Learning from the Texas Wildfires: Bastrop State Park and Beyond

This presentation is part of A Century of Design in the Parks: Preserving the Built Environment in National and State Parks, June 21-23, 2016, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Abstract and Presenter’s Bio

Dennis Gerow: Those last two presentations were just so outstanding. We’re going to switch things up and talk about disasters. Natural disasters, to be exact. We tend to focus in our daily work on stewardship responsibilities that involve maintenance, repair, funding, histories, administrative histories, interpretation, those kinds of things. Those are the central focus of our work. Every now and then something dramatic happens. It forces us to reconsider the entire way we operate. One of those things was an event that happened in October, no September, of 2011 and that was a wildfire that struck Bastrop County, which is about 30 miles east of Austin. That fire took about 24 days to extinguish, and in it’s wake it left 1,700 homes destroyed and two people lost their lives. It also swept through the state park, which is an NHL CCC park.

The Bastrop Complex Fire engulfs the park pines

We were pretty devastated at the time. We were actually fairly well prepared to some extent, but the thing was moving so fast and it was just so furious that we basically had to get out of the way and let firefighters do their thing. I’d like to just show some slides here with that.

This is a CCC master plan of the park. The entrance is down here. It goes up. There’s a refectory and a swimming pool complex. It’s got a typical park loop road. Got a cluster of cabins that are up here. It also had a pretty unique nine hole golf course, which a CCC park, because it has two overlooks and there’s actually a road that goes off the Bastrop State Park that connects and it’s very scenic. One of the interesting things about this park is from a national science side, these are the lost pines. It’s just an immense pine forest. There was a lot of material to burn. It’s also the habitat for the Houston toad, which was an endangered species.

When this thing hit, it was devastating for a lot of different groups within our program. This is what we typically think of when we think about our physical materials. We think about this CCC guy, he’s preparing the masks for the heart supports in the refectory. Just the playfulness of the materials, losing this kind of thing loses the connection.

Losing the physical material is one thing, but to lose the connection to the period, it made the park so distinctive in the first place which just exacerbates the loss. These are the types of structures that we have in the park. The refectory’s on the top left, we have twelve cabins, at least twelve cabins. We have two scenic overlooks, both of these. This one’s just called Fehr’s Overlook, which was high up on a trail. Arthur Fehr was the architect who was most responsible for the work in the park. There is a cabin, you can see on the top left, there was a lake just immediately adjacent. We’ll talk about that maybe later. You can see some of the problems. The CCC liked to nestle their structures into nature, which is a blessing and a curse, because there’s a lot of material there to burn. I love culverts, so I through a culvert. They’re just such incredibly beautiful things and we learned a lot about culverts, because there was so much material exposed after the fire.

CCC Drawing of Bastrop Cabins, Texas State Archives

Typical CCC drawing in the top right. Just the playfulness of the drawing, they’re just so wonderful to look at. You can see the interiors. This, we connect to the CCC, we connect with the CCC boys, but we also connect to the user, the visitors who come to the park and do it generationally. They keep coming back, families keep coming back. There’s just such a sense of playfulness, you can see the amount of use that the cabins get.

After the fire, we had to do a condition assessment. We were allowed back in the park. Fehr’s Overlook was extremely concerning to us. We lost two roofs in this entire thing, we lost two roofs, one on each overlook. The rest of the buildings were spared and Fran, I think, will talk a little bit about that. We asked Fran to come out to take a look, because we had a FEMA representative, an inspector come out, and he condemned Fehr’s Overlook. He said, “We’re not going to give you any money to put this thing back together, because it’s just too far gone.” I looked at it. I wasn’t convinced. I asked Fran to come out and that began a dialogue that resulted in us applying for a grant with NCPTT and we were awarded the grant. This study is an outgrowth of that award.

Frances Gale: Starting here with a dramatic image, the Bastrop complex wildfire was our Labor Day wildfire. It begin on September 4th, 2011, and it was the largest wild land urban interface wildfire in the state of Texas and the third nationally. The wildfire spread at a rate of five miles per hour for the first few hours. Wind-speeds encouraged heavy spotting and it was estimated that spotting distance was really as far as three miles. Extreme heat and wind also created vertical and horizontal vertices, which propelled the fire forward, increasing its speed and its crown spread.  You can see that the fire covered quite a large area and Bastrop State Park is right in the center of the area of the fire.

