Austin Fire

Police respond to suspicious substance found in building downtown

Police responded to a call Friday morning after a report of a suspicious white, powdery substance found in a Travis County office building downtown.

An initial investigation determined the substance to be benign, according to Austin Fire Department spokesman Palmer Buck. The substance will additionally be tested in a lab.

Seven people were exposed to the unknown white powder substance, according to Buck. Those people were being monitored by the Travis County EMS, but had not exhibited any symptoms.

The Austin Police Department, Travis County Sheriff’s office, FBI and Fire department responded to the call that came in at 10:30 Friday morning at the building located at Lavaca and 7th Street downtown. Buck said once the fire at the DoubleTree Hotel was under control, some firefighters were immediately sent to respond to the substance call.

Karina Roque, international relations and global studies junior, showed up to her internship to find the building sealed by the police. Roque said she was surprised to find the building surrounded by law enforcement.

“You run the risk, but I didn’t expect [a bomb threat] to happen,” Roque said. “You don’t come expecting there to be a bomb threat.”

Buck said the police and fire departments take bomb and substance threats seriously in an effort to protect the public.

“We take these types of calls seriously,” Buck said. “We want to make sure the people inside the building are okay and we want to make sure we do our due diligence in the investigation to make sure that we can reassure the people in the building that everything is going to be okay.”

The primary tenant in the building was the Travis County Auditor’s Office. It was unclear what floor of the building the substance was found.


A fire early Monday morning forced 32 residents to evacuate the Walnut Run apartment complex in North Campus. 

Photo Credit: Ethan Oblak | Daily Texan Staff

Update (6:00 p.m.): The shelter provided by the Red Cross at the Recreational Sports Center officially shut down around 3:30 p.m. on Monday afternoon because no more students had come to utilize its services, according to volunteer Bob Stephens. 

Stephens said students affected by the fire had found temporary housing with friends or family, and Student Emergency Services made sure that the three students who checked into the shelter Monday morning had places to stay that night.

Original story: A fire at an apartment complex north of campus forced 32 residents, including students, to evacuate from their housing early Monday morning. 

According to Austin Fire Department spokeswoman Michelle Tanzola, the fire started in a second floor apartment around 2:30 a.m. Monday at the Walnut Run complex on 3202 Helms St. near Speedway and 32nd streets. 

A total of 18 apartment units were affected, and the fire was extinguished around 3 a.m. Firefighters evacuated both the main apartment complex and the two buildings next door.

Management graduate student Suho Han said he was in the apartment right below where the fire started. 

“I woke up around 2:30, and it sounded like popcorn popping, so I looked out the window..and [there was] fire on the roof of the balcony, and embers coming down” Han said. “I got up, put on my shorts...and grabbed my keys and my wallet. We got outside, and the fire was going up the wall.” 

According to Han, firefighters arrived on the scene fairly quickly.

“Once the fire department came, they told us to get across the street,” Han said. “It took about 20 minutes for the firefighters to put out the fire, but then it came back a little bit.”

Han said his apartment was severely damaged, but was told he might be able to go back later in the day and gather a few more of his belongings.

“It’s all trash now,” Han said. “I’m probably going to stay at my friend’s house until I can find somewhere else.” 

Students were evacuated to the Recreational Sports Center, where a temporary shelter was set up by the American Red Cross of Central Texas.  

Bob Stephens, one of the Red Cross volunteers. said the shelter was set up around 6 a.m. Monday morning. At press time, only 3 students were registered to stay at the shelter, but Stephens said more students are expected to come by tonight. Stephens said he expected most students would stay with friends or family. 

“We’re providing sleeping cots, blankets, a comfort kit with personal items, and snacks,” Stephens said. “The Rec Center is providing access to showers.”

Stephens said the shelter is expected to remain open for as long as it is needed by students.

Christa Lopez, Student Emergency Services associate director, said her organization is working to provide emergency funds and other basic necessities for students affected by the fire.

No one was injured, and the cause of the fire is still unknown.

In the aftermath of the Belo Center of New Media brush fire, UT safety and security officials plan to meet soon and discuss establishing an outdoor fire evacuation policy.

Photo Credit: Fabian Fernandez | Daily Texan Staff

While fire departments around Austin gear up for wildfire season, the University is working to establish its own official outdoor fire procedures.

On campus, the division of Fire Prevention Services focuses on landscaping guidelines in order to prevent fires.

“[The] landscaping processes follow a guideline, which was put together after the Bastrop fires [of 2011],” UT fire marshal Jimmy Johnson said.

The division also focuses on making sure the community is educated on issues related to fire prevention.

“We want all of our students, faculty and staff on campus to recognize that there is a potential for fire, whether it’s in buildings or based off of some type of wildfire,” Johnson said. “We want people to be cognizant of their surroundings, know how to exit when directions are given to do so and to take all alarms seriously. If you have a plan in place, that will serve you well.”

On Jan. 13, a bush caught fire outside of the Belo Center for New Media. Someone pulled the fire alarm, prompting students and faculty to leave the building and walk toward the source of the fire.

After the bush fire, The Daily Texan learned there was no clear evacuation plan in place for outdoor fires on campus. Campus safety and security officials said they plan to meet to discuss the establishment of an outdoor fire evacuation policy but have not yet announced an official outdoor procedure.

The University is equipped with an outdoor warning system that can be used in case of fires. The Pickle Research Center and Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center were recently added to the system in fall 2013.

When performing fire prevention procedures, the fire department must go through the City Arborist Program, which grants permits based on compliance with tree ordinances.

“The City of Austin is one of the few towns that actually has extremely strict tree ordinances,” Austin Fire Department Capt. Josh Portie said. “It reduces what we can remove and how we can remove it.”

