FORT HOOD, Texas - When high winds spread a training range fire on March 24 to a nearly weeklong firefighting effort, affecting more than 33,000 acres, Fort Hood’s Central Texas neighbors came in droves to support.
“(It was) the largest fire by current measurements that we’ve ever had, and as such, it required a large response,” U.S. Army Garrison – Fort Hood Commander Col. Chad R. Foster said. “What we got from the surrounding communities — local, state and federal — was impressive.”
Given the size of the Crittenberg Complex fire — roughly 15% of the installation’s acreage was affected — and the thousands of man-hours to combat it, the startling fact is that there were no injuries, nor major structures damaged … a success story worth sharing and praising, Foster said.
“The fact that we were able to fight a fire of this size with as many different external partners involved … without a single injury to anyone is a pretty amazing feat in my mind, and it’s a testament to the professionalism and training of our partners and our own first responders.”
In all, 29 local, state and federal agencies came to Fort Hood’s aid in battling the blaze. The nerve center for the firefighting effort was the Incident Command Post, set up in a large conference room within Fort Hood’s Central Fire Station. It was here where Lee Sodic, Directorate of Emergency Services deputy chief of operations and security, oversaw the action and helped direct the firefighting effort from day one.
“The main function of the command post is information in, and information out,” Sodic said.
By Saturday evening, March 26, Fort Hood firefighters believed they had the fire contained.
“We went home that night, thinking, ‘Hey, we’re coming in the next morning to do some mop-up operations,” Sodic said. “That is not what happened.”
Instead, the winds picked up the next day, and coupled with a precipitous drop in relative humidity to single digits, the size of the fire nearly doubled in a matter of hours.
“It was bone dry,” Fort Hood Fire Chief Andrew Lima said. He said the call went out early Sunday afternoon asking for assistance from the post’s neighbors.
“They told me the fire was leaving the installation,” Lima said. “I didn’t want anyone to get injured, killed, or lose their house. That’s the major concern going through my head (at the time).”
Lima said it was a “great relief” to have the support of so many outside agencies provide assistance to the firefighting effort.
“They helped contain it, especially to the west side because it (the fire) had jumped West Range Road,” Lima added. “They contained it from going further … heading toward Gatesville.”
But it wasn’t only outside agencies who headed into the firefighting fray. Members of the 36th Engineer Brigade — the 104th and 68th Engineer Construction Companies, 62nd Eng. Battalion, and the 937th Clearance Company, 20th Eng. Bn. — spent the better part of three days using bulldozers and excavators to cut more than 4,200 meters (more than two miles) of fire breaks to contain the blaze.
“Normally, it (cutting fire breaks) is before a fire starts,” Spc. Daniel Steffy, a bulldozer operator with the 104th ECC, said. “This was a little more exciting.”
“Our main mission was to construct fire breaks and clear vegetation,” Sgt. Tyler Klein, a horizontal construction engineer with the 104th. “Those breaks allowed an avenue of approach for the firefighters to be able to fight the fire from within.”
When the fire burned its brightest, March 28-29, aerial fire retardant delivery from the Texas A&M Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was instrumental in keeping the fire contained in the unoccupied training area, and away from any structures.
“The Texas (A&M) Forest Service was a major, major help with aerial assets,” Lima said. “That’s what stopped the fire from advancing northeast toward Flat, and saving a lot of homes.”
In 2018, Fort Hood battled another huge wildfire blaze, but last week’s fire surpassed it in size and scope by more than 10,000 acres. Fort Hood firefighter Spc. Chris Pillar of the 664th Ordnance Company, 13th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, arrived here in 2017 and remembers that fire in ‘18. The high winds, he said, made this fire much more unpredictable.
“It’s not really raging today,” Pillar said in the early afternoon of March 28, “but it’s not out, either. That’s the problem.”
Less than an hour later, the wind whipped up another line of fire along West Range Road, featured in photos and videos on the installation’s Facebook page later that day.
With ‘round-the-clock firefighting, when neighboring fire departments and other agencies came to assist, that assistance was greatly appreciated.
“The Fort Hood Fire Department would like to thank all the partnership we received from Coryell County, Bell County and Williamson County,” Lima said. “Without their support, we would not be able to contain and control this fire.”
By the early morning hours of March 30, a half-inch of rainfall helped quell the fire. By the early evening hours of March 30, 80% of the fire on Fort Hood had been contained, and 90% off-post near the neighboring town of Flat. Without that rain, firefighting efforts could have easily gone on much longer.
“It helped (dampen) all the hot spots we had,” the fire chief said. “When we did get winds back up again, it wasn’t pushing the fire from the hot spots. Sometimes you can’t see them until the wind comes and pushes them, causing more fires.”
By the evening of March 30, post officials were able to reopen traffic on both East and West Range Roads, though hot spots still existed and motorists were warned to be aware of emergency service vehicles on those routes.
A final update from the installation via social media and on the post’s online press center on Friday noted the wildfires were nearly completely (95%) contained. The smoke had cleared. Fort Hood could get back to its business of training the nation’s warriors.
“(It was) a big sigh of relief,” Foster said of his initial reaction when roads could be opened again throughout the training area. “If you ask me how I feel right now, I’m anxious to get back to work. And by that, I mean … back to training, because that’s what Fort Hood does.”