March 1, 2023 545 PM
JEFF DAVIS COUNTY — A wildfire being referred to as the Solar Park Fire, which broke out in the Davis Mountains due to a downed powerline this past Sunday during high winds, was still burning as of Wednesday afternoon, having grown to encompass 2,816 acres.
As of press time, the fire was 50% contained and not actively expanding, said Jim Fowler, a spokesperson for the Fort Davis Fire Department. But both local volunteers as well as Texas A&M Forest Service (TFS) firefighting crews were remaining diligent as gusts up to 70 mph in the area coming from the southwest could result in fire spread over the next couple of days.
Fowler said the Solar Park Fire arrived early in the fire season and has presented challenges to firefighters due to high winds. Crews will continue to work for however long it takes to see the fire fully extinguished, he said.
“It’s the most severe fire we’ve had since the start a COVID,” said Fowler. “This is the first big event. It is early in the season, which is kind of a surprise — we don’t usually have large fires in February. This is not a particularly large fire, but because of the high winds, TFS and Fort Davis have put a lot of resources on it to try and get out before the winds pick up again.”
While the fire was not actively burning around the perimeter, as of press time, interior hotspots still posed a potential threat, said Fowler. For the most part, the fire — primarily on ungrazed ranchlands — was still burning in “rugged mountainous terrain,” of grasses, shrubs and yucca, said Fowler, but crews would be dispatched to protect the nearby community of Limpia Crossing if needed.
“There’s a lot of green — what we call unburned fuel — in the interior of the fire perimeter,” said Fowler. “Those boundaries between the burned area and the unburned area are of concern because they could throw sparks and embers across the fire line and potentially start another fire outside of the one we’re working right now.”
A combination of high winds, higher temperatures than usual for the season, and low humidity have resulted in extreme fire danger conditions, according to the National Weather Service office out of Midland.
Firefighters are prepared to shift their approach depending on wind behaviors. If the wind stays relatively subdued, crews will continue to “mop up” the Solar Park Fire, said Fowler. But if high winds present additional threats, TFS crews, which arrived to help fight the fire on Monday, will be pulled off of the high mountain tops where they are working and dispatched to protect the community of Limpia Crossing.
“One [task force] will be deployed on the southern edge of the fire to do structure protection and work the drainages near Limpia Crossing. The other task force will be an initial attack and will support the volunteer firefighters if they need it for any additional fires that may start,” said Fowler.
TFS crews will remain in the area at least until Thursday, said Fowler, but may stay longer depending on the situation. “If we don’t have any breakouts or additional fires that we need to work on, we will probably start mobilizing folks on Friday. That’s the current plan that may change,” he said.
American Electric Power (AEP) has since repaired the downed powerline which caused the Solar Park Fire to break out, located near Gazebo Park on Highway 118. A smaller fire that broke out on Sunday near the Point of Rocks parking area on Highway 166, caused by a downed line that has been repaired, was put out swiftly and is no longer of concern.
“We diverted one of our trucks that was just leaving the station from the Solar Park to the Point of Rocks fire. They rather quickly got it out. They had quite a bit of help from the locals,” said Fowler.
Edna Queen, Davis Mountains Resort Volunteer Fire Department chief, said that her crew began by tackling the Point of Rocks fire on Sunday before moving on to Solar Park — for some on her team, it was their first grassland fire, and she was proud of how her firefighters rose to the challenge.
“We were told by [Fort Davis Fire Chief Pat] Olivas to hold that line and not let the fire cross the dirt road where our trucks were parked,” said Queen, who also managed to take some photos of the crew in action. “Two teams of three rookie firemen, and we did! I am so proud.”
Fort Davis Fire Department and DMR volunteer crews were originally dispatched to the scene of the Solar Park Fire on Sunday afternoon, when they worked from 4 p.m. to midnight to subdue the flames before around 50 TFS crew members arrived the following day. Crews got an early start Monday at 7 a.m. and fought the fire until 7 p.m., returning Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to continue to put out the fire.
Firefighters are typically pulled off the line at night when temperatures cool down, said Fowler.
“We try to get the firefighters, if we can, out of there after dark just because it’s not safe to go jumping around the mountains in the dark,” said Fowler. “We also need to let them get rested up and fed and prepared for the next day.”
Around 20 firefighting vehicles arrived on scene to assist with the fire in addition to Texas Department of Public Safety helicopters, which helped map the fire from above. Fowler said because it is early on in the fire season, an aviation company the fire department would typically contract to assist with water drops and more has yet to be hired. But, because DPS helicopters are able to fly slower, they often assist in mapping fires regardless.
TFS tracks financial logistics that go into fighting such a fire, said Fowler, including firefighter hours, what types of equipment are utilized and more in order to receive reimbursement from the state. Jeff Davis County is not responsible for the TFS costs that go into fighting the fire.
The Solar Park Fire is so named because the location where the fire broke out once served as a solar panel installation put in by West Texas Utility a couple of decades ago. When AEP purchased the company, they turned the land over to TxDOT so it could serve as a park — AEP was not pursuing alternative energy at the time and removed the solar panels. While there are no solar panels remaining in the area today, Fowler said it’s still how longtime locals refer to the place.
“It’s a small town, so we all talk about things that used to be here, and of course all the new residents have no clue what we’re talking about,” said Fowler.
Fowler said the department was grateful for the local community’s support, stating they were appreciative of food donations from locals Rusty Wofford, Patrick Olivas and more.
For more information, follow the Fort Davis Fire Department on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FortDavisFireDepartment