There was nothing “hidden” about the Hidden Pines wildfire that charred nearly 540 acres of MD Anderson’s Smithville research campus in October 2015.
The fire, first reported mid-day on Oct. 13, quickly became an inferno that threatened the very existence of the Virginia Harris Cockrell Cancer Research Center, Science Park, home to MD Anderson’s Epigenetics and Molecular Carcinogenesis department.
Were it not for the quick thinking and dedication of facility staff, thoughtful plans put into place after another wildfire in 2011, the rapid response of area fire departments and authorities, and long-standing ties to the Smithville and Bastrop County communities, it might have been a devastating event setting vital research back years.
Despite a fire that burned nearly 75% of the campus property, no facilities — including highly specialized laboratories, research animal areas and administrative and academic offices — were touched.
Sharon Dent, Ph.D., chair of Epigenetics & Molecular Carcinogenesis and director of Science Park, credits many people within the campus and in the community for this outcome. But it’s the devotion people have for the campus that, perhaps, mattered most.
“It was nothing short of an amazing effort by everyone involved,” says Dent. “Everyone stepped up and asked, ‘What can I do?’”
The Hidden Pines fire wasn’t Dent’s first time facing a threat to the campus, perched atop a hill in verdant loblolly pine woodlands near Smithville, a town of 4,000 located in the Texas Hill Country. Dent experienced the devastating Bastrop County Complex fire that destroyed more than 34,000 acres and 1,645 homes in 2011, but spared the campus. This was a learning experience that, combined with the collective knowledge gained from other campus personnel during previous fire events, prompted Dent and her team to make sure they would be prepared in the future.
Those preparations paid off during the Hidden Pines fire that burned some 4,600 acres, 64 homes and other structures before being extinguished by firefighters in a concerted effort between the city, county and state.
As home to MD Anderson’s largest basic science department, Science Park has been a center for investigative discovery since the Texas Legislature set aside 717 acres for a cancer research facility in the 1970s.
Today the campus includes 14 structures and nearly 101,500 square feet of research space, in addition to a 27,600-square-foot animal facility and an administrative support building with a conference center. It employs about 250 people, and is recognized for its work in unlocking the mysteries of cancer’s molecular biology and developing new approaches for cancer prevention and detection. Francesca Cole, Ph.D., assistant professor of Epigenetics & Molecular Carcinogenesis, is one scientist who was concerned about her life’s work.
“We had a lot of timed mice experiments that were in jeopardy,” says Cole, who studies how damaged DNA is repaired its implications for potential new therapeutic targets. “We had mice that were three years into the breeding process, and to lose them could have really set our research back.”
The fire “made a bee line” for Lab 4, a large research facility that houses her laboratory. Although the fire did not damage the lab, it was shut down for two weeks due to smoke and cleanup from the firefighting effort. Cole credits Dent for the advance preparation that saved labs, protected animals and kept staff safe.
“There was a lot of ‘smart’ practice that occurred,” she says. “We’d just had an allcampus fire drill three months before. Also, our animal facility had a 24/7 monitoring system installed that measures air quality and temperature, so that we were able to keep up with how our mice were doing.”
The monitoring system was just one of several campus enhancements following the Wilderness Ridge and Bastrop County Complex fires. These included adding fire hydrants and improved water lines, clearing small trees and undergrowth near the campus to reduce wildfire “fuel,” constructing a loop road around the campus for easier evacuation and firefighter access, IT systems to ensure safety of crucial research data, annual campus evacuation drills, and plans for setting up an Incident Command Center (ICC) in the event of a disaster.
Dent and designated staff established the ICC in the conference center within five minutes of smoke being reported near campus. Evacuation of non-essential personnel began one hour after the ICC was established.Shortly thereafter, all personnel evacuated and the ICC reconvened first at a nearby restaurant, then later at the Smithville Recreation Center.
The teamwork did not end with Science Park employees, however. Volunteer firefighters from Smithville and the surrounding area, Bastrop County authorities and members of The University of Texas Police Department, including Lt. Wayne Smith, who was key to bridging communications between Science Park and the county, worked tirelessly to not only stop the fire, but ensure safety.
Dent, who has long cultivated close community ties with Smithville and Bastrop County through quarterly dinners, public tours and other activities, knows the value of establishing working relationships with local volunteer fire departments and other officials.
“Our Houston and Bastrop MD Anderson colleagues and the UT System had our backs and supported us throughout this emergency,” she says. “And, of course, Mike Fisher, emergency management coordinator and former City of Bastrop fire chief, along with volunteer fire departments in Smithville, Heart of the Pines and Winchester, will always have a special place in my heart for saving our campus.”
‘Pulling together accomplished amazing things’
Briana Dennehey, Ph.D., coordinator of departmental publications for Epigenetics and Molecular Carcinogenesis, carefully recorded early events related to the October 2015 fire, and reported these and subsequent events in a special edition of Science Park’s newsletter, The Insider.
“The quick and orderly evacuation would not have been possible without the buildings’ fire wardens,” wrote Dennehey. “The evacuation was completed in under 20 minutes.”
All who were involved agree on one thing: It was working together that was crucial to safety. John Chotkey, manager of information services, recognized his colleagues’ efforts in The Insider.
“Everyone has to work as a team and make decisions with limited information that affect a lot of people, animals and systems,” Chotkey is quoted as saying. “Sometimes these decisions are made in moments with very little warning. The effort of everyone pulling together accomplished amazing things in a very short amount of time.”
Lisa Tannehill, director of operations and maintenance, was also quoted in the newsletter and echoed Chotkey’s assessment.
“The operations and management emergency response team willingly and faithfully worked long, hard hours in extremely difficult circumstances and unpleasant conditions, going above and beyond daily, to help the team protect and care for our campus,” said Tannehill, who also credited Dent for “always putting human lives and safety first.”