On Sunday afternoon around 2:40 p.m. a grassfire was reported near 12021 Selma Hughes Park Road, not far off Quinlan Park Road on the outskirts of Steiner Ranch.
Emergency Services District 6: Lake Travis Fire and Rescue arrived on the scene as did the Austin Fire Department’s brush truck, Engine 39.
“Looks like one of the lines on the utility pole popped and caused a spark and sent some sparks to the ground and caught a little grass on fire,” said Chad Huff, LTFR lieutenant who was at the scene.
Upon further investigation, officials at the Travis County Fire Marshal’s office said: “Apparently a bird caused something to arc on the powerline.”
The fire burned roughly a 50-foot by 50-foot area in a pasture with cattle nearby.
A Steiner resident, Penny R., from Palisades Parkway called 911 and then took a video of the fire from her balcony.
The next day, the Travis County Fire Marshal’s office sent out two officials to investigate at the same time Penny went down to take a photo of the scorched ground.
“There was a dead, blackened bird on the ground and a blown ‘fuse’ on the utility pole. (The Fire Marshal official) said the bird caused the fire,” Penny said.
She added that she found out that a man on a tractor saw the utility pole transformer blow and heard the bang. He used his tractor to help control the fire.
“It is surprising that the scorched area is so small… compared with the amount of smoke it made, the wind velocity and the length of time it burned,” Penny said.
After Penny called 911 on Sunday, she said it took the fire department at least 10 minutes to get to the fire.
Then it took about an hour for the firefighters to put out the grassfire and leave the scene. Huff said they notified “the City of Austin of the pole having popped one of its wires and we released the scene to them.”
Austin Energy looked into the incident.
“An Austin Energy troubleshooter went out to investigate the situation near Selma Hughes Park Road on April 30 and found that a lightning arrestor had failed,” said Lauren Hammond, spokesperson for Austin Energy.
Hammond added that this is a pretty common occurrence and there are many potential causes including tree limbs, high winds and exposure to bad weather over the years.
“Once we identified the problem, we replaced the lightning arrestor,” she said.
Some Steiner residents said their power was interrupted on Sunday afternoon.
“There were no power outages in the Steiner Ranch area on Sunday, but there was likely a quick blink of the lights a couple of times,” Hammond said.
Relatively high winds were reported over the weekend including April 30, when the fire happened. Many in the Steiner community remember when utility lines reportedly arced near RM 620 in September 2011 causing a wildfire that destroyed two dozen homes.
Penny credits the Selma Hughes Park Road with keeping embers from crossing the road to the estate at 12021. She also thinks the man nearby with the tractor, who also probably called 911, helped a lot with getting the fire under control.
“If the wind had changed during the fire, the man on the tractor would have been at risk himself,” Penny said.
She thinks this fire could have easily had much more damage to Steiner as well as to area around Lake Austin. “We definitely dodged a bullet.”
“If the wind had been blowing towards the west… if the pasture had been hillside instead of flat, if we had not had recent rains, if the fire happened in the cedar stand just beyond the pasture, and/or if the fire had happened at night, some of our houses and, perhaps us as well, would have burned,” Penny said.
Even though this was an accident, she hopes this can be a reminder that people use common sense when burning of any kind.
“Even though we are green now, the wind has sustained gusts that create fire danger,” Penny said.