University of North Texas senior rallies neighbors to fight wildfire

Thursday, January 5, 2006

University of North Texas staff member Bruce Hunter says at least 43 students took his course in firefighting last semester. He didn't know one of them would get a chance to put his newly acquired knowledge to such good use so quickly.

Hunter, director of UNT's Center for Spatial Analysis and Mapping, also teaches a course in the university's Emergency Administration and Planning program. Through the firefighting course, several of his students have, like Hunter, become certified volunteer wildfire fighters with the U.S. Forest Service.

And one of them, 22-year old Mark Cross, led civilians in battling one of the dozens of grass fires that swept southern Tarrant County the last week of December.

"It was entirely coincidental," says Hunter. "He [Cross] had his gear with him when he went down to visit his family in the Kennedale area. When that area was threatened, he put on his gear and organized some of the neighbors."

Cross says his neighbors were trying to save some outbuildings.

"I said ‘Let's focus on protecting the houses.' I coordinated them to clear a line free of any kind of timber litter, leaves, twigs, etc."

Cross convinced the Swiney-Hiett Road residents to put down their hoses and use shovels, rakes, hose, anything they could muster to literally draw a line in the dirt. After the trough was dug, they watered it thoroughly and held the line against the wildfire. They saved at least three houses. Professional firefighters -- already stretched to the limit as they fought the swiftly spreading flames -- credited the Kennedale neighborhood brigade with halting the fire as it crept into the suburban area.

Hunter describes Cross as a quiet and unassuming young man, who is also a member of the Texas National Guard. He'll graduate from UNT in May with a bachelor's degree in Emergency Administration and Planning. Like his classmates, he wants to go into some form of emergency management. In fact, several of the Emergency Management students devote time and travel to the U.S. Forest Service.

"We conduct prescribed burns with them," says Hunter. "We are trained and tested along with the fulltime Forest Service firefighters."

Hunter and his students are especially mindful of the current warm and windy conditions that are fueling the fires sweeping across the Texas prairie.

"Most people think it's California or southern Florida [that will be at risk for wildfires] but this has been an interesting year for Texas," Hunter says. "The year before last, we had a lot of rain and so there was a lot of vegetation as a result. Then we went into an extremely dry year following that. [As a result] … it's particularly the grasses that are causing so much trouble."

Hunter notes that the Texas prairie fires are not nearly as intense as the Chaparral-fueled fires of California. He describes Chaparral as being very similar to Texas Cedars in that they are full of oil and result in forest fires completely out of control.

And, usually, under low wind conditions, Texas grass fires aren't nearly as serious because they don't travel so quickly. But with the high winds many parts of Texas have experienced over the past two weeks, it's a different story. With these fires, it's not the intense heat as much as it's the speed with which they travel.

It's also a phenomenon Texans have seen before -- and will see again.

"Fire is natural," says the staff member, who works in UNT's Department of Geography and the Institute of Applied Sciences along with his duties as adjunct professor in the Division of Emergency Administration and Planning. "In the prairies where we live, you see fires like this -- generally speaking -- on a two- to a seven-year cycle. All of the cedars you see around here are an indicator of a lack of fire."

Does Hunter have practical advice for homeowners?

"Yes, go to," he says.

Hunter describes that web site as user-friendly and full of "extremely good information, such as paying attention to building materials, cleaning up around the house and carefully looking at landscaping."

He says the single most important task for at-risk homeowners to do right now is cut the grass.

"Cut any tall standing grass around the house -- and cut it low," he advises. "Also, put soaker hose or sprinklers around the house so they can keep that grass moist. Clean out the gutters and make sure there's no build up of leaves. When the wind blows, a single spark can travel quite a distance and ignite those leaves."

Hunter says this advice is especially important to folks who live on the Urban Wildland Interface -- or the UWI. That's the rapidly developing area where homes are being built along the perimeter of the urban landscape into previously rural territory. Argyle in Denton County is a good example of the UWI.

"If you live on the Interface, it's an especially good idea to have sprinklers around the house. A lot of homes are lost during the day when people are at work," Hunter says.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108