Bill Hanson, a STAR Flight pilot, spoke with KUT News on April 17th, 2012.
Hanson: Sure, I’ve been in Austin, Texas now for three and a half years. I actually came here to work for STAR Flight. I’m a paramedic; I’ve been in emergency medical services for close to 25 years now. Started as a first responder at my college campus and didn’t know that this was going to turn into a career, but it has. I started flying just under 10 years ago. Flew in the Navajo reservation in Arizona, moved from there to Colorado and then found out about a job up with Travis County STAR Flight.
KUT News: So you fly the plane? You pilot the plane?
Hanson: No, I’m the paramedic rescue crew chief.
KUT News: Ok, and how many are in your crew?
Hanson: We have a crew of three.
KUT News: In the plane?
Hanson: In the aircraft, in the helicopters.
KUT News: Helicopters.
Hanson: Yep. Yeah, it’s a county based helicopter, there’s three actual helicopters, we have two of them staffed on any given day. And each aircraft is staffed with three people, a pilot, a paramedic, and a nurse typically. More important is whether it’s a paramedic or nurse, because it could be two paramedics, it could be two nurses, if one of the nurses is also a paramedic, is that we have to have a crew chief and a rescuer on board.
KUT News: And are you one or the other? You’re always the crew chief?
Hanson: I’m both crew chief and rescuer. You learn to be a rescuer first and then as you continue your time and training, eventually you become a crew chief.
KUT News: Well, let’s get started then, can you tell me your first moment of the fires?
Hanson: The fires started for me on August 15 with the horseshoe fire in Leander. And that wasn’t the first fire of our season, and it wasn’t even the first big one. I was gone for the first that really set the tone for the season, although we didn’t know it at the time and that was April of last year, it was actually a year from yesterday, I believe. And that was the Oak Hill fire.
KUT News: And how did that set the tone?
Hanson: It was the first – STAR Flight’s been fighting fire since 1990 using their helicopters and typically it’s grass fires, brush fires, ones that are difficult for fire trucks to get into, they’re in remote areas. Last April at the Oak Hill fire, this was the first one where we were assisting and fighting fires where there were a lot of houses involved in the area where Oak Hill is, there’s housing developments, and then they’re separated by grass lands and forest lands. And the fire was started in a forest area near one of the housing developments eventually wiped out I think 23 homes… or more, and STAR Flight was called in because as the fire was spreading from one development to another, it was spreading across these forested areas so it was difficult for the fire trucks to get access to and fight.
So for the first time we were fighting fires over houses on houses, we were dropping water on houses, on people’s property, boats, anything that was in their driveway. And that was kind of a first for STAR Flight. It was also big, it was the – at that time even, it was one of the biggest fires in central Texas history. Of course, we didn’t know it was coming the rest of the season.
KUT News: So, then what happened for the Labor Day fires? When was your first moment?
Hanson: My first moment in the Labor Day fires, I had asked for the week off actually, so that I could run a triathlon on Labor Day. So I was off, and I had been scheduled to be out of town, which meant I wasn’t even on call, I wasn’t considered available. But I was in town for the triathlon. And when I saw on the news what was happening, the Pflugerville fire was really the first one that cropped up, and we had two aircraft on that day that had gone up and fought it. By the afternoon I think the Steiner Ranch fire had started and then the Pedernales fire which was an extension of the Cedar Park fire when it spread south and jumped highway 71, by the evening of September 4, we had four fires going. And they did an emergency call out at STAR Flight with the fire department for any personnel that were in the area. So I called in, although I was considered out of town and unavailable, I volunteered. And I remember I went to bed that night knowing I was going to get up the next morning and go fight fires.
KUT News: So where did you start? This would be the fifth…
Hanson: Right, so on the fifth, I got up. I actually was scheduled to come in the afternoon so I could work til sundown. We had another crew that came in at sunrise, so I actually ran my triathlon in the morning, and then went in the afternoon, and we sent out to relieve the crews that were fighting the Pedernales Fire on highway 71.
KUT News: And so, what did you see?
Hanson: The first thing I noticed is that we were driving out there, because the helicopters were already stationed out there. We had a remote fuel pod trailer so we were completely self-contained out there, we didn’t have to fly in anywhere to get fuel or supplies. So to relieve the crews, we had to drive out. So as we drove out, you could see the smoke, we were passed actually by three police officers who were screaming lights and sirens past us, we were in a county vehicle as well, but they were going and setting up road blocks on highway 71, on roads adjacent to highway 71 and keep everybody out of the area, and you could see the wall of smoke on the horizon that the only thing that I’ve ever seen that was anything like it that I can remember is a sand storm in the desert.
KUT News: Was it like from left to right, everything you saw was smoke or?
Hanson: Pretty much blocked out a huge portion of the sky, and as you got closer to it, it felt like it towered over you. It was pretty ominous.
KUT News: Was it tall? Or was it wide? Or both?
Hanson: It was wider than it was tall, and to be honest, I’m confusing it in my memory a little bit, I know with the smoke cloud from the Bastrop fire cause as most people will remember, the Bastrop fire was happening at the same time. Since we were a county resource, we were not able to go out and fight the Bastrop fire, which was a bigger fire, because we were a Travis County asset. So we were trying to protect property and lives in the county. Bastrop fire was huge, and they ended up getting state and federal resources to help them since we were unable to. But I do remember jumping back a little bit, just in the morning as I was driving in, to our hanger in east Austin. I’m driving east, and I saw a smoke cloud from the Bastrop fire and that was enormous. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. And that was both wide and tall. And it just blocked out the entire eastern sky.
KUT News: So you were driving to the hangar or you were driving into Pedernales- the fire area?
Hanson: I kind of jumped around there, both. Initially as I drove into our hangar in east Austin, that’s when I saw the cloud from the Bastrop fire. And then we geared up in a county vehicle and started driving west to Pedernales to relieve the crews, and that’s when I started seeing the smoke clouds for the Pedernales fire.
