Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The firefight on Hells Gate Drive -- one battle in a blazing war

Possum Kingdom Lake, Texas  -- Sweating and exhausted, the volunteer firefighter stared at the mountain ridge from Hells Gate Drive and knew a wave of furious flames was just minutes away.
Through a wall of thick gray smoke, Bozo Henderson could see the bright red flames shooting out from the tree tops. A sight that makes him say to anyone close enough to hear, "It's about to get real ugly around here."
Henderson relishes the fight as much as he enjoys telling people about his name. "People been calling me Bozo since I was a little kid, nobody knows me by any other name," Henderson told CNN as he prepared for a late afternoon firefight on the southern edge of Possum Kingdom Lake. It's the site of one of the biggest fires raging in Texas, where blazes in the past week have scorched about a million acres of land.
CNN on Tuesday afternoon witnessed one of the many dramatic battles that are unfolding every hour as thousands of firefighters try to get what's being called the Possum Kingdom Complex fire under control.
The "PK Complex" is actually made up of roughly five large wildfires close to each other and constantly threatening to merge into one massive super fire. As of Wednesday morning it had burned more than 147,000 acres, the Texas Forest Service said. It has burned more than 100 homes and is threatening 600 more.
Henderson is one several volunteers from the Lone Camp Fire Department in Palo Pinto. For days, this firefighting crew has jumped from hotspot to hotspot. The mission right now is to keep one part of the fire complex from coming down the mountainside and merging into a larger fire across Highway 16.
"If it jumps Highway 16, I don't know what's going to happen," Henderson says. "It's hard to stop. The ground is all dry, there's no moisture anywhere. There's nothing slowing it down."
As flames top the mountain ridge, Lone Camp Assistant Fire Chief Brandon Thornburg gets his crews moving. They call in heavy plows to move several thousand yards of dry brush out of the fire's path. The dry grass is made-to-order fuel for the swelling blaze.
"The flames are just racing," Thornburg says. "The one down below is coming our way."
A call for help comes in over the radio. "We gotta get to a safety zone!" blares the voice over the fire truck's radio. "Can I have an engine here at this house?"
With that call Henderson and his partner, Ted Hale, jump into their truck and speed to a point down the road.
"With the winds they're calling for it's going to be rough," Thornburg says as we watch the flames roll closer. "It's going to get extremely hot."
He says the flames are now leaping up to 100 feet over the treetops and temperatures inside the fiercest spot of the wildfire probably reach "well in excess of 3,000 degrees."
The fire has now come down the mountain and is up against Hells Gate Drive and Highway 16. Several dozen firefighters are setting "back fires" to help slow down the attacking flames.
Through the smoky haze a military aircraft drops down, low to the ground, spraying a long line of a rust-colored fire suppressant.
The fight goes on for hours. In the end, the firefighters manage to hold back the flames. The fire doesn't jump across Highway 16 and Hells Gate Drive. But the efforts take a toll on the crews.
"It's been bad. Everybody has been out here 24 hours the past week and a half. Everybody is tired," Henderson says.
This battle is won. But the fire war continues. With no time to rest, the firefighting crew from Lone Camp is off to the next hotspot.
Henderson laughs and says, "It looks like we're running around like chickens with our heads cut off. We get into certain areas, we do our thing and then something breaks out and we have to go do it again."
Hale says volunteer firefighters take these efforts to stop a wall of fire personally. At the end of a long day, he looks back at the battle won on Hells Gate Drive and concedes, "It's one of the few we actually won today."

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