This video shows the power and the speed of the wildfire and really is sort of shocking to look at it. I’m going to talk about the aftermath. As Dennis mentioned, the Bastrop Complex wildflower … Wildfire, I guess that’s a Freudian slip on my part, impacted over 32,000 acres and nearly 1,700 structures. Many people lost their homes. It did affect 96% of the Bastrop State’s Pine Forest. Shocking to me, immediately following the fire there was up to a foot of ash in many parts of the park. The CCC cabins and the day-use structures were spared.

Battling a blaze of this size required a coordinated effort among several fire departments at both the local and the state levels. Bastrop State Park own fire department worked to save the CCC structures, but the larger fire was battled by local fire departments, the Texas fire service and from firefighters from as far away as California. All the visitors in Bastrop State Park were evacuated thanks to the quick and effective efforts of park staff. As you can see, this image, firefighters removed pine needles and doused roofs with water. They also built containment lines to stop the fire from spreading to populated areas of the county.

Here’s a map. As Dennis mentioned, the cabins are around park headquarters, which has this Texas lone star. The overlooks are at the other ends of the park road. Here’s the Lost Pines Overlook and Fehr’s Overlook. The overlooks were more difficult to access. They’re in remote hilly areas and they were also in the direct path of the fire. I think it’s fortunate that the cabins were located in area that could accessed and were not in the direct line.

Fehr Overlook after the fire, roof missing

Dennis mentioned that the overlook structures were not completely spared. Both are in remote locations that were more difficult to access. Part of our work with the grants project was to assess the effects of the fire on cultural resources in Bastrop State Park. We looked both at direct impacts as well as indirect impacts. Regarding direct impacts, obviously the wood was a critical factor here. Some information about burning temperatures and the temperature of the fire itself. What we found, typified by this slide, was that you have one charred horizontal beam and some charged remains in some of the lower beam pockets.

Most of the sandstone used to construct the CCC structures was quarried locally. During our post-fire inspections, we were concerned about the dark color of the sandstone of the overlooks, which as you can see in this image, appear charred with granular disaggregation. We suspected that the sandstone had suffered thermal shock and was altered at the micro level. However, our laboratory testing, which included a scanning electron microscope examination, provided no definitive proof of the fire’s direct impact. Sandstone matrix appeared intact and the micro-cracks and gaps between the quartz grains and the crust were judged to be pre-existing conditions. I want to mention that this work was done by our graduate student, Miriam Twarek Hofstetter, with the assistance of Dr. Earl McBride, professor emeritus at the Jackson School of Geosciences at UT.

We also looked at the direct impacts of the fire on mortar. Those effects were not obvious during our post-fire inspection. There was some dark-colored soiling, but the mortar appeared to be intact with little powdering. That said, the exposure to the high temperatures may impact the mortars over time and for this reason, we recommended monitoring its condition during maintenance inspections.

Severe Erosion in Bastrop State Park since the fire

Perhaps the most serious impact of the fire were the indirect impacts due to erosion. Indirect impacts occur as a result of fire induced changes to the site where historic resources are located. Considering the extreme loss of vegetation during the fire, the park was at increased risk for soil erosion. The sloping terrain of the park was a complicating factor. Slopes ranged from gentle, which is zero to five percent slope, to very steep and greater than 20% slope. The official report issued by the Texas Forest Service indicated that there was increased risk for water erosion issues in more than 30% of the affected area. In fact, problems did occur. In January, 2012, following a severe storm, many of the CCC culverts, Dennis’s favorite culture resources, were soiled and damaged by soil erosion and the conditions included stone displacement, losses, and silt and debris covered stone. Emergency repairs were required.

Now that I’ve kind of gotten everybody in a depressed state of mind, I’m going to turn it over to Casey with some encouraging news about what we learned from the fire and how to prepare for the next one, which we expect will be coming.

Casey Gallager: Yes, my part of this project was to see what could possibly be done to help prepare a park like this for a worst case scenario, which had already happened. Someone mentioned yesterday the idea that your cultural resources are sometimes at war with your natural resources, so how do you prepare for a situation where your natural resources become an imminent and horribly dangerous threat to your cultural resources? What we found trying to look for information was that there wasn’t a lot out there specifically for this type of a park situation, where the design was for structures to be nestled in to their surroundings or forest. A lot of the preparation documents were for house fires or things like that with historic buildings.

