|Polk County Enterprise - Local News
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Bearing fire now largest in East Texas history
BY GREG PEAK
Area News Editor
CENTERVILLE – An army of firefighters from throughout the area continue this week to battle a massive wildfire that has rampaged through northeastern Trinity County since Friday. As of Tuesday morning, the Texas Forest Service said the fire had consumed 18,200 acres in both Trinity and Polk counties and was 60 percent contained. Known as the Bearing Fire, the blaze began Friday when a trailer being pulled along U.S. 287 in western Polk County was taken off the road. An overheated wheel bearing came in contact with extremely dry grass and flames began to spread. Winds quickly pushed the fire to the northwest into Trinity County and it marched forward, forming several “fingers” as it moved through the grass and underbrush as well as from treetop to treetop. Tuesday morning it remained south of Apple Springs. All roads were open and while sections of the Helmic and Griffin Ranch roads were evacuated on Sunday, all residents of that area have been allowed to return home. “Officially, it is now the largest wildfire ever experienced in East Texas,” John Warner of the Texas Forest Service (TFS) said Tuesday. “That’s not a good record to have, but it is what it is.” Warner, TFS’s on-scene public information officer, said as many as 12 different volunteer fire departments sent equipment and more than 100 men to help battle the flames. In addition, TFS firefighters and out-of-state volunteers – some mounted on up to 10 bulldozers – joined the ground action. By air, as many as four helicopters with large water buckets dangling beneath them “bombed” the fire daily in an effort to bring it under control. The helicopters made staggered runs to drop their water loads and then would fly to area ponds to refill their buckets. “The most important thing is that we have had no injuries,” Warner said. “The firefighters are working in extreme heat but we have had many community volunteers coming out to bring them water. “I can’t say enough about the volunteers – both from the fire departments and the community at large. There is no way we could handle this type of fire without their help and support,” the TFS official said. So far, TFS has listed two homes as having been destroyed by the fire but Warner was not sure if they were permanent or weekend residences. In addition, a dozen or more “camp houses” have gone up in flames and the TFS official explained they could range anywhere from a lean-to up to a parked RV. A number of barns and other similar structures also have been destroyed. “We’re getting a lot of calls from folks from Houston and the Dallas metroplex areas asking about their property. All we can tell them for sure is that right now the roads are open and if they want to check on their property, they can,” he said. Warner noted that TFS officials are advising those going into the area to check first with the fire command center located at the Centerville school on Highway 94 between Groveton and Apple Springs. “Depending on what the fire does, roads can be closed for public safety concerns and before anyone drives back into that area, they should check with the command center first,” Warner said. In addition to visiting the command center in person, as of Tuesday those seeking information can contact them by calling (936) 642-2163, (936) 642-3193 or (936) 642-1870 and dialing in extension 237 when prompted. The numbers are for the Centerville school and fire officials have been assigned an extension. Improvements in the weather on Monday – with lower wind speeds and higher humidity levels – slowed down the spread of the fire. Warner also noted that much needed rain was in the forecast for Tuesday and Wednesday that could help firefighters contain the blaze. “Right now conditions are extremely hazardous. People need to know that it is very easy for a fire to start and very hard to get it under control once it does. “We are getting reports that there are small fires being started by people barbecuing outdoors. A piece of charcoal falls out on the ground and a fire begins. “When barbecuing, people need to do it on concrete or gravel and have water readily available just in case,” Warner spread. While most of the county’s firefighters were battling the Bearing Fire on Monday, others were called out to put out a number of smaller fires that broke out in other parts of the county. Trinity firefighters were called to the Trinity Cove Subdivision Monday afternoon when a downed power line ignited dry grass. That blaze was quickly contained with minimal damage. Another fire broke out during the day off FM 355 between Chita and Old Groveton Road and four to five acres were consumed before it was extinguished. Local officials have indicated that the lack of recent significant rainfall coupled with the windy conditions have created some of the most hazardous fire conditions in recent memory. Outdoor burning of trash and other debris has been prohibited by Trinity County since March. On Monday night, the TFS hosted a “town hall” meeting at the Centerville school to meet with residents impacted by the fire During that meeting, officials with the National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) spoke to about 450 people. Curtis Heaton, NIMO commander of the Bearing Fire effort, noted that while the fire was 40 percent contained Monday night, that could rapidly change if wind conditions worsened. “This is the worst drought since l917 and it has created challenges to know exactly how to handle this situation,” he said. Heaton said the entire perimeter, except for a twomile area on the northeast had been surrounded by a fire break. Several dozers and other equipment were continuing to work through Monday night to accomplish Joining NIMO officials at the meeting were Trinity County Judge Doug Page and Sheriff Ralph Montemayor. The sheriff encouraged everyone to follow whatever instructions they were given and not to return their belongings to their home just yet.Heaton was asked how much longer it was going to take to extinguish the fire and replied, “If everything holds perhaps from five to seven days.” The “mop up” will be ongoing for sometime after that.