The Blaze of 1988

June 18, 2008 – 5:31 am

by Gyvel Young Witzel ©2008

On Saturday afternoon of November 26, 1988, Mike Inman and his brother Jerry had settled in for what they thought would be a relaxing holiday weekend. It was a typical fall afternoon with crisp and gusty winds, but this day, something was different. Mike looked up at the sky and noticed embers as both of them recognized the distinct smell of burning vegetation. The duo ran towards the edge of their hilltop property, peered over a ledge, and saw a fire rolling up towards them at 30 miles an hour! Hill Country Ranches was about to be hit by the county’s most devastating grass fire in decades.

Just minutes earlier, Jack Prindible saw rolling black smoke from his vantage point on Montell Road. At first he thought it was a vehicle on fire but something about the smoke caught his attention. So, he walked down his hill towards the road to investigate and found a woman in the middle of the road waving her arms and screaming, “There’s a fire! Quick, my son and husband are in there!”

It turns out that a deer hunter on lot number 187 (located on Montell Road) had lit a campfire and lost control of it. Unfortunately, 90 days without rain combined with the high winds to create the perfect recipe for disaster. A spark hit the ground and the winds fanned it into a flame. Fed by vegetation and driven by the gusts, flames became waves of fire rolling into canyons, leaping over hills, and plunging into crevices—consuming everything in their wake.

Within the hour, Hill Country Ranches became a hub of activity. Fifteen fire departments converged on the scene to fight the conflagration. Described in the Wimberley View as “a remote area of brush and tree covered canyons and ridges,” the rugged terrain posed an immediate obstacle to tankers and firefighters alike. What’s worse, most of these volunteers had little experience navigating this type of terrain.

At 2:45 p.m., the Wimberley and Blanco fire departments were the first to arrive on the scene. They were quickly followed by volunteers from Buda, South Hays, Kyle, Dripping Springs, Deer Creek, Canyon Lake, Henly, Driftwood, Uhland, and the Storm Ranch. As reported by the Wimberley View newspaper, there were some 27 fire trucks, two ambulances, six police units, a private airplane, a DPS helicopter, and 80 people engaged in the fight. In spite of these resources and manpower, they didn’t reach the front of the fire until 8:30 that night.

According to Mike Inman, there were about 50-60 residents in Hill Country Ranches that year. For this reason, the primary concern of the fire departments was focused on the protection of structures. The procedure was simple: One by one, an engine was dispatched to each home, where it was hosed down to keep the flames at bay as the fire roared by. This process was repeated with every residence that stood in the path of the inferno. Drenched and weary, volunteers left the scorched Hill Country Ranches scene at around 5 a.m. on Sunday.

That night, as firefighters continued battling the front of the fire, husbands, wives and children took turns using buckets to put out hot spots around their homes. “The trees that were ignited with the first path [of the fire] just kept burning and burning,” recalls Inman.

Jack Prindible will never forget that Saturday night: “My wife and I watched throughout the night,” he exclaims. “She took part of the night and I took part of it. She woke me up in the morning and said, ‘the fire has started again!’” By 8 a.m., the tired volunteers were called back to HCR. This time, they stayed until late Sunday afternoon.

When it was all over, the fire consumed 700 acres of land, destroyed two camper trailers, a truck, a boat, and one partially built home. Thankfully, twelve homes that sat directly in the wake of the fire were saved. As Prindible states, “I think it is astounding that there wasn’t more property damage with this fire.”

Residents were thankful for the quick response of area volunteer fire departments but realized that HCR needed a VFD of its own. This was definitely a wake-up call to the residents of Hill Country Ranches. It wasn’t just a matter of response time, it was a matter of familiarity with the unique challenges that HCR’s terrain posed.

People took heed and by early 1989, a group of volunteer firefighters formed as the Hill Country/White Rabbit Subdivision Volunteer Firefighters. The group was placed under the umbrella of the Henly VFD where its volunteers received training and gear. However, the upstarts weren’t exactly welcomed. Subsequently, they ended up on the sidelines twiddling their thumbs, waiting to prove themselves.

At length the volunteer’s patience was rewarded and in 1993, they officially became the Henly South Volunteer Department. Shortly afterwards, an old 750 gallon tanker truck owned by the Driftwood Fire Department was presented to them. Designated Number 82, it was affectionately dubbed “Ol’ Yeller” by the group at Henly South.

But it wasn’t enough. What Henly South VFD really needed was a fire station in HCR, a place to park Number 82 and a place for volunteers to meet when responding to a call. Fortunately, Carl France offered the group a 30-year lease on his property at Lakeside Drive. At that point there was no stopping the volunteers. Within the span of one month, the Henly South VFD had its first building.

Jack Prindible recalls the enthusiasm: “Jack Kent drew up the plans for the fire station. Thor Olsen became the construction supervisor. And we would all go in and beg, borrow, and steal from suppliers. The concrete was donated … I believe it was built for $3,000.” Mike Inman remembers those heady days with a smile, “We were always down there … hanging out or having meetings.”

In 2000, the victory of building a new fire station was confirmed when a brand new brush truck, Number 84, pulled into the station. The $75,000 fire-fighting vehicle was equipped with just about everything. “It was great!” said Inman. What followed was yet another spurt of construction activity as the original building was expanded to make parking room for its new occupant.

Changes came in 2005 when Carl France decided to place his Lakeside property on the market. He wanted to donate an acre of his land to the Henly South VFD, but this meant sub-dividing his property. At the time, HCR residents were in a heated debate over subdividing, frowning on the practice. Consequently, there was heavy opposition to splitting any property, regardless of philanthropic motives.

With the future of the Henly South VFD hanging in the balance, Inman went in search of new real estate and approached William Lynch, owner of acreage fronting 2325 (opposite the HCR entrance). Lynch was agreeable and said, “You go pick the acre out and talk to me …”

With little debate, Inman chose the acre that was located directly across the street from the HCR entrance. On March 11, 2005, the property was sold to the Henly South VFD for $4,000. Construction soon followed and the new firehouse was dedicated on October 13, 2007.

At long last, the Henly South VFD had a permanent base of operations. Today, it stands as a visible tribute to the visionary men and women who started with a dream all those years ago. Out of one of the county’s most devastating fires came a resolve for HCR to have its own fire department, a dream that came true within a span of just 18 years.

Can a few people make a positive impact on a community and leave a legacy for future generations? You can see the answer—right there in front of you, as you stop to enter FM-2325 at the entrance of HCR.

Fire photos courtesy of the Wimberley View, Henly VFD old and new courtesy of Mike Inman

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