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Fowlerton evacuated as state firefighters, airborne resources join local force in battling monster blaze
La Salle tallies 26 wildfires in week; arson investigation rules likely “human factor”
& AMANDA BROWN SNOWDEN
When staff at the National Weather Service examined their satellite screens for possible hotspots in a wildfire high-risk area of South Texas on Wednesday afternoon, March 30, they detected an anomaly that represented the beginning of a blaze that would ultimately consume thousands of acres and threaten dozens of homesteads and a town.
Reporting the incident to local emergency services at 2:20 p.m. Wednesday, the NWS set in motion a fire response that would involve ground crews as well as airborne assault, with cargo aircraft flying to La Salle County from as far away as Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The La Salle Fire Rescue has confirmed that conditions were favorable for a wildfire to spread unchecked across a wide swath of the Brush Country in drought conditions and in strong winds that would push the blaze toward the community of Fowlerton.
The incident occurred within days of a large and fast-moving wildfire that had claimed hundreds of acres of La Salle County at Falsette Road and would be listed as one of at least 26 fires tallied for a one-week period by the La Salle Fire Rescue, March 20-26.
Before Wednesday’s fire, the county service had been dispatched to 41 wildfires in March alone.
Situated some thirty miles east of Cotulla on Hwy 97, the small community of Fowlerton is recorded in the US Census as having 55 residents, a number that does not include farm and ranch families living on outlying homesteads or energy industry workers operating oilfield sites at remote locations across eastern La Salle County. According to the sheriff’s office, the decision on Wednesday to order a mandatory evacuation of the town triggered the immediate dispatch of deputies, constables, Highway Patrol troopers, game wardens and other available law enforcement to notify area residents that they had no option but to leave their properties.
The mandatory evacuation was ordered by La Salle Fire Rescue Chief Daniel Mendez, who was serving as incident commander for the fire.
With Hwy 97 closed because of the approaching fire and the need for access by emergency responders, Fowlerton residents were sent to Tilden in McMullen County, where they were housed temporarily in the community’s fire station.
In addition to emergency responders from La Salle, Dimmit, McMullen and Frio counties and volunteer fire departments from Cotulla, Encinal, Dilley, Moore and Pearsall, state and federal agencies sending teams and resources to the area included the Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System strike force, the Texas Department of Emergency Management, the Texas Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and Strike Team 122. Fire retardant was dropped from the air over pinpoint-targeted areas to contain the blaze and to protect property and vital infrastructure.
Firefighters have indicated that access to the fire was too hazardous and the heat too intense for ground crews to operate effectively, which further necessitated the call to the Texas Forest Service for an air drop.
Emergency services have confirmed that the wildfire crossed Hwy 97 on Wednesday but that its spread was stopped at some 40 feet beyond the two-lane road. Surveys of the area have found that the fire was fed by dry brush under a bridge, which enabled flames to reach the southern side of the road.
In a brief statement this week, the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office is crediting the swift response by all agencies involved with eventual containment of the wildfire before it could reach either Fowlerton or the smaller community of Los Angeles, both of which were identified as being in the fire’s potential path on Wednesday afternoon.
The county’s fire rescue service is likewise extending its appreciation to those who assisted.
“It was a very well coordinated effort among all agencies in La Salle County,” LSCFR Assistant Chief Gilbert Martinez said.
“The wind changed direction somewhat and the fire was slowed on its approach to Fowlerton, which helped save the town,” Sheriff’s Investigator Homar Olivarez said on Monday. “Meanwhile, the people of the town had been told to get out. This was a traumatic experience for all involved. Imagine being told in no uncertain terms that you have to leave everything you own behind, right now, and know that it could all be destroyed.”
“Going west on Highway 97 would have put the people of Fowlerton directly in the fire’s path and in immediate danger for their lives,” Olivarez said. “We had to send them in the opposite direction.”
Assisting in the house-to-house sweep of the area, enforcing the evacuation order, were La Salle County Undersheriff Rene Sobrevilla, Captain Elvira Gonzales, sheriff’s deputies and Constable Guy Megliorino.
Those sheltered in Tilden were informed shortly after 11 p.m. Wednesday that they could return to their homes.
Firefighters continued working to contain the wildfire Thursday. During the day, the sheriff’s office returned to its support capacity, assisting the La Salle Fire Rescue with traffic control. Further air drops of retardant were made, and by Friday morning the wildfire had been contained.
Preliminary reports from a survey of the initial blaze confirmed that 5,964 acres had been destroyed. That total would increase, however, with a second ignition on Friday.
Investigator Olivarez said he traveled to the scene with representatives of the Texas A&M Forest Service Law Enforcement Division to examine the possible starting point of the fire and to determine its cause when they noticed “a large plume of smoke at a distance.”
“The fire had re-ignited and was now covering an area that had not been burned the day before,” Olivarez said. “It was in a remote location, difficult to access.”
The re-ignition prompted a second dispatch and several further hours of firefighting before the incident could be listed as contained Friday night.
An arson investigation by the Texas Forest Service has ended in a statement indicating that all possible causes except human action have been eliminated.
Investigator Olivarez, however, said Monday that the ruling does not specify that the fire was set deliberately.
“The human factor in a fire like this could very well be accidental,” Olivarez said. “It could have been started by hot exhaust from a parked vehicle, a cigarette tossed on the ground and not extinguished, even something as commonplace as someone driving an all-terrain vehicle through dry grass.
“In fact, it’s quite possible that someone may not even know they caused this,” the sheriff’s investigator said. “Weather and wind conditions, bright sunlight, dry grasses in a severe drought, all contributed to this. Anything as simple as a glass soda bottle on the ground could have resulted in enough light magnification to ignite a fire.”
Both the sheriff’s office and the fire rescue service have confirmed that no structures were lost and no energy industry site damaged by the fire.
Emergency responders were again dispatched to eastern La Salle County on Sunday evening, April 3, when a vehicle tire blow-out caused a fire beside FM 469 near Los Angeles that consumed a further 50 acres.
The cause of Sunday’s fire was determined by the Texas Forest Service, whose agents revisited the area Monday, according to Olivarez.
County officials are quick to note that despite a forecast this week for intermittent rain, a countywide burn ban remains effective through early June.
The ordinance makes it a criminal offense to ignite any fires outdoors for burning trash or vegetation and requires all agricultural or prescribed burns to be reported in advance to local agencies and closely monitored throughout.
“One rainfall in conditions like this isn’t going to make any difference to the drought,” LSCFR Assistant Chief Martinez said of the forecast. “The wildfire risk remains just as high as it was. We are in a period of extreme danger.”