Wildfires in the Panhandle

Last Sunday (March 12) we drove into Perryton for church.  By the time we got to church, the wind was howling straight out of the west.  After church, the wind was blowing even harder, gusts up to fifty or sixty mph.  We ate lunch and drove back to the ranch.  As we approached the caprock, we saw a brown cloud across the river valley.  I said, "That must be dust from New Mexico."  Then I caught the smell of smoke.  That was the beginning of six bad days.

At the bottom of the hill, we met Jack and DaVaughn White, our neighbors on the Parsell ranch.  I said, "Where is it?"  Jack wasn't sure.  He had heard that the fire had started near Borger and was south of the river, racing eastward.  The Whites drove up on top of the caprock to get a longer view and we drove to our home in PicketCanyon.  Through the afternoon, the smoke cloud stayed south of the river and it didn't appear to be close to us.

Around , our son Scot called from Amarillo and said the fire had raced out of HutchinsonCounty and burned across southern RobertsCounty and into GrayCounty.  It had become a killer fire and he said we had better drive to high ground and check its location.  He thought we should consider evacuating.

We loaded up in our Excursion (me, Kris, her mother, and two of our grandchildren) and drove up to a high spot in the east pasture, where we had a good view of the country to the south.   There, we saw an astonishing sight, a line of flames that lit up the entire southern horizon and appeared to be fifty miles long.  The reports on the radio said that the towns of Miami (our county seat, about 20 miles south), Wheeler, Canadian, McLean, and Allanreed were being evacuated, and early reports said that Skellytown had been destroyed.  That was incorrect. 

In such a high wind, any fire is beyond control.  You feel utterly helpless and fear begins to gnaw.  One of the most terrifying qualities of wildfires is that you never know where they are.  In daylight, all you see is a thick cloud of smoke.  If you are in the path of the smoke, you are also in the path of the flames.  You can hear it roaring before you see it, and you see it when the flames burst out of the smoke cloud.  By the time you get your first glimpse of the fire, your life is already in danger, because such a fire can move at forty or fifty miles an hour.

Since the fire seemed to be south of the river, I thought we were safe to spend the night at the ranch.  In the days that followed, I began to realize that in such dry conditions, our canyon could be a death trap if the wind shifted, as it often does, and as it did in days to come.  We have an abundance of huge cedar trees in our canyon, many of them forty to fifty feet tall, and some of them stood dangerously close to the house.  In normal times, we see them as objects of beauty but they are also fuel.  We probably should have left.

I woke up many times in the night, went out on the porch and checked for smoke.   If I had smelled smoke, we would have evacuated, but there was no strong smell of smoke and in the night, the winds subsided.  The news in the morning was grim.  Two huge fires had swept across the Panhandle and had destroyed half a million acres of rangeland.  Seven people had died, homes had been burned, and nobody could guess at the loss of livestock. 

Monday morning, I drove up to a lookout  point in my east pasture.  I could see that big fires were still burning above the caprock on the south side of the Canadian River.  I couldn't judge their location but they appeared to be well south of the Payne and McMordie ranches along the river.  I tried to call some of the neighbors on my cellular phone, but the service was out.  Later, I learned that the fire had burned the power lines to the tower across the river.

Around , the cell phones were working and I talked to Jason Pelham on the Payne ranch.  He said the fire had missed his country along the river.  It was burning in the canyons south of the Payne and fire crews were trying to keep it from moving further north.  The west camp on the Payne ranch lay in its path and through binoculars, I could see four or five fire trucks parked near the house.  Jason thought they had enough men and equipment to contain it…if the wind didn't play any tricks.

Around  several Forest Service bombers began dropping red fire retardant chemical around the Payne west camp.  The house was partially shrouded in smoke but it appeared that the fire had been contained well south of the house and that it would not make it into the heavy vegetation along the riverbed. 

The news on the radio said that a huge swath of central and southern RobertsCounty had been reduced to a black desert and that 600,000 acres had been burned, but it appeared that the fires were out except for a few hot spots.  We felt that the worst had passed for us, if not for those ranchers further south.  The weather forecast was calling for a day of fairly calm winds on Tuesday.

Tuesday morning I drove up on top and scanned the country south of us.  It appeared that we might be all right, except that the weather forecast called for strong winds out of the southwest on Wednesday.  That was a bad direction for us.  In the afternoon, we drove up the river and talked to Starla Nicholson on the C Bar C ranch.  She caught us up on all the news, including the report that four burned bodies had been found north of Miami, oil field workers who had gotten trapped in the fire.