KUT News: As you say. So what station did you go to? Or how far – where were you, close to some landmarks that we can share with the…
Hanson: We were close – we were just past the intersection with I believe it was Spicewood Springs Road where highway 71 crosses it. There was a – the police had shut down highway 71 west from that point. And there was a golf course out there that I don’t know the name of that’s maybe two or three miles down the road from that intersection. It’s on the north side of the road, and we had set up in the parking lot of the golf course, our fuel trailer and landing zone. So as we were- as the aircraft needed fuel or as we needed refreshment, water – water and refreshment. We would land in that parking lot, so that was our base of operations.
KUT News: I see, and so you joined a new crew, you were the afternoon crew.
Hanson: So I drove out with another crew chief and a pilot. The pilot and I took over an aircraft that was being run by another crew. They had been on since dawn that morning, so they were relieved and they were able to go home and rest up for the next day. This went on for several days, and Kenny, who was the pilot, he and I went up. When we fight fires, we’re not a crew of three; we’re actually a crew of two. Although for all other missions, we’re a crew of three, like I mentioned.
KUT News: Oh, I see.
Hanson: So on a fire mission where the pilot and the crew chief, the pilot’s in the front of the aircraft, obviously, they’re flying the aircraft. The crew chief is in the back on the side door, and we’re spotting the targets as we’re going in and dropping water on them, and we’re also calling out as we’re coming in to dip water out of ponds or lakes, and we’re calling in the movements of the aircraft to assist the pilot in doing that.
KUT News: So, you don’t take off with water.
Hanson: You don’t take off with water, we take off with an empty bucket strapped to the bottom of the aircraft and we locate our water source and then we dip water out of it. Pretty basic, simple operation.
KUT News: And so you’re close to wherever you need to be? You’re finding the closest source.
Hanson: Exactly, finding the closest water source.
KUT News: So how big is your bucket?
Hanson: It’s 120 gallons. And 130, but it winds up holding about 120, which is just about 1000, just a little bit more than 1000 pounds of weight.
KUT News: And so, where was your first – and so you’re looking for the fires that have broken out so you can place the water on the fire first, well, tell us what is your procedure?
Hanson: Well, there’s really two things we can offer during a fire, one of them is just overhead reconnaissance for the ground crews, so we can let them know where the fire is, where it’s spreading to, what structures are in danger, cause that’s first priority are lives and then property, structures, and then third is actually trying to contain the fire. The morning crew had a pretty good feel for the boundaries of the fire already and what structures were in danger so they gave us a quick briefing on that when we came in. So that when we got in the air, we went up, did our own reconnaissance, confirmed everything they had told us, kind of got our bearings and our land marks, made contact with the ground crews who were on the ground fighting the fire with fire trucks and brush trucks and then started dropping water on the most critical areas.
KUT News: And so, what was the most critical area?
Hanson: I remember when we went up that first time, there was a house along what we call the right flank of the fire, so it was the western side of the fire, the fire started north, and then spread south. So we were on the right flank of the fire, and there was one house in particular, I remember it had a satellite dish, and it had a ravine just to the west of it, and the fire was spreading up the ravine, which whenever you’re uphill from a fire, that’s a bad place to be, cause fire’s going to easily move over the fuels that are uphill from it.
There was a brush truck or two at that house already and they were doing their best to keep the fire back and wet down the ground so it wouldn’t spread to the house. So we immediately started assisting them and dropping water right around that area. I remember it distinctly because we would have to, in order to do our orbits in the aircraft; we’d have to fly through the cloud of smoke that’s coming off all the fuel that’s burning right there. And for a few seconds, we’d be blinded.
And it wasn’t until I think the second or third orbit around that I actually noticed the satellite dish that turned out to be a terrific land mark that the fire was right along the edge of that satellite dish. So I would look for it each time as we came around to help call the pilot into where our target area was.
KUT News: And you were high enough to where you were not going to hit anything?
Hanson: Yeah, one of the first things we do for our own safety, we do a high recon and we look for any hazards or obstacles, any towers, powerlines, anything like that, so we know what’s in the area. So when we’re entering a smoke cloud like that, we already know what’s in the area, we know that we can get through it from one side to the other.
KUT News: And were you instructed about where to go, that first position that first location, or you did your reconnaissance and you decided then that you were going to go to help the two brush fire trucks.
Hanson: I’m pretty sure we were asked specifically to go to that site by the ground crews, because we’re trying to support them in any way that we can. So for that first target, I’m sure we were called into it, as the day progressed, there were multiple target areas that the fire was spreading. It was like a battlefield where fronts kept opening all the time. And we would see fires start on the ground from the air, but probably started just from a tiny ember that blew from one portion of the fire, and it would go to the area that was until then, untouched.
And I remember this happened south of 71 the house with the satellite dish was north of 71, once we were released from it, when that structure was safe, we were called south of 71 and we were fighting something down there, but we noticed a small fire developing somewhere that there were no other fire trucks, there was no apparatus, it was a brand new fire. So we called it into the ground command and they gave us permission to start fighting that fire. By the time we were able to get two or three- by the time we got our first bucket of water to come back to fight that fire, that was already up to two or three acres. Just from one little tiny ember.
KUT News: So, you got to watch things ignite. You were actually able to see maybe the trail of fire as it then went to really big areas. Where did you get your water for the first fire you fought?
Hanson: There was a retention pond somewhere north of that golf course. It may have even been the retention pond for the water in the golf course, I don’t know, but it was very close to our base of operations there at the golf course.
KUT News: So, what do you do? You just hover low?
