Hidden Pines Fire ruled accidental, caused by equipment

Progression of fire (Texas A&M Forest Service)
Progression of fire (Texas A&M Forest Service)

COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KXAN) — Investigators completed their analysis of the origin and cause of the Hidden Pines Fire Monday, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service Law Enforcement Department, based in College Station.

The forest service confirms the likely cause by an accident on the Luecke ranch near Smithville.

“Material was first ignited was dry grass, which has accumulated on and around a cutter being pulled by a tractor. Therefore, the material ignited and was in contact with other dry grass and materials around there that started a grass fire,” said Les Rogers, chief law enforcement officer for the Texas A&M Forest Service.

Rogers says, when the fire started, it was a dry day with low humidity. The wildfire was completely contained on October 24, eleven days after it started. In all, 4,582 acres were burned and 64 homes were destroyed.

“For whatever reason there was a spark or some type of ignition that came out of or around that cutting unit behind the tractor,” said Rogers. “Therefore it caused dry material either underneath the tractor or on top of the tractor cutting deck to become ignited and then it caught the grass on fire.”

Rogers says investigators look at burn patterns and the direction a fire burns as they examine possible causes. The way stems fall or fire burns around an object can leave clues for investigators to follow. Rogers says the forest service reached its conclusion after also collecting interviews and data.

“Once we determined the area that the fire was started or was originated in, then we start using what we call micro and macro indicators, which are large and small indicators that determine and point us back in a direction of where a wildfire started. Then we can start narrowing down to very small areas, within the area of origin and it points it back to all of the probably causes,” said Rogers. “(Then,) we can start eliminating all of the other probably causes that we look at, if there was lightening or no lightning, no electrical line issues.”

At press conferences during the fire, Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape gave two possibilities for the start of the fire: overheated farm machinery or an intentionally set fire in violation of the burn ban. However, Rogers says investigators ruled out an intentional burn. He said investigators are very confident in their finding.

“Our indicators showed to where the fire was started in the area that witnesses stated they were mowing in,” said Rogers. “The brush fire or the grass fire actually moved towards a brush pile and consumed it. The fire did not come out of the brush pile.”

Rogers was able to speak about the fire because the investigation had closed. KXAN Investigates has also requested a full copy of the Texas A&M Forest Service report on the origin and cause of the fire and expect to receive it within the next few days. Rogers says the forest service simply determines the likely cause. He says the agency is not responsible for determining if there are any liabilities or penalties based on that cause. The Luecke family attorney has said that the fire was accidental, and therefore the family was not liable for the damage it caused after the fire spread.

The Luecke’s family attorney, Jeff Ray released this statement after the start of the fire:

The family says at the time of the fire, a tractor operator was operating a John Deere tractor with a Bush Hog rotary cutter (mower) attached. The operator was cutting briar bushes and weeds in the open pasture with the Bush Hog rotary blades, an operation he had performed hundreds of times. As he was making a wide turn, he looked back and saw a very small circular fire some distance away. He immediately drove the tractor and rotary cutter to the fire and attempted to put out the fire by dragging dirt and debris over the fire. He then got a fire extinguisher and attempted to extinguish the fire. He then radioed the ranch office and 911 was called immediately by Barry Walther from the ranch. The tractor operator then went directly to the front gate to allow first responders access to the property and fire zone.

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