Fire off Purgatory Road Caused by Welding, Consumes 973 Acres - Comal County, Hays County, Area Firefighters, the Texas Forest Service and National Guard Called in to Control Blaze

August 19, 2006

A fire that destroyed nearly 1,000 acres on Purgatory Road last Wednesday and burned out of control for 7 hours was finally tamed, thanks to firefighters from five counties, two cities, and the Texas Forest Service and National Guard. For hours during a long, hot afternoon, it was touch and go. For many hours there were serious concerns about the looming possibility of the blaze sweeping through the hill country. The long hot triple-digit days and extreme drought experienced by the area has prompted a burn ban on all outdoor fire activities.

This swiftly moving wildfire was the result of a welding and grinding job that got away. Workers were reinforcing a corner brace on a Wegner Ranch fence when the fire leapt from the sparks to the highly combustible material surrounding them. Outdoor welding has been banned in Hays County for most of this long, hot summer.

Wimberley residents began noticing the smell of burning in the air as early as midday. The Hays County Sheriff's Department was inundated with concerned calls, prompting an emailed announcement describing the situation as it first began. The department reported that "The Comal County Fire Department is working approximately a 20 acre grass fire off Purgatory Road in Comal County." Within the hour, additional support was requested as the extent of the threat was recognized. The fire quickly expanded to thirty times the initially reported size.

Wind changes split the fire and the firefighters were challenged on two fronts as the fire moved deeper into Comal County as well as burning into Hays County.

By 12:45 PM, the Texas Forest Service was asked for air support. Four aircraft - three helicopters and a command plane - were dispatched and began water relays. Water supplies are threatened in these counties, as well, and cisterns on the ranch were fortunately available for use.

FEMA authorized the use of federal funds to help fight the raging fire. "The fire threatened 100 homes near Canyon Lake, was zero percent contained and was moving at one-half to three-quarters a mile when the state's request for assistance was approved," said William Peterson, FEMA regional director.

When the fire spread to utility poles on Purgatory and Maverick roads, Pedernales Electric Cooperative was called in to shut down power in the area. Farms, ranches and the Bridlewood Ranches subdivision in Hays County were threatened before the blaze was contained in the evening.

More than two dozen trucks and fifty firefighters along with support personnel, including Hays County CERT, were required to control the fire. Earthmoving equipment was called in and the Texas Forest Service Task Force provided bulldozers to ensure containment. The full cost of the blaze and required firefighting services has not yet been determined.

Evacuation of neighboring Bridlewood Acres subdivision was cancelled in the late afternoon as the fire was brought under control. By 8 PM, CERT and other aid units could leave and the fire appeared to no longer threaten area residents. Fire crews remained on the scene overnight and will stay for another day, or for as long as necessary, to extinguish possible flare-ups.

Hays County and Comal County residents were fortunate this time, with no reported loss of life or serious physical injury to people. The smoke and heat were tangible reminders of the current fragile condition of the area. Concerned residents are hopeful that a larger effort to educate those who are not familiar with the tinderbox condition of the Central Texas Hill Country, even in non-drought periods, will prevent such costly and damaging fires in the future.