Hanson: Yeah, well we literally – we literally come in… we’re used to all the mission profiles, we do an EMS, law assist, rescues, we’re used to bringing our helicopters in low to the ground, landing them in some circumstances, and sometimes landing them in very tight areas. So we’re used to working in small, confined areas. So, the pilot picks his best path approach to the water source, we help guide them in, and get over the water source, and just descend the aircraft down till the bucket’s in the water, and it fills. And then we come up with a full bucket of water and we fly to wherever we’re going to drop it.
KUT News: So, with the second fire you mentioned, where you watched it ignite acres, where’d you have to get the water for that?
Hanson: I think we dipped it right out of the Pedernales River as I recall. There was the – the Pedernales as I recall was completely dry, it wasn’t flowing. But there were areas where there were still large puddles or cachements of water, if you will. And there was one right around a bend in the river that was a good reliable source, and we used that for a lot of the fires that we fought south of highway 71.
KUT News: Did you land? Or were you just able to lower?
Hanson: We were able just to fly right into the river gorge and dip right out of the – basically a large puddle. There’s videos of this on YouTube because there were people on the banks, some who had stayed in their homes and others I think from the highway that filmed us during this whole operation.
KUT News: Well, we hope to get some video from you all too. That’ll be great. So tell us more. Tell us your most memorable experiences… of that day, and so how many days did you fight the fire? And then go back to the first day if you would.
Hanson: I fought the Pedernales fire for two days running. STAR Flight was out there for three or four days total, before we had it completely contained and wrapped up. And simultaneously, I remember the Steiner Ranch fire, in which I think 24/25 homes were lost. We were also fighting that fire. We were doing aerial reconnaissance at night, just to see where there were glowing embers, to get an idea of how well contained the fire was, what direction it might start spreading the next day.
KUT News: Can you not fight a fire at night?
Hanson: We are not permitted right now on our current operating procedures to fight fire at night. It’s very dangerous, very difficult to do, it’s impossible to see the obstacles, the power lines and the radio towers and whatnot. We use night vision goggles, so we do a lot of operations at night. A lot of rescue operations at night, but firefighting is not one of the missions we do at night yet.
KUT News: I see, you say yet. Is that something that’s coming down the pipe?
Hanson: I’m not sure. It may be.
KUT News: Something being discussed?
Hanson: I think it’s probably being discussed at higher levels than myself. Yeah.
KUT News: So that first day, you were in the Pedernales area, homes in the country.
Hanson: Yeah, country homes. Trailers, I remember one particular trailer that was just north of highway 71, where we fought a fire around their yard in the afternoon. There’s a big red barn just south of there, just south of highway 71, and there was a fire down in a ravine that was near the barn. We were called in to help suppress that. Cause again when fires down low, it’s going to go up high. So it’s going to creep towards structures. You asked me about my most memorable moment. It’s probably the next day, so September sixth.
After fighting the fire the whole day on September fifth, we came back on the sixth and we’re called in – by that point, I think the Pedernales fire had spread, and it was separated into a couple of different fires, a couple of different command structures were in charge, cause it was so big and it – we had managed to put part of it out, so we had fractured it. So we were called into the area in near Stage Coach Ranch Road and we were fighting pretty much spot fires at that point.
We had the greater portion of the fire pretty well under control, and we were just attacking where embers were cropping up here and there. And different than the day before, it felt like we were winning the battle. I remember when I left at the end of the day on September fifth, it felt like we had been fighting a battle on multiple fronts, and had been losing frankly. Every time we put something out, two other fires had started up and we just couldn’t get enough water to them fast enough.
At night, of course, things go down, the air’s cooler, and the fire doesn’t spread so much as it does during the day time. When we came back in September sixth, things were better, they were more under control. We were able to attack individual spot fires and get them under control quickly. We had actually been – my pilot that day, his name was Kevin, we were released by ground command to go ahead and head back to our base later in the afternoon, cause I felt that they had things well enough under control, we were just about to do that and we noticed a small fire had started down slope again, it was down the Pedernales gorge, just below a row of about five or six houses, right near a bend in the Pedernales river. So we went over to look at it and we saw that there were home owners up above on the top of the bank, right outside their home, with garden hoses. Trying to wet the ground down so it didn’t spread uphill towards their house.
And there was this house, and then next to it again were four or five other houses. So all those houses were in danger. So we let ground command know that we were operating that area, and we started dropping water on this one hot spot. And it was a really stubborn hot spot. I remember I got a couple of good views at it as we were dropping water on it. And it seemed to be – the fire seemed to be tucked behind a large boulder, so this was very difficult to get to. It was protected directly from above by trees that were ultimately going to ignite if we didn’t put it out.
It was protected from the front by the boulder. It was just a really stubborn spot. And we made I’d say a dozen or more approaches to this fire from different directions from different angles, pulling water out of the Pedernales river. And we were having some success, but limited success. We were getting to the point where we had to consider going back for refueling. So we were going to have to stop operating pretty soon, and Kevin the pilot, we did a low slow approach so that he could get a good look at where things were. I’m outside on the skid on the cargo, out of the cargo door, so I can see things better than he can. But he’s the one flying the aircraft, so he needed to really get a better vision of where he needed to get that bucket of water.
So we did a low, slow approach. He looked, got a good visual, and then he decided to, on this next go around, to do a direct approach right to it and then swing the bucket at the last second, and basically swing the water, like throwing a water balloon just above the boulder. So we did a running approach that was just about at the level at the top of the hill that the fire was below. And it was pretty much eye level with the residents who were now standing up there, waving at us and clapping and cheering. And he came right at it, turned at the last second, swung the bucket, he released the bucket, and the water just spewed out right on top of that boulder. And when I looked back there was nothing but a little bit of smoke.
KUT News: Wonderful!
Hanson: It was a real satisfying moment, and when we flew around the homeowners had put down the garden hoses and they were jumping up and down and clapping their hands.
KUT News: Did you get much interaction from residents throughout those two days.
