Learning From the Texas Wildfires: Bastrop State Park and Beyond (Podcast 45)
Kevin: Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast – the show that brings you the people and projects that are advancing the future of America’s heritage. I’m Kevin Ammons with the National Park Service’s National Center for Preservation Technology & Training. Today we join NCPTT’s Sarah Hunter as she speaks with Fran Gale, Director of the Architectural Conservation Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, and Miriam Tworek-Hofstetter, recent graduate from the University of Texas’s Historic Preservation Program. The three will discuss a recent NCPTT grant project titled “Learning from the Texas Wildfires: Bastrop State Park and Beyond.”
Sarah: Hello Fran and Miriam. Thanks for joining me today.
Fran: It’s our pleasure.
Sarah: Miriam, could you tell me a little about the Bastrop State Park and the wildfire?
Miriam: Okay, well the park was established at the beginning of the 1930s and shortly afterwards the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps, started developing the park. There are a number of CCC structures still standing. There’s a group of day use buildings, a group of cabins, two overlook structures, and a number of culverts. The 2011 fires, started in September and it burned through most of that month. During that time most of the buildings were protected from the fires. So the day use buildings and the cabins, the wild land firefighters were able to work the fire around the buildings, but the overlook structures and the culverts were all burned over in the fire.
Sarah: Fran, what were you trying to learn about the Bastrop State Park wildfire in particular?
Fran: Well, we thought it was an opportunity to gain some information about a really tragic event that had occurred. With the idea that the more we learned about what had happened and what the results were the better able we were to put together some guidelines for preventing damage in the future from wildfires. Specifically, we started out with the idea that we really wanted to assess the damage that had occurred. From our early site visit and from discussions with Texas Parks & Wildlife we knew that there had been some damage to some of the structures. So our idea was to really look closely as how the exposure to the wildfire had affected those materials and we approached that in a scientific manner. From the information that we gained we then learned a lot about how wildfires are likely to damage historic structures. With that information we could put together guidelines that the parks might follow to help prevent future damage, to help them be better prepared.
Sarah: How did you and Miriam become involved in the project?
Fran: Well, I got involved because I was part of a team that wrote a grant application to NCPTT. Our team was me, representing the University of Texas at Austin, and Casey Gallagher, a recent graduate of our Historic Preservation [Program] here at UT. We talked about this idea for a grant proposal, as we had both worked a bit with Texas Parks & Wildlife, we thought that they would be a really excellent partner. The grant application was put together by our team, but the grant applicant was Texas Parks & Wildlife. So Casey Gallagher and I were subcontractors, if you will, to [Texas] Parks & Wildlife; and worked closely with them throughout the project. We applied for the grant, I think, in Fall of 2011 and then in the Spring of 2012 we found out that we’d been successful with our grant application. That summer Miriam was between her first and second years of the Historic Preservation Program at the University of Texas and each student in our program is required to do either a master’s thesis or a professional report. So I talked with Miriam and I had worked with her before and knew that she was a good student, an excellent researcher and a person I could depend on. So I talked with her about this project and just shared with her the idea that this would make an excellent thesis topic and convinced her that this was a project that she could tackle.
Sarah: Miriam, Could you tell me a little bit about your testing and process?
Miriam: For my part of the grant project I spent a lot of time thinking about the stone, I think we all did. We knew from research that stone, even when it doesn’t obviously react to a fire through spalling [for instance], can still be damaged on a micro level. Our testing started with a water absorption test to see if that could give us an idea of any sort of changes in the stone between our unburned sample and the samples we had taken from the buildings. From that testing we got a range of different absorption rates, so there wasn’t anything conclusive from that. From there we contacted a geologist at UT’s Jackson School of Geosciences, and he was a scholar in the stone around Bastrop and was really familiar. I should say that the stone that was used in these buildings was all quarried locally. He came out to the park with us to look at the stone, and he helped me doing examinations with the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) and with those examinations nothing was seen that indicated real serious structural damage to the stone.
Sarah: Could you tell me a little bit more about how this could be applied to other wildfire cases?
Miriam: One thing that we haven’t talked about yet is the importance of building a defensible space around structures in a wild land situation. Having clear space for firefighters to be able to work fires around a building and preventing the fire damage in the first place is very important. Then also an awareness that fire is going to affect different materials differently. Different stones will react to the fire exposure and will be damaged more so than we believe that the Bastrop fires on sandstone was.
Fran: This was a very interesting project, Miriam’s work as she discussed was focused on the sandstone in a highly technical way. We had an opportunity to really look very closely at the effect of the wildfires on material. I think that her work adds to the body of knowledge about the effects of high temperatures and fire on materials, there is a body of literature. So I’m pleased that she could add to that. Because we looked closely at what had happened during that 2011 wildfire period and we studied the effect of wildfires on parks, both state and national in other parts of the country, we were able to develop some guidelines for Bastrop and other state parks in Texas and beyond to follow[in order] to be better prepared to deal with disasters of these type. Part of our grant products included guidelines for preparing and dealing with these kinds of issues. I think the other thing that came about through our study was the realization that you really have two communities who are involved with the study of wildfires in these sorts of situations. You have the historic preservation professionals, cultural resource managers, conservators, historical architects, and the like; and then the other community are the folks who are trained as firefighters and first responders. What we discovered was that these two groups in Bastrop, but I think we see this trend throughout the United States, don’t communicate as well as they might. Part of our study was to point this out and recommend ways to remedy this kind of rift between the two groups. The groups certainly are interested in the other groups work, but our recommendations were for ways in which these groups could better work together and coordinate their efforts. In my view that was one of the most important things that came out of this study.
Sarah: Thank you guys once again for giving your time today and talking about your project.
Fran: Thank you.
Kevin: That was Sarah Hunter’s conversation with Fran Gale and Miriam Tworek-Hofstetter. You can find the transcript of this interview on our website. That’s ncptt.nps.gov. Until next time…