Census put the county’s population at 88,495, but a 2016 Census population survey said there were 129,441 people living there.

To help protect this population, the state has seriously beefed up its forces and programs to fight wildfires since the late 1990s, says the Texas A&M Forest Service Fire Chief Mark Stanford.

After the 1996 Poolville fire in Parker County that blackened 16,000 acres and destroyed 55 houses, the fire service has the ability to order in everything from modified crop dusters to tanker planes to control the blazes.

The state also created the Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System to make statewide use of local resources when wildfires and other disasters occur. Since 2008, there have been 30 TIFMAS deployments using 294 departments, 3,569 firefighters and 898 fire engines.

Agency staffing also has steadily increased. In 2009, the fire service had 160 firefighters and supervisors working across Texas. Since then, state lawmakers have appropriated $22.1 million and doubled the number working in fire response and operations. The fire services operation budget has since more than doubled to about $28 million.

Still, is this enough?

And one has to wonder, in a state like Texas with its booming population pushing the boundaries of many cities, if roughly 300 firefighters is sufficient. A 2015 study by an insurance analytics firm stated that $196 billion in property in Texas had a moderate to high risk of being hit by a wildfire. Another $6.3 billion was in the very high category.

While things have improved, we can’t let smoke get in our eyes and prevent us from seeing the need to be better prepared for a repeat of Monday, or, heaven forbid, something even worse.