Hanson: Not very much. Every now and then, we’d be low enough to the ground and there’d be a resident who would wave at us, kind of a friendly wave. Once or twice residents would try to target us into an area where they wanted us to fight a fire, and we would if we were available at that moment, we would do that.
KUT News: But those residents, they weren’t supposed to be there, were they? There was the road blocks and…
Hanson: Yeah, I think it was a voluntary evacuation. But certainly there were residents that stayed behind to try to protect their property.
KUT News: So your pilot was just going straight towards the hill.
Hanson: Pretty much, a little bit above it.
KUT News: Did he have to pull up?
Hanson: We had to bank, we banked left and up on the fly away and you know, from the left side- from the right side cargo door, it felt like yeah, we were pretty much headed toward the rim of that hill. I know he could fly over it if he needed to. But I know his plan is to bank and veer out that way, mostly so he could throw the bucket of water the way that he wanted to.
KUT News: So he operates the bucket.
KUT News: And so what are you doing on the – you’re out the door on a – what did you call that?
Hanson: We’re on the skid of the helicopter.
KUT News: The skid is like the side rail or the footstool or what is it?
Hanson: Yeah, basically. I mean the skids of the helicopter are what the helicopter lands on, and then above the skid, there’s another foot platform that looks like another skid, and we stand on that. We can stand down on the skid itself. We’re connected into the helicopter by a tether, which is connected to a full body harness.
KUT News: Good.
Hanson: We have a – we have really the best visual of everything happening below the aircraft in the target area during the last few seconds of dropping a bucket or doing a rescue. The pilot loses sight of the target, just a few meters or so depending on our speed, before we get to our target area. So we’re calling it in usually those last few steps.
KUT News: Great, and so are you also out there for most of the firefighting, or are you – so that you’re really out in the smoke, and you’re out in the atmosphere. Are you out on the skid?
Hanson: During a lot of it, when we’re dropping water and when we’re picking water up, we’re out there so that we can see what’s going on; see where we’re dropping the water. When we’re picking water up we need to let the pilot know that the bucket has touched the water. When it’s filling, when it’s full, and when it’s clear of the water, because they can’t see any of that. So we’re out there that entire time. During the rest of the time, we may be inside the aircraft, but we keep the door open, and we fly the aircraft below a certain speed so we can keep that door open.
KUT News: So what was the weather like that first day, the 15th?
Hanson: Uh… the fifth.
KUT News: I’m sorry, the fifth.
Hanson: The fifth yeah. It was hot, it was hot and dry. The –
KUT News: What about the wind?
Hanson: Uh… there was wind out of the north. Which is nice, because it’s cooler than the wind out of the south, but it was a dry wind. And there didn’t seem to be much moisture in the air that was the thing about the fire was- last summer in central Texas, was that the ground was so dry because we hadn’t had rain in so long. I think over a year, I know at my house in south Austin from the floods that we had in September seventh in 2010, we had one night of rain for the calendar year from September seventh until the following September. That was the only rain that we had at our house in south Austin.
KUT News: One night of rain.
Hanson: One night, and a couple of passing thunderstorms that lasted maybe 10 minutes apiece, somewhere else in there.
KUT News: For 2010, 12 month period.
Hanson: 12 month period from September 2010. That was the only rain we saw in south Austin. So, I don’t know that other areas in Texas got that little, or didn’t even get that. But suffice to say, everybody remembers. The ground was really dry, and the air was dry that day. And it seemed like – it really felt like, especially as we were watching these little fires ignite everywhere, that a grass fire would ignite just from looking at the ground the wrong way. Literally, I think one of the fires. I don’t remember which one, but it was determined that the cause, I think that it might have been a Hamilton Pool road area fire was starting from chains dragging beneath a truck, and the sparks that flew off the chains.
KUT News: Can you tell me – so it was really hot of course.
Hanson: Really hot.
KUT News: Smokey?
KUT News: Where you were – were you above it? Or – you were above it to see everything, but then you were in it.
Hanson: Yeah. We’re flying around the smoke typically. You know, avoiding the smoke cloud. The only time we fly through the smoke cloud is when we’re on track to actually drop water on a specific target. And then that line just brings us through the smoke cloud. That would happen.
KUT News: The north wind wasn’t gusty? Was it just – or was it, do you remember?
Hanson: I don’t recall. And it’s hard to judge winds in the aircraft, because we’re flying at 60 miles an hour.
KUT News: Well, of course.
Hanson: The pilot knows, because he has instruments that tell him what the wind is doing and what direction it is. But in the cargo door, most of what I feel is wind coming from the front of the aircraft; because that’s the direction we’re going.
KUT News: And you wouldn’t feel resistance from a wind coming at you necessarily?
Hanson: If it’s real strong, if you’ve got 30/40 mile per hour winds or greater, you can feel the effect of that on the aircraft. You can feel it being buffered around. I don’t recall any of that. I do recall talking about flying through and around the smoke at the – on the August 15th fire, the Horseshoe fire. The – in Leander, there was one particular moment – and that was a fire, was in a trailer park up in Leander. And there were, I think 13 homes that were destroyed by the end of the day there. We had two aircraft fighting that fire, I was in one of them, and my partner was in the other with a different pilot, when my pilot and I came in to drop water on one particular trailer.
There was a big column of flame that shot up pretty much right underneath us as we were flying up over to drop the water. Something flared up. At first I thought it might have been a cedar tree, but looking back on videos that there are on YouTube of this, because people had taken videos of this and posted them on YouTube. All you gotta do is get on YouTube and search: STAR Flight fights fires or helicopter fights fires, Austin Texas. And you’ll get a lot of footage of us, as well as a lot of the other helicopters that were in the area.
