Pilot helps homeowners assess Texas wildfire threat

September 16, 2011

Spicewood

When wildfires broke out earlier this month in Spicewood, Texas, Bernie and Joan Devine could not determine if their house was threatened. They were 1,600 miles away, visiting their son Jason Devine, who lives in Carlisle, Pa.

“They were desperate for information,” Jason said. “They tried calling some of the few people they know down there, but all they could get was that streets in the area were closed and homes were actively burning.” Jason, a private pilot who flies out of Carlisle Airport, had no idea that another general aviation pilot would soon be able to put his parents’ fears to rest.

Bernie was planning to book a commercial flight back to Texas when the Devines discovered aerial video footage of the Spicewood fires on YouTube. Scanning the videos, which had been shot by a local pilot, they saw their home and realized that it was about 300 feet from the burn zone. Fortunately, the winds were blowing the other way.

SpicewoodDana Martin, a local realtor and manager of Spicewood Airport, had borrowed a Cessna 172 and flown around the area to take videos and still photos. She posted three videos on YouTube with the idea of providing information to local residents who had been evacuated. Martin flew until a temporary flight restriction was erected for firefighting activities.

“We were about three miles from the fire,” Martin said. “The winds were out of the north. That’s the only thing that saved hundreds more houses from going up.” The fire eventually consumed 6,400 acres and an estimated 34 homes, according to The Highlander. Firefighters had to combat several wildfires in the region over the Labor Day weekend, including a conflagration in Bastrop, north of Houston, that destroyed about 1,400 homes.

The Devines purchased the home in Spicewood, about 30 miles outside of Austin, following Joan’s retirement from the FAA as a safety culture manager in the agency’s Air Traffic Organization. The plan was to spend summers in Pennsylvania and winters in Texas. His parents are on their way back to Texas, Jason said Sept. 15. “The house was not damaged, but the fire was right across the street,” he said.

“It was amazing,” he said of Martin’s videos. “We were able to freeze a frame in the video, both on the departure leg because the pilot filmed the entire circuit including the departure and return.”

Martin said her videos received more than 1,000 views within a few days, as well as many comments expressing thanks and gratitude for her efforts from residents and others. She in turn has responded to her viewers, offering to send still photos to those who wanted more information.

Jill W. Tallman

Jill W. Tallman | AOPA Technical Editor, AOPA

AOPA Technical Editor Jill W. Tallman is an instrument-rated private pilot who owns a Piper Cherokee 140.