Wednesday morning I got up at and drove up on top.  I saw only one glow of fire on the Payne ranch.  By , the winds had picked up again and created an eerie scene.  The air was filled with haze, and it was hard to determine if it was fresh smoke or a mix of ash and dust blowing off the burned country to the south.  I called Jason and Starla and they thought it wasn't new smoke.

Randy Wilson, my son-in-law, took the day off and came out to help me.  We spent all day cutting down big cedar trees near the house and dragging them into a dry pond.  Around , I talked to Jason Pelham.  He said the fires seemed to be under control, although several hot spots had flared up.  But the winds continued to pick up speed and around , Jason called and said the fire had roared back to life and had jumped the river.  It appeared to be heading toward our valley and the canyon where we lived.  If it ever got into our canyon…I didn't even want to think about it.

I told Kris she should load up her mother and head for town.  She wanted to stay, but then a sheriff's car came up our road, its lights flashing.  The deputy recommended that we evacuate.  By this time, we could see billows of smoke to the east, above the canyon rim.  The fire appeared to be in my east pasture and on the Tandy ranch that joined us on the east, way too close for comfort.

Kris had about fifteen minutes to decide what she wanted to save from a house we had occupied for fifteen years:  some clothes, photographs, my banjo and her mandolin.  We got the women loaded and Randy and I led them through the west pasture, down to the

North River Road
, and to highway 70 between Pampa and Perryton.  The distance between our house and Highway 70 was about thirteen miles.

At that point, I didn't know the extent of the fire and whether we might find more fire between our ranch and the highway.   If we encountered fire on the Killebrew or Courson ranches, we would have to turn around and find another exit out of the valley.  There was only one, a steep, rocky trail that climbed the caprock in my far west pasture.  Both our vehicles had four-wheel drive and I knew we could make the climb…if we didn't encounter more fire on the way.  If we did, we might be trapped in the valley.  But we were lucky.  All the fires were east of us. 

The radio news said that the police were stopping all traffic going south out of Perryton to Pampa and Canadian.  Rumors were flying that Perryton and Canadian were in danger.  In fact, they weren't, but people in LipscombCounty, to the northeast, had been put on alert.  Fire crews and Forest Service personnel were heading toward southeast OchiltreeCounty, where they hoped to stop the fire when it came out of the canyons north of the river.  

With Kris and her mother safe and on the way to Perryton, Randy and I drove to a high spot in the east pasture and watched as the fire raged across the Tandy ranch.   From the high ground, we could see that it was on a path that took it within 300 yards of my east fence, and it was heading to the northeast, away from our place.  But the weather forecast said that after dark, the winds would shift around to the north and northeast, and that wasn't good news. 

After dark, we could see the flashing lights of emergency vehicles all across the wide Canadian River valley and up on the flats to the north.  I didn't count them, but there must have been 50-75.  They weren't doing much except waiting.  There isn't much a fire truck can do to stop a fast-moving wildfire.  The forward surge has to be stopped by fireguards and backfires.  Experienced crews stay out of its path, wait for the initial charge of the fire to pass, then go in and put out the lingering flames, smoldering cow chips, yucca, and mesquite trees.   

The fire raced northward and entered BourboneseCanyon on the Tandy ranch.  This is probably the biggest canyon in the area, very similar to the canyons on my ranch but longer and wider.  It contained an abundance of big cedar trees, as well as cottonwoods, elms, hackberry, and soapberry.  In other words, that canyon was loaded with dry fuel.  When the fire got into the canyon, we couldn't see it directly, but the red-orange glow that showed above the canyon rims was spectacular and frightening.  A massive column of billowing gray smoke rose above the fire and disappeared into the night sky.

Randy and I had already loaded the pickup with sleeping bags, food, and water.   We didn't know where we would be, if we would make it back to the house, or if there would be any house left.  We made our way down a dark twisting road from the high country, drove to the barn, and loaded my track loader onto a flatbed trailer.  The track load is a kind of tractor, a skid loader that runs on rubber tracks like a bulldozer.  It works well in rough and sandy country.  We hauled it over to a pasture on the Tandy ranch that joined us.  There, fire was burning through catclaw and cedar brush on the sides of several big  mesas, sending up clouds of black and gray smoke, moving against the wind in a long line, toward my mesa pasture. 