The park service helicopters and some of the federal aircraft that were sent in. But somebody’s got a video of us flying over, we’re getting ready to drop some water over this trailer home, and then what I think happened was a propane tank might have exploded. Cause a huge column of flame shot up right underneath us. The flame didn’t quite reach the level of the aircraft, but I remember the moment distinctly, because I was standing out on the skid, again calling the pilot to where we were going to drop this water. So I’m playing attention to the target, which is the fire we’re trying to hit. And just as I call him to drop the water, I felt heat all around me that I hadn’t felt before.
And we were in a cloud of smoke and I couldn’t see anything. I close my eyes and I remember a bunch of ash and debris came up into my helmet underneath my visor. And so, for a second or two, I couldn’t see. And everywhere that I didn’t have uniform covering my body, which was only my hands and part of my neck. I could feel super-heated, uncomfortably hot air. It was over before I even had time to react beyond closing my eyes. And when I opened my eyes, my uniform was covered in white ash, and the ash blew away within a few seconds of flying through the air, and everything was fine and now there was cool air again, and that brief second we were in a cloud of smoke, couldn’t see anything, and it was very, very hot. And it’s pretty interesting to see it on YouTube, and actually see the column of smoke come up just in front of us.
KUT News: And pretty much touch you.
Hanson: Yeah, and pretty much touch us.
KUT News: Well, it’s so dramatic to see a helicopter fighting a fire. I mean, my goodness, there must be as you say lots of video out there. In this day and age, our phones… So tell us what did you, what fires did you put out during those two days. Did you go to the Steiner Ranch area? Or were you just doing the Pedernales for those two days?
Hanson: I fought the Pedernales fire. People that I worked with, obviously, they were at the Steiner Ranch fire, and although there were fewer homes or at least fewer structures that were destroyed by the Steiner Ranch fire, that was a really concerning fire, cause all the homes were closely packed together. So it was spreading from one house to another. It was really hard to get under control. I remember days after the fires were over, and we were flying back from an EMS call that we had done somewhere in the western part of the county, and I was with the pilot who had, who was one of the pilots who had fought the Steiner Ranch fire. We flew right over the Steiner Ranch area, and he pointed out the houses that he had been dropping water on, and there was one, I think it was a cul-de-sac of probably a dozen houses, and four or five of them were nothing but foundations left, with cinders on top of them. And you said the other half dozen or so, those were the ones he was dropping water on.
KUT News: To try to save them.
KUT News: Can you tell me, you said you have two helicopters, that you have three, right, but you have two that fight- there were two that were fighting each day.
Hanson: There were actually three on some of the day. We have three helicopters, two of them are staffed on any given day, and we can put a third one in the air by calling a crew, we have enough firefighting equipment, that we can staff all three aircraft for firefighting.
KUT News: And for that I’m sure you did.
Hanson: Yeah, actually within an hour of the county recognizing that this was a multiple agency call out emergency. Within one hour, we had all three aircraft staffed on September fourth.
KUT News: Within one hour of the radio station of the first call for you all to be –
Hanson: For us to fully – to staff ourselves, within one hour, we had all three aircraft up and running with the crews and firefighting equipment.
KUT News: And where were those three that first day.
Hanson: Now, I wasn’t on that day but my recollection is that first one – or maybe two aircraft were in the Pflugerville area, and then one or two, one initially and then the second one was retasked to go out to the – what I think started as the Spicewood fire and then ultimately became the Pedernales fire.
KUT News: And then on the fifth. Where were your three?
Hanson: On the fifth, when I showed up that day, all three of them were at the Pedernales fire.
KUT News: And how about the sixth.
Hanson: And then the sixth, I think we still had two aircraft down at the Pedernales fire. And I don’t recall where the third one was at that point. I was on one of the two aircraft at the Pedernales.
KUT News: But one was at the Steiner Ranch fire. Are you considering that part?
Hanson: That was the fourth into the fifth. We’d retask aircraft on an hour by hour basis sometimes so we might have had three aircraft in one location for part of the day, and then one or two would get retasked to a different area. Again, there were so many fires cropping up in so many different areas.
KUT News: You needed to know where each of you were.
Hanson: Yeah, exactly. So our command staff were obviously in touch with the fire departments and the public safety personnel. And they’re making a decision about where to allocate us.
KUT News: Then there were other non-STAR Flight, non-Travis County aircraft fighting the fire.
Hanson: Yeah, I think by the fifth we had some forest service aircraft that came in, a big Type 1 helicopter, which has a huge cistern of water that carries in it, and it can put down a lot more water in one drop than our helicopters can.
KUT News: Where’d it come from?
Hanson: I don’t know where it came from, but these were aircraft- there’s several different types. There’s the helicopters, there’s the small single-engine planes that are small and light and maneuverable, and they can get down and drop water in tight areas. There’s also the large DC 10, which I have a picture of in my journal and it has, if I remember correctly from the news from your guys reporting, it has the only DC 10 in the country that’s equipped to fight fires. And it’s a huge aircraft that when you see it drop, it’s fire retardant over an area. It’s just an amazing sight. Picture a large, commuter sized aircraft that would normally carry 100 or 200 people, dropping just a cloud of fire suppressant over an area. And it was put into use for multiple fires throughout last year, but – so by the 5th, we had to know that forest service helicopter, and they come from different areas of the country. I’m not sure they have a central base of location anywhere. They’re sent wherever the fires are. They are needed on a particular season. They’re a federal asset. So they were sent to central Texas last summer, because we were the area that needed it.
KUT News: So there was one of those.
Hanson: So we had one of the helicopters, we had some of the fixed wing – single engine fixed wing aircraft. I believe we were in the area on the fifth. I think the DC 10 was specifically allocated for the Bastrop fires.
KUT News: Makes sense. So what fires did you put out?
Hanson: Ultimately we helped put out the Pedernales fire, the Steiner Ranch fire, the stage coach ranch road, which was part of the Reimers Ranch fire, which had been sparked by the Pedernales fire.
KUT News: That week.
