SPECIAL REPORT: Trinity County works to recover from log truck fire

Leo Chaney's house was just across the street from the massive blaze.
Leo Chaney's house was just across the street from the massive blaze.

TRINITY COUNTY, TX (KTRE) - Just three months after the largest wildfire in East Texas ravaged Trinity County, a fiery crash started another blaze near Groveton.

"Well I was sitting there watching TV and I heard a knock on the door, walked to the door, opened the door and all I saw was black smoke from all across the highway," said Trinity County resident Leo Chaney.

Chaney had noticed nothing that September afternoon, until volunteer firefighters came to his rescue.

"This volunteer firefighter, great people, great people, they said mister you might have to get out of here pretty soon," Chaney remembered. "I said huh? And I looked and I saw the smoke and I said what's happened?"

A log truck had flipped on a sharp curve on FM 355 between Groveton and Onalaska, killing the driver and sparking a fire that would end up feet from Chaney's doorstep.

"When they got to the top, I can't estimate height," Chaney said. "I'm going to say 100, 200 feet and they were like Christmas candles, just taking everything in their path."

Dozens of fire crews rushed to the scene to fight the blaze and protect Chaney's property.

His home was closest to the fire. His nearest neighbor was at least a mile away.

"I threw my puppy dog in the front seat because she won't get in the car and drove down about 100 yards and got out of the firemen's way," Chaney said.

"It was a fire that was like a lot of fires we were having at the time," Texas Forest Service District Fire Coordinator Jeff Durant said. "It was pretty extreme, but you know you have to deal with the basics on every fire whether it's a large fire or small fire."

A petroleum pipeline in the fence was a major concern for firefighters. In fact, the county actually shut the road that runs in front of the pipeline down not only for the safety of those driving through, but also to free up the road for emergency responders.

"If you get into that pipeline of course it can cause problems with explosion potential and injuring somebody, so that was a concern," Durant said. "Other concern was just fire behavior that was real active with the extreme conditions, a lot of long-range spotting and crowning and running."

While firefighters were battling the 2,500-acre blaze, investigators say a woman was starting fires of her own just down the road.

Dispatcher:   "Trinity County 911 please state the location of your emergency."

Caller: "I'm on Highway 355, there's a fire right here."

Dispatcher: "Where are you on 355?"

Caller:  "I'm not where the fire department is. There's a house out here and it's starting to go up in the trees. Me and another man just stopped."

Investigators say Tommie Ragsdale, 46, called 911 after starting several fires.

Dispatcher: "Okay, is the fire department right there?"

Caller: "No, they're on down the street. This is a new fire."

Dispatcher: "Did you call in the first fire?"

Caller: "No mam, no mam. I was on my way to Groveton...It's closer to Chita. Here they come, I see somebody, here comes somebody."

Dispatcher:  "Is it a fire truck?"

Caller: "Yes, I see sirens. Right here. Stop, stop, stop."

Dispatcher: "Are they going there?"

Caller: "I don't know. Stop, stop, stop, stop. Right here. They just kept going, it's on fire. Okay, they're pulling over, okay bye."

The fires were small. The largest only 50 feet. Volunteers were able to put the fires out.

Investigators said Ragsdale had been volunteering, feeding firefighters working on the big fire off FM 355 in the Chita community.

Authorities said the Ragsdale confessed to starting five fires, saying she was lonely and missed the excitement.

"A lot of these people that are arsonists, they like the excitement and they like all the drama that comes with a fire and all the firefighters being there and we kind of suspect that's what's going on," Trinity Co. Constable Pct. 1 Woody Wallace said.

A grand jury has since indicted Ragsdale for arson.

Meanwhile, Trinity County is trying to recoup the cost of fighting the fire.

"We've filled out paperwork and like I said as of earlier, we're waiting on the federal and state government, but look to possibly get some funding, some reimbursements from it," Trinity County Judge Doug Page said.

For now, people like Chaney are thankful for the generosity of volunteer firefighters.

"There was a truck sitting here, one at the entrance to my drive, one driving around, they made paths out here, they bulldozed on that side of the drive in case it jumped, to keep it from coming back," said Chaney. "They sat here all night, they were here the next morning."

Chaney dodged a bullet that night.

"I still look around and thank God and the fire departments for having a place to sleep at night."

Dead grass marks the spot where dozers and fire trucks were brought in to defend Chaney's land against the fire. It's a reminder of the sacrifice other's made for him.

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