Travis County Emergency Services District 1 said if it were not for STAR Flight, the department would be mourning the loss of two of its firefighters. Last Wednesday, emergency crews battled a 100-acre brush fire in northwest Travis County.
“When we have these dry conditions, low humidity, and the gusts of winds up to 20 mph, a smallest little spark can turn into 40, 50, 100 acres in just no time,” said Chief Donnie Norman.
Travis County ESD 1 crews rushed to contain the brush fire, but those conditions made response especially dangerous.
“Once we got on scene the wind shifted and came straight towards us,” said Lt. Brannon Stengel.
“I couldn’t see my partner. I could barely see my feet on the ground. When the wind moved finally and you could see a little bit in front of you, you saw fire,” said firefighter Jessilyn Davis.
Davis and Stengel were then suddenly trapped. Their mayday call immediately sent a pair of brush trucks to go in and help them.
“When we got within 200 feet of them, we encountered extremely heavy smoke and fire, almost zero visibility,” said Capt. Robert Ming.
Soon after, STAR Flight, the so-called “eyes in the sky” arrived.
“When they flew over, it blew the smoke away just enough that we were able to see their flashing lights on the top of their truck,” Ming said.
Up in the air, STAR Flight was able to direct the two brush trucks to the firefighters’ location. Scott White is a flight paramedic, who was a part of the helicopter crew that day.
“Being in the back of the aircraft, I was able to spot them right away and we were able to relay what we saw to command and then what they had for units around them. Basically we were able to give them direction so they both could meet up,” White said. “Communication is paramount.”
“In a matter of minutes, if nothing had been done, the fact that they were out of water, the fire could have easily over ran them,” Ming said.
Travis County fire officials are crediting the air rescue team for saving the firefighters’ lives.
“Had STAR Flight not been able to identity where those folks are and the bravery of our brush crews that went in to get them, we would be having a whole different outcome,” Norman said.
A week later, both Stengel and Davis are back on duty and are recovering alongside their team.
“It’s just an urge to help others, to protect your community,” Stengel said.
Davis is a probationary firefighter, who has only been with the department for six months. This was the first brush fire she responded to, and it will not be her last.
“I knew what I signed up for when I started this job. I was aware of the risk,” Davis said. “Nobody ever expects to be in a situation like that, but you just hope with your training and with your experience that you can figure out a good way to get out of that situation.”