Saturday, August 05, 2017

Summer fires keeping Travis County STAR Flight crews busy

AUSTIN, Texas — Hot, dry weather has fueled a spike in the number of fires Travis County STAR Flight has been called to fight. Compared to the same time last year, Star Flight has been called four times as often.

“We’ve been really lucky since 2011, when we had devastating fires where you know we lost homes in our communities,” said Casey Ping, program director for Star Flight. “These fires have really just been the number of them is kind of a little bit unusual since this early in the year.”

Officials said so far, crews have been dispatched to 18 different fire incidents, compared to just three in 2016. 

“Virtually every shift, there's a crew that has been deployed to a fire mission somewhere,” said crew chief, Mike Summers. “This has been a very fire season for us. We’ve used all of the equipment we have available to us this year.”

The equipment includes a water chamber beneath the helicopter, which can carry up to 325 gallons of water. There’s also a snorkel that can pick up and drop water to inaccessible areas and the so-called pumpkin, a deployable tank.

“They’re portable water sources that we take with us on a lot of fires, in case there's not a close water source. So we could hook that to a fire hydrant and it could also be filled by fire trucks,” Ping said.

A former firefighter, Summers understand the visibility challenges fire crews on the ground face.

“We're able to give them and relay information to them about the fire behavior, what type of fuel is involved, what types of structures maybe be threatened, what direction the fire is moving and then where they need to concentrate their resources,” he said.

Bastrop officials said Star Flight made a critical difference during last week’s 60-acre fire in Cedar Creek.  

“We get eyes above the fire and see. So we made an initial attack, Star Flight did a number of bucket drops,” said David Gahagan of Bastrop County Emergency Services District 1. “Fighting fires in woods like this is really hard to get equipment, people in. So doing drops form the air is effective and very efficient.”

While Star Flight has played a vital role in fire response this summer, Travis County Fire Officials remind people to take preventative measures. 

A burn ban is still in effect in Travis County until Aug. 7.

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