Hanson: And the Pflugerville fire. Yeah, all that week.
KUT News: Busy people.
KUT News: So what structures did you help put out? And land, do you have kind of a list of all that you’ve assisted in?
Hanson: Sure… do you mind if I look through my journal?
KUT News: Sure.
Hanson: I’m sure you can edit this later if you need to, right?
KUT News: This is just your story, so. I’m just acting like I know nothing. Which is easy for me to do.
Hanson: There’s a picture by the way, of a C130 dropping fire every time. Yeah, that was out of The Austin-American Statesman. But yeah, a pretty remarkable photo.
KUT News: And where else did you find water besides the gulf reservoir and the Pedernales?
Hanson: Those were the main areas. We also have a large bucket, which holds several thousand gallons that we can locate anywhere that we need to. So if we don’t have a readily available water source, we can set up this pumpkin, we call it a pumpkin, we can set up this pumpkin of water, and we can dip our buckets into it, we just need a fire hydrant to fill it up with.
KUT News: And did you have that out there?
Hanson: We did, we had it at each fire. We didn’t have to use it at the Pedernales fire, because we had enough reliable water in the Pedernales gorge, and in that water retention pond north of the golf course.
KUT News: So, and those were closer to where you needed to be.
Hanson: Yeah, they were close enough to where we needed them and the pumpkin is useful, but some of the more remote fires that we’re fighting, there’s not fire hydrants readily available. So some of the particular structures I remember helping save: one was at that house with the satellite dish. That I talked about, I remember flying back, that was on the fifth, and I remember flying back on the sixth, and seeing that house in the area, pretty much lead right up to the house was all charred. But the house itself was still safe. So that was some job satisfaction.
The houses along the Pedernales gorge, where Kevin and I had put out that spot fire that was going to creep up onto the bank. Those areas are – I also know the Steiner Ranch fire was the one that really, I think, pulled at a lot of people’s heartstrings, because there were so many homes in jeopardy. And there were only so many that they could save, when you have a fire that’s already actively involved in one home or on the edge of a home, the fire department on the ground has to make a decision that this is our fighting line and we’re going to fight fires to this side of it, and we’re going to lose everything to that side of it.
And, so I know that there were places that people dropped water that – you would like to save everything, and I know in Bastrop they drew lines across whole communities and sacrificed them just cause they knew they couldn’t contain the fire to that area, and hundreds of thousands of homes were lost, and there was just nothing you could do about it. But I know I gave my pilot great satisfaction to fly over and see the houses that he had saved that he had directly been directed to drop water on and had saved those houses as a result, in the Steiner Ranch area.
KUT News: So you were with him your second day.
Hanson: He was the pilot that I was with on the second day. And then days after the fire when we were flying back and we looked down over Steiner Ranch and he could see the houses that he had saved. One of my pilots that I fly with regularly who also flew and fought the fires that week, he actually lives in Steiner Ranch, and he wasn’t able to go home because the Steiner Ranch – Quinlan Park Road was shut down. Nobody was allowed in or out. Well, they were allowed out, they weren’t allowed back in once they went out. So he went in to fight the fires that day to staff an aircraft, wasn’t able to go home that night and stayed at our hangar in the crew quarters and got up the next morning and fought fires in his own community that he wasn’t able to go home to.
KUT News: What is his name?
Hanson: That’s Chuck. Chuck Spangler.
KUT News: So, you had some statistics you wanted to share with us.
Hanson: Well, I pulled some stuff out of the paper, just on the number of homes that were lost, and this was as of September sixth according to The Austin-American Statesman. The Pedernales Bend fire lost a total of 65 homes, 6400 acres. The Leander fire, which was again two weeks before that in August, that was where we lost 13 homes, 300 acres. The Steiner Ranch fire that we’ve talked about, that was 23 homes, 125 acres. That really speaks to the density of the homes in the Steiner Ranch area, as opposed to the Pedernales, that you lost 23 homes in 125 acre area, whereas in the Pedernales: 65 homes in a 6400 acre area.
And then Bastrop, this was again on September sixth, 476 homes lost at that point in a 25,000 acre area, looked up online yesterday and the total according to the one website I looked at was a total of 1650 homes lost in Bastrop. And during that, up to September 19th of last year, STAR Flight flew a total of 89 fire missions and dropped a total of 1563 buckets of water, which is over 20,000 gallons of water, and that’s more than twice as much – more than twice as many callouts and I think almost three times as much water as was dropped the previous four years leading up to it. That’s how bad –
KUT News: Combined? Or…
KUT News: 1563 buckets from when to when?
Hanson: During 2011 up until September 19th.
KUT News: And that’s Travis County.
Hanson: That’s Travis County specifically.
KUT News: Well, you sure are busy folks. Unfortunately. You are a STAR Flight paramedic; did you do any paramedic work for these fires? For the Labor Day fires?
Hanson: No, I was pretty much staffed in an aircraft that was just fighting fires.
KUT News: You never had to rescue anybody while you were…
Hanson: No, we didn’t. There was a time or two I know when fire fighters on the ground were in danger, and we were ready to evacuate them if we needed to, they always managed to find another way out. There was one brush truck in particular that I remember when… it was during that spot fire that started south of highway 71, which by the way was near a – what looked like an orchard or a vineyard, that was in that area. And it looked like it was going to burn the vineyard.
That was the one that we called in and command gave us permission to start fighting that fire, but it was already up to two or three acres by the time we got back to it. A brush truck and a large fire apparatus came in to help us, so as we were dropping water from the Pedernales onto it, the brush truck was trying to hit it from the road, or the fire apparatus was trying to hit it from the road, and the brush truck came into the field and was trying to hit it- the fire spread so quickly, it started to surround the brush truck, and they had to pull out of there, and they had to do it so quickly, they had one of their fire hoses dragging behind the truck they hadn’t been able to reel in. So they were just trying to escape the fire so they didn’t get overcome by it.