City Arborist Michael Embesi said any type of tree is protected by law once it reaches 60 inches in circumference.

“The ordinance exists to protect our largest trees, which provide the greatest service to the citizenry,” Embesi said. “A full-grown tree cleans the air, cleans our water and has more aesthetic value.”

An area with more trees does not necessarily make it more susceptible to fires, according to Embesi.

“Trees help create shade, which helps keep the area cooler,” Embesi said. “They also help prevent vegetation from growing because that shade blocks the light, so trees could actually assist in helping to prevent the spreading of a grass fire, for example.” 

According to Portie, fires are inevitable no matter how many precautions are taken.

“At the end of the day, there’s nothing we’re going to be able to do to stop all fires,” Portie said. “Fire is a natural phenomenon.”

Sergeant Ben Dranguet and Senior Police Officer Steve Linsday are members of APD’s Air Support Unit. APD requested a new helicopter to expand the unit’s operations and aid in public safety missions.

Photo Credit: Marisa Vasquez | Daily Texan Staff

Austin Police Department has requested a brand new helicopter to help fight crime and lend a hand to Austin Fire Department.

APD officials asked City Council for a new helicopter June 21 to use in land pursuits and to provide the fire department with aid for water drops. If the request is granted, the $3.7 million-plus Eurocopter will be the third helicopter owned by APD, accompanied by a model from 2001 and a military helicopter from 1969.

The police department asked Austin City Council to write a letter of intent to reserve a spot in the production line, and if approved, the helicopter would arrive about a year after the request is made.

David Carter, chief of staff of APD, said the city of Austin would be better off with this style of helicopter, because it has the ability to help serve a number of different purposes.

“I think the city of Austin needs this different style of helicopter,” Carter said. “It will address the wild land fire issues, such as the Bastrop fires. It will help the police with managing pursuits and just day-to-day police investigations.”

Except for the STAR Flight medical helicopters, which help with highly specialized emergency response services, Austin has no immediate state or federal resources to respond to wildfires and flash floods, Carter said.

“This helicopter will have an overall public safety mission. One message I really want to stress is that this helicopter is different than any other aircraft we have,” Carter said.

A recent government graduate, Alexa Caldwell, has mixed feelings on the request for this state-of-the-art helicopter.

“I support Austin buying this helicopter because it is necessary for emergency response situations,” Caldwell said. “But it seems like, with all of the other budget cuts, a lot of money to spend on the police force.”

Harry Evans, chief of staff of the Austin Fire Department, said the helicopter will allow them to partner with the police force to protect citizens in public safety missions.

“Buying this helicopter is a win-win situation. It will belong to the police department but will have the mission capability for doing water drops,” Evans said.

Wildfires continue to spread across Texas

“These fires are serious and widespread, and as mean as I have ever seen, burning more than 1,000 homes since this wildfire season began.”
— Gov. Rick Perry in a press release Tuesday after taking an aerial tour of wildfire damage in Steiner Ranch.

“We were outvoted — what can I say? Obviously this money is needed for natural disasters like the ones we have right now. ... We do have a rainy day fund, and I would hope that the governor goes into the rainy day fund. But we have to also be responsible here locally, and cutting the Forest Service budget significantly was not being responsible.”
— State Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, a retired firefighter, on the reduced funding for the Texas Forest Service included in the recently passed state budget, which Gallegos voted against.

“Damage to this community is reflective of all Texas.”
— Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples on the fires ravaging Bastrop, according to The Daily Texan.

“All of the fires are not in the city limits of Austin. If the fires were in the city limits of Austin, that would have been a whole different thing, and I would have made my way back as fast as I could have.”
— Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr in a phone interview with the Austin American-Statesman on Tuesday on her decision to stay in Colorado for a golfing trip rather than return to Austin.

“[The fire] is not in the city of Austin. But we don’t work that way. We think of this area as a region, and we’re all in this together.”
— Mayor Lee Leffingwell on the fires, according to The Daily Texan.

“It’s a 100-year event, with fires of this magnitude. It would be better if the chief was here to at least provide guidance to the citizens.”
— Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association, on the fires and Kerr’s decision to stay in Colorado, according to the Statesman.

Perry on climate change

“I do believe the issue of global warming has been politicized. I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling in to their projects.”
— Perry in Bedford, New Hampshire, last month, according to CBS News.

“The complexities of the global atmosphere have often eluded the most sophisticated scientists.”
— Perry in his book, “Fed Up,” on the causes of global climate change.

“People who discount the science of climate change don’t do it because they’ve read the science. The science of climate change is a proxy for views on the role of government.”
— Andrew Dessler, professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, according to National Public Radio.

A brushfire that destroyed 10 homes broke out in South Austin on Sunday.

Palmer Buck, Austin Fire Department battalion chief, said the fire began at approximately 1:32 p.m. About 50 percent of the fire was contained by 10:30 p.m., according to the city of Austin Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

One suspect who fire officials believe started the blaze is currently in custody with a $50,000 bond. Officials have not released the suspect’s name.

The fire damaged eight homes in the Oak Hill area, near U.S. Highway 290 and State Highway 71, and 10 more have received fire damage.

Four fire departments — Austin, Westlake, Lake Travis and Oak Hill — helped contain the fire. Two STAR Flight helicopters dumped buckets of water on the blaze, and two C-130 airplanes dropped fire retardant.

“It’s just a horrible example of how dry and dangerous it is right now,” Buck said of the drought experienced all across the state.

Wildfires continue to spread in West Texas, and more than 195 counties, including Travis County, have an outdoor burn ban currently in place.

Residents in the area evacuated their homes, and many could not return by Sunday night.