What we kind of focused on was a three prong thing, basically preparing the building, preparing the site and preparing the people. Substitute materials for the building, defensible space for the site, and planning and communication for the people who will be involved. Substitute materials, and what I found was there’s obviously, just like most things in preservation, not one answer for everything. It’s a situation by situation problem. The Bastrop cabins do have fire rated wood shingles, which was kind of the best that could be done, balancing the historic integrity of these that had wood shingles originally. That’s something that as culture resource management staff, you’d have to weigh out the danger of a possible fire if you’re in a fire prone area to that substituting out the original materials. But it is definitely worth looking into.

Defensible space is also one that’s tricky in these parks, because they were, in their original design, designed to be tucked in and subordinate to the surroundings, and the surroundings are right up next to these buildings. A lot of these parks built in the turn of the century didn’t have all these codes. I looked at defensible space codes that are designed for new construction, housing and buildings built into wild land. They make sense for new construction, but they’re very hard to fit in with the scenic park situation. But I did compare these. They all have a radius of 30 feet, where they really don’t want any vegetation at all within 30 feet of the building. I’m not sure if there’s many national park settings that that would work with. It’s a good start to look at to try to see how they can be adapted to a park situation. They’re all very similar. Wild urban interface code, the Firewise in California code, all kind of basically say the same thing, trying to lessen the fire load around the buildings.

This is an example the National Parks Service did in Baker Island, Maine, where they took those principles and they really went with it. This is one that I put up as an extreme example, but it’s one that, again, would have to be a case-by-case basis. They restored this back to … Its period of significance didn’t have all of this growth coming up around. To protect the lighthouse, they cut it back. It was a controversial decision, but now that structure is much better protected. This would not have worked in Bastrop State Park. The whole purpose of the park would have kind of been obliterated. There’s a balance that has to be struck with that.

Bastrop State Park Firefighter douses cabin roofs ahead of the wildfire

I wanted to provide some guidelines of something for the parks to use. I think above and beyond, the most important, was to assemble a team and be proactive about that. Talk to, and have cross-training, between the firefighting team that might be the one called in to your park, and the cultural resource management staff. Let the CRM people talk to the firefighters and the firefighters educate CRM people about what could happen if a wildfire hits that specific building, that specific area. They are trained to read the terrain, the vegetation. They’ll be able to tell what will go up quickly. Then at that point, there will be a balance of judgment calls how you balance the historic integrity, the landscape design, all of that with the things the firefighters would probably tell you need to get out of the landscape. That was a key thing. The firefighters at Bastrop went to heroic efforts to save those cabins. They were aware of the importance of those buildings beforehand. Walking through your site and actually talking to a certified wild land firefighter and looking at those structures would be important.

Then, prescribed burns in parks is important also. Then, prepare the structures, document them in case worst-case scenario they’re lost. Then, do regular maintenance to remove fire-loaded materials that could cause a problem. Then, get them as prepared as possible in case a fire should get near. The defensible space thing again, is a good thing work with a team on and try to balance your park with the possible worst-case.

If the worst-case happens, I developed an assessment form for going in as soon as it’s safe to go back into the building, to assess specific things that become issues with a wild land fire, so there are erosion issues. Things about the building that are typical after a fire. Those are things that you would want to get in as soon as possible to make sure that the damage is basically stopped where it is as much as you can. But the erosion and flooding is one that is specific to a wild land fire compared to a house fire. At Bastrop, it really played a big role later on, so that’s something that would be important to kind of try to mitigate so you don’t have secondary damage there.

This is the first page of the form. It’s a three page form. Just try to go through each individual resource and evaluate it after a fire goes through. One other thing that is important to know, if you have a little cluster of buildings, one of those little park villages, if there’s a way to make sure that you have a really good source of water, a fire hydrant there. That was a challenge at Bastrop. They didn’t have a water source very close and it was very difficult for those park roads, for the fire department to get through back to those. That’s one that can be, if there’s a cluster of buildings, it’s a good thing to put up if you’re in a wildfire prone zone, to make sure there’s a really good, reliable source of water. This was kind of a worst-case after the fact assessment form. Hopefully no one will have to use it ever, but probably.

This was the team of folks that worked from the firefighting team, all the way down to all of us, who put this project together.