KUT News: And was that put out? That fire?
Hanson: Ultimately, yeah, we got that one under control.
KUT News: OK, I mean that day?
Hanson: Yeah. By the end of that day. But there were others that had started up while we were fighting that one.
KUT News: When you’re in your aircraft, you’re going 60 miles an hour when you’re trying to go to and from the water source and to the fire, are you going that fast?
Hanson: Under 60.
KUT News: Under 60?
KUT News: And, were you seeing all those fire embers? I’ve been hearing that they – that the embers are huge.
KUT News: In the air, were they that high where you were?
Hanson: Yeah, there were ones that were high enough that we could actually see them sometimes. Tiny glowing pieces of fuel that were light enough that were being lifted by the smoke cloud, and born by the winds.
KUT News: And would you ever be in danger of that igniting your fuel tank or…
Hanson: No, the aircraft is well enough designed, it’s got filtration systems for the air intakes and the fuel tanks are well enough protected that small debris isn’t going to cause any damage.
KUT News: And somehow all the smokey air can be filtered out, it doesn’t overheat anything in your aircraft?
Hanson: We’re not in it long enough for it to cause any real problems, either to us or any of the equipment.
KUT News: Well, tell me what else you’d like to add to your story. I’m sure you’ve just had, what an unbelievable experience. You fought it probably for what – six hours a day?
Hanson: No, more like 10 hours a day.
KUT News: 10 hours a day.
KUT News: So, it was sunrise to –
Hanson: Sunrise to sunset. First light to last light. We had aircraft on the fire. The first day I think I was out there for eight hours, because I didn’t start until 1 o clock. But was there until sunset. The second day I was there from sun up to close to sundown. And we had another crew that took over for us once we were at the point where we were going to stop operations.
KUT News: It’s a 120 gallon bucket?
KUT News: That doesn’t seem like a whole lot, but I guess it is.
Hanson: It’s pretty impressive when you see that the calm water that comes down from it. You’re right, 120 gallons doesn’t seem that much, but when you actually compare it to what, even like a brush truck, which is a ground based apparatus, can hold a lot more water, but the amount of pressure they can put out with their hoses, their smaller hoses onto a fire is – it’s pretty slow, it’s steady, but it’s slow. So we have the advantage that we can put a lot of water in one spot all at once.
KUT News: Douse it.
Hanson: And pretty much douse something, extinguish it. And we also have the advantage that we can do that in areas that the brush trucks or the fire apparatus are having trouble getting access to, because they have to drive close enough to it, and get a hose to it. And we can get into areas that they just can’t do that.
KUT News: Are there plans for more STAR Flight helicopters?
Hanson: Yeah, I believe the county commissioners in conjunction with my command staff and the other public safety resources are looking at options for other firefighting tools to be used in the future. If this is going to be something we’re going to experience in central Texas for years to come then –
KUT News: You think?
Hanson: We’re going to adapt to it.
KUT News: I’m telling you.
KUT News: Thank goodness for the rains we’ve had, but you know, here comes another summer.
Hanson: There is one other memory that I have, which was – on the second day of fighting fires, and this was with the fellow Kevin, the same one that swung the bucket over the boulder that put out the fire underneath the row of houses on the Pedernales gorge. We flew back to our hangar now, and I remember that day, and within an hour of being at the hangar, I had just enough time to get a drink and wash up a little, we were called back out to the same area, to help put out a fire in a gorge that because of nature, of where it was again with the brush trucks were having trouble getting to it.
So we went out there and assisted with them and then when we get to an area, we have to rig the aircraft, which means getting out, hooking the fire bucket on underneath, getting all that arranged, and offloading some of the excess equipment set to cut down on weight, so when we’re finished with the operation, we land again and take the bucket off and pack everything back in the aircraft. When we were doing that that evening, the sun was getting low, it was getting to be dark, and we were at a small parking lot somewhere out there and the- somewhere between Hamilton Pool road and the Pedernales gorge, couldn’t tell you exactly where, I could give you the coordinates to it, but that wouldn’t mean anything to anybody.
There’s a small parking lot for the park out there I guess and we were using that as our landing zone, and as we’re packing up the bucket, and getting ready to load it back in the aircraft, a spot fire started right on the edge of that parking lot where we were, and we’re completely remote out there, there’s nobody else out there. The park is shut down. Nobody is… nobody can see us. And I just remember the feeling of it being Kevin and myself with our aircraft and here’s the fire that we’ve been fighting, just a couple hundred yards away flaring up sort of angrily at us,
KUT News: I mean, POOF, right? It wasn’t there, and then it was?
Hanson: Yeah, it just sort of, again, it sort of came out of nowhere, an ember just happened to land right there and ignited. And it never put us in any danger, and we loaded up and took off, but the entire week had that feeling that you were really fighting something. And it was like you were fighting a battle.
KUT News: And it was ever-changing. I mean it’s –
Hanson: Yeah. Just like they talk about the soldiers that come back from Iraq and Afghanistan or any other war talk about the fog of war and the ever-changing nature of the battlefield, sometimes it felt like that. You were fighting a fire in front of you and when you turn the aircraft around, there was another one that had cropped up behind you, or when you landed in a remote landing spot, fire would crop up close to you. Just had that feeling you had to pay attention to what was going on all the time and pick your best targets of opportunity, think about your priorities of who to save and what to save and do the best you could until you finally crested the wave and had things under control. And it felt like it took a couple of days to do that.
KUT News: So spontaneous. It wasn’t like troop movements, in like a large battle or war where – so spontaneous, it’s just, wherever it wanted to ignite, it did. Anything else you’d like to add?
Hanson: Nothing else I can think of.
KUT News: Any other memories, did anybody wave you over and point at such and such while you were in flight?