At some point (events and time had begun to blur) we encountered a crew from the C Bar C ranch, parked in the darkness on Hank's Road:   Billy DeArmond, Dave Nicholson, Clint DeArmond, and Jody Chisum.  They had been fighting fire on the south side of the river and now had brought their ranch fire truck over to the north side.  They were in good spirits but their eyes showed deep fatigue.  We talked for a while, then they were called down to the

River Road
.  Randy and I stayed to monitor the fire on the western front.  We were the only ones there.  Most of the crews and equipment were working the biggest fires to the east of us on the Tandy. 

Two fire rigs from the Gruver Volunteer Fire Department arrived in our area, including two men I knew:  Jake and Benny McCullough.  They had worked all day on windmills.  Now it appeared they would be fighting fire all night.

They drove out into the pasture toward the line of fire.   This was quite an act of courage.  It was dark, those men didn't know this pasture, and the terrain was rough, even for a four-wheel drive vehicle.  They drove along the line of fire and sprayed it with water.  That killed the flames so that I could go behind them in the track loader, knocking down smoldering mesquite trees and covering them with dirt.  They made their way along the base of the mesa and somehow managed to keep from getting stuck.  Randy and I kept a close eye on them, in case we had to pull them out with the track loader. 

Around ten or , the wind shifted around to the northwest.   Fire crews on the flats north of the valley had thrown up fireguards and backfires to stop the blaze when it came out of the canyons, and to prevent it from spreading into an ocean of tall CRP grass in LipscombCounty to the northeast.  That would have been catastrophic and would have put in jeopardy the five small towns in the county.  The crews did stop the fire, but if the wind hadn't shifted to the northwest, I'm not sure they could have stopped it. 

Once the wind changed, the fire turned and started burning back through the Tandy ranch, this time moving southeast, through rough canyons and mesas.   Randy and I kept watch until 2 and went to bed.  It had been a very long day and I was about shot.  I had been up since

We got up around seven Thursday morning, made coffee and hard-boiled some eggs, and drove up on top to check the situation.   The winds had died down in the night but were still fairly strong out of the northeast.  Several big fires were still burning around Tandy Mesa, about two miles east of my place, and dozens of smaller fires still burned across the valley.  During the morning, big four-engine airplanes from the Forest Service swooped down and dropped loads of fire retardant chemical on these fires, putting out the worst of them.  A big Chinook helicopter was also working the fire.  It would hover over a pond or stock tank, lower a snorkel, and suck up water, then discharge it over a hot spot.  The fires in the roughest country just burned themselves out throughout the day. 

My sons Scot and Mark arrived Thursday morning, Scot from Amarillo and Mark from Austin.  Mark had seen news coverage of the fires, threw some clothes into his Durango, and headed for the Panhandle.  I was glad to have them around.  As it turned out, there wasn't much left to do, but one never knows.  A shift in wind direction can change the equation in a big hurry.  In the afternoon, Scot went back to Amarillo and Randy returned to Perryton. 

Mark and I drove around the valley for the rest of the day, checking for hot spots that might threaten our country.   During the day we saw crews and equipment from Perryton, Canadian, Higgins, Hoover, Gruver, TarrantCounty (300 miles to the south), South Dakota, and Oregon

Friday morning, the wind had shifted around to the east, bringing the ominous smell of smoke into our canyon.  Mark drove up on top of the caprock around eight and scouted for smoke.  It looked pretty good, just a few smoke plumes on the Tandy ranch.  We drove over to the Tandy and found the place deserted.  All the crews had left in the night. 

As we were driving through the Tandy, we saw smoke coming out of a sand draw.  We couldn't reach it in the pickup (we might have gotten the pickup stuck in the deep sand, even with four-wheel drive) so we walked to it, carrying a shovel and an axe.  We found a big elm tree that had smoldered all night.  Now, with the wind picking up, it was flaming up.  There was unburned grass nearby, so we decided to kill the fire.

Mark stayed and went to work with axe and shovel, while I returned to our ranch for the track loader.   With the loader, we dug a trench in the sand, dumped the burning limbs into it, and buried them.  While we were doing this, clouds moved over us and we were pelted with sleet.  By afternoon, a slow sizzle of rain had begun to fall and for the first time in five days, we felt that the monster had finally been killed.  Kris and her mother returned home in the evening.  The damp weather continued on into Saturday and Sunday.  On Monday, it turned into a driving snowstorm.    

It appears that the ordeal is finished.  To the south of us lie the death and destruction of the worst fire in Texas history.  Estimates say a million acres were burned and 10,000 cattle lost.  Eleven people were killed and several firefighters were injured.  Hundreds of miles of fence were destroyed.  The replacement cost will be $10,000 a mile.  We were lucky this time.  Our hearts go out to those who were not.

John Erickson
M Cross Ranch