A fire during a rocket engine test January 22 on a 200-acre facility in Briggs triggered the evacuation of residents within a mile radius as a precaution.
The Oakalla Volunteer Fire Department responded to the fire, and possible explosion, at 6:23 p.m. Wednesday at the Firefly Aerospace test facility located off U.S. 183.
“It originally came out that there was an explosion, but the company tells me there wasn’t an explosion,” Burnet County Sheriff Calvin Boyd said. “They test rocket engines out there, and, when they start them up, it may sound like an explosion. There was a fuel leak, which started a fire, but their fire suppression equipment came on and put it out.”
Boyd said the fire was out before emergency crews arrived.
According to a media release from Firefly Aerospace, which is headquartered in Cedar Park, engineers “were conducting a planned test of the first stage of the company’s ‘Alpha’ launch vehicle.” This included a five-second firing of four engines. When the engines fired, a fire broke out at the base.
“The five-second test was immediately aborted and the test facility’s fire suppression system extinguished the fire,” according to the Firefly media release. “The cause of the anomaly is under investigation. Firefly engineers are reviewing test data from the stage to identify potential causes for the test failure, and Firefly will share results of that investigation once it’s complete.”
Upon responding to the fire, Oakalla VFD officials contacted the Burnet County Sheriff’s Office for assistance and, “out of an abundance of caution,” requested traffic on U.S. 183 near the facility and several nearby county roads be shut down.
“There were a few people displaced, and it did cause some traffic issues, but I think the fire department was being cautious and thinking of the area residents’ safety,” Boyd said. “We did the right thing by shutting down the roads and evacuating people.”
BCSO dispatch also used the reverse 9-1-1 system to alert nearby residents.
Boyd said roads were reopened and the evacuation lifted by 9:30 p.m.
According to Firefly, at no time during this procedure were its personnel or the public in danger. Officials plan to coordinate with local authorities and emergency responders regarding the January 22 incident and refine their contingency plans.
Firefly Aerospace manufactures small-launch vehicles for commercial, national security, and civil space customers. The company is working to provide small-payload delivery “through the design, manufacture and operation of reliable launch vehicles,” according to its website. The Alpha, which engineers were testing January 22, is designed to deliver smaller satellites of 1,000 kg to low-Earth orbits (LEO) of 200 km or slightly heavier satellites of up to 630 kg to sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) of 500 km.
Firefly Aerospace is aiming for an Alpha launch later this year from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.