Hanson: The people I remember in particular were the people in that house on the Pedernales gorge that were waving at us, and you could see that they were jumping up and down for joy or clapping their hands after we’d helped them put out that spot fire underneath their house. That was one of the most satisfying feelings I had.
KUT News: Do you have a link to that?
Hanson: No. I’d be curious to see – I know – I could see that some of the people out there were holding cameras. I’d love to see the footage of that, if anybody has it and wanted to share it. But-
KUT News: Do you know what road that was?
Hanson: I think that was just off Stagecoach Ranch Road. And other things I remember during that time were some of the gratitude that you felt from people. Even just in the months since then. I was at Whole Earth recently, and I had a pair of running shoes, and a fellow was there, I had gone straight from work to get there before they closed and so I was wearing my uniform. And he recognized the uniform and came up and thanked me. He lives in that area along Highway 71 where the Pedernales fire was and apparently we were able to save his house, and he thanked me for that.
KUT News: How did that feel? Oh, my goodness. You saved his house.
Hanson: Yeah, you know, it feels great. It also feels a little bit disingenuous on my part, because I was one small part of a huge operation. And so certainly it wasn’t just me, it wasn’t even just me and my pilot or the aircraft that the county pays for and maintains. It’s everybody else that was out there fighting the fire. It’s all the people on the ground, and even the forest service and the federal resources that came in to help later on. It was a multi-agency effort. But certainly the gratitude of people is something I do recall, everything from the people jumping up and down for joy after we put out the fire underneath their house to the fellow that bought me and my friends – me and my colleagues lunch out there on Highway 71.
We took a fuel break, and as we were fueling the aircraft, a couple of things happened actually, this was at that golf course parking lot, I remember this part. One was a grass fire started right next to the parking lot, and started creeping up the hillside towards us. Now that’s our fueling station and our landing zone. So, talk about the feeling of being in a battle, now it feels like your base of operations is under attack. So our mechanic, which is another part of this whole operation, you know these guys are putting in extra hours to keep the aircraft maintained and to support us in the fueling operations and he and I quickly hitched up the fuel trailer to the pickup truck and got it out of there so that if the parking lot got overrun with fire, we didn’t have a big trailer full of fuel there.
So we took off and we went up Highway 71 back to the intersection and went to the convenience store there to get some water and food for ourselves and the other pilots and the crew chiefs that were still flying at that point. Meanwhile, one of the pilots and the crew chief are fighting the fire that had cropped up next to the fueling station. And helped them put that out, so I got a bunch of things, bottles of water and Gatorade and food for everybody and went up to the counter, and the fellow had already given the woman his credit card and paid for everything that we were taking out there.
KUT News: Everybody comes together, don’t they?
KUT News: What type of aircraft do you have? What is it called?
Hanson: These are called EC145s. They’re Euro Copters, is what EC stands for. And they’re modern aircraft, they’re pretty typical in EMS services throughout the country, they’re one of the higher end aircraft at EMS services that we use. They’re as far as civilian aircraft goes for its purpose, they’re terrific aircraft. They’re strong, reliable, they have two engines, and they’re maneuverable.
KUT News: Euro, as in Europe?
Hanson: Yeah, as in Euro Copter.
KUT News: They were designed in Europe originally?
Hanson: I’m not sure how the history goes, I think they were built in Europe at one time and believe they’re made in the United States now but I’m not much of a helicopter geek, our pilots could tell you a lot more about that than I could.
KUT News: The sound must be unbearable when you’re in a helicopter, is it?
Hanson: Well we have helmets on that have hearing protection, if you didn’t have that on, it’s deafening.
KUT News: Because you’re out on the wing that… skid.
Hanson: Right, even inside the aircraft, it’s louder than – would allow you to talk to somebody next to you.
KUT News: And so you’re talking through a little mic that must be so directional. Just getting your voice.
Hanson: Yeah it is, you have to position your mic right on your lips, it’s voice triggered, you have to position it just so, so that it will trigger when you speak, but won’t trigger when just a gust of wind hits it. And it still does sometimes, but yeah, that’s how we communicate with each other in the aircraft. So, yeah we’re well equipped for that, we have excellent aircraft, I’ve been flying now for almost 10 years, but I’ve flown in a couple different types of aircraft. So it’s mostly fixed wing aircraft. I think it’s – head and shoulders, this is the best aircraft I’ve ever flown in.
KUT News: Really?
Hanson: Yeah. It’s not as big or powerful as an army Blackhawk, but we don’t need that for the missions that we perform. So for what we do, it’s probably the perfect aircraft.
KUT News: All that country out there, all those inaccessible areas out there in Travis County.
Hanson: Yeah, and that was how the aircraft program got started in 1985 was people that were too far from where the EMS was located at that time, which probably mostly in the city. They wanted EMS coverage out in other areas of the county, to be able to get to them quickly. That was how the helicopter program started. And very quickly because of the flooding and fires and the need for rescue, that this area is particularly – this program evolved into a civilian helicopter program that performs more mission profiles than any other civilian helicopter program that I know of, between the firefighting, the rescue, swift water, flooding rescue, as well as the typical EMS, and specialty care that we provide.
KUT News: And all these services are also provided within the city limits or is this all just outside of the city of Austin? And the county?
Hanson: It’s anywhere that is needed.
KUT News: So it’s everywhere. Anything else?
Hanson: Well, I think I’ve said quite a bit.
KUT News: Thank you Bill Hanson. We really appreciate it. Can you give us your ID one more time?
Hanson: My name? Yeah, sure, so I’m William Hanson, I’m a STAR Flight Paramedic, Flight Paramedic and Crew Chief for Travis County STAR Flight.
KUT News: Who fought…
Hanson: Who fought in the Central Texas wildfires in 2011 in September at specifically at the Pedernales fire.
KUT News: Thank you very much.
Hanson: Thank you.