January 20, 2006
Editor's Note: The Texas Farm Bureau Radio Network contributed to the wildfire reports on these pages...
An unusually warm winter, combined with a severe statewide drought, low humidities and high winds has turned the state of Texas into a tinderbox just waiting to be lit.
Since the rash of wildfires started in December (as of Jan. 6), 159 fires have consumed more than 254,400 acres and destroyed 238 homes in counties across Texas. Three Texans have lost their lives.
On Jan. 4 alone, the state responded to 58 wildfires which destroyed 72 homes and burned nearly 50,000 acres of land. The North Texas town of Ringgold was hit particularly hard, with its approximately 100 residents losing 32 homes.
"I want to thank the thousands of fire fighters throughout the state whoat great perilhave saved the lives and homes of their fellow Texans. Their efforts have been remarkable," said Texas Gov. Rick Perry as he toured fire-ravaged Montague County. "Since the fires began, more than 500 homes and entire towns have been saved by our heroic local fire fighting crews and a quick and coordinated statewide response."
The governor said more than 520 state and out-of-state fire fighters are on the ground helping the thousands of local and volunteer firemen. Texas has 97 aircraft in place, in addition to the 88 bulldozer crews and 32 fire engines fighting the fires from the ground.
Gov. Perry has taken the following steps to assist the communities impacted by the fires:
Asked the Small Business Administration to make citizens in Callahan, Cooke, Eastland, Erath, Hood and Mon-tague counties eligible for long-term, low-interest rate loans to defray the costs of losses from wildfires.
Issued a statewide declaration of emergency for all 254 counties due to wildfire threat.
Requested the federal Small Business Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make low interest loans available to affected farmers, ranchers and business owners.
Requested a Presidential disaster declaration to make impacted counties eligible for federal public assistance to rebuild communities and defray the millions of dollars spent by local governments to fight fires.
Amended his Presidential request on Dec. 30 to request that individuals and families be made eligible for federal assistance to rebuild their lives and homes.
Mary Leathers with the Texas Forestry Service says many of the wildfires are occurring in what she terms a "wildlife/urban interface."
With the population expanding in Texas, Leathers said growth is occurring at the edge of cities and small towns moving "back out to the rural settings."
"These are homes that have an acre anywhere to 20 acres," she said. "And the fires are burning through there. It's increased the risk of fire because we have more human activity out there and the threat to homes is greater because there are more homes in these areas."
Leathers urged rural residents to support their local volunteer fire departments.
"These are volunteers. These are your neighbors," she said. "They usually have a job during the daytime and they respond as fast as they can. People need to remember it can be anywhere from five minutes to 30 minutes before they can get a truck out there."
Leathers noted no one in the state is immune to fire danger.
"If you live in town, live in a rural community, if you live on a farm, we're all at risk," she said. "The state of Texas is at risk at this point. Anything we can do to alleviate thatwhether you are from Dallas or the smallest community in Texaswe all have a role in this and can all be safe if we're aware of the situation and do everything we can do to prevent these fires."
Leathers noted that fire danger will probably be around for awhile, with the long range weather forecast pointing towards March before there's any significant relief. She urged caution in outdoor activities.
"Anything that can produce significant heat or spark could cause a wildland fire," she said. "Just be aware about how dry it is out there."
Methodist Church in Cross Plains, destroyed.
Aubrey and Kala Stout dig through what is left of their two-story rock home built in the '40s in Cross Plains.
Like a thief in the night, the wildfire sweeping across the West Texas town of Cross Plains, Dec. 27, stole just about everything Aubrey Stout and his family ownedbut not their faith and community pride.
"It's going to take more than that to get rid of us in Cross Plains," said Stout, who graduated from Cross Plains High, married a hometown girl, and never left the area.
That grim Tuesday, Stout was on top of his house, watering it down in an effort to save it, when he looked up and saw a wall of fire coming his way.
"It was extremely devastating, the speed of the fire, the height of it. At first, I thought it was a grassfire. Then I could see it about a block away, and it was 10 feet high. There were elderly people across the street. I helped them get in their vehicles, as soon as I saw it wasn't a little grassfire. It was a wall of firea total wall of fire that was shooting, the winds being like they were, 30 to 40 miles per hour. There wasn't anything anybody could do. We had already got our kids out of the way by then. We took them to some friends. I told my wife to go. I was up there watering it down. When I turned back around, it was just right at the fence. I got in my pickup, and helped the other people go. It was disorienting..."
Stout estimated that from the time he looked up and saw the fire until it arrived was no more than five minutes.
"It was extremely fast. I didn't know if I was going to be able to get down the ladder in time from the house in order to get away from it. That's how fast it was," he said.
Like the tornado that devastated Cross Plains in 1994, the fire seemed to jump and strike random targets. The fire passed by the house next door to Stout, merely charring a pecan tree in the yard. And a dwelling just across the street was unharmed.
"All through town we have seen that. You have a house totally gone and there's one next to it that was hardly touched. I think that was because of the winds. Fire creates its own wind anyway. The fire came within four feet of my boss's house and quit," Stout said.
When the order came to evacuate the town, the Stouts left for Lake Brownwood, where they had dropped their kids off with friends. He returned that night to find members of the Brady fire department hosing down his home and the house next door, to make sure the fire didn't spread.
Stout is confident that despite the fire's destruction, Cross Plains will rise from the ashes.
"It will take considerably more than that," he reiterated. "We've got our family. We love this town. This community is just great, the outpouring and the pride everybody's taking in the community, helping everybody and such. It's amazing."
Years of hard work and local historyincluding the First United Methodist Church buildingwent up in smoke in Cross Plains, Dec. 27, when a grass fire got out of hand. Early numbers indicated 118 houses in and around the small West Texas town were destroyed or damaged, and two women died in the fire. But hopes and dreams are still alive in this close-knit community of 1,070 people. Thanks to the efforts of Benny Free, a veteran farmer and rancher, a number of Cross Plains residents and their homes were spared.
Free, who runs beef cattle and grows wheat, in Callahan, Eastland, and Coleman counties, and has a custom farming business, was coming home from Gorman with a load of cow feed that windy Tuesday when he and his son spotted smoke on the horizon.
"When we got there, we saw it was at our house," Free recalled. "We left the trailer and load of feed at the road to go save our house, and we saved it... Then we went on west of town and cut a lane around a pasture to keep the cattle from getting burned out. We brought the tractor back in and tried to save houses. We plowed fire lanes and saved three houses up there in one neighborhood, then the fire got in the tractor and burned it to the ground."
Free said the dry conditions and high winds made the fast-moving inferno uncontrollable. Free said he was at his shop in the Cross Plains city limits when he heard people screaming, a city block away, that the fire was crossing the creek.
Said Free, "I was going around the front of my combine, to get it out and move it across Hwy. 36, and the fire was done on me. It was at a house a block away from me. It passed me, and went right on. Then, we went to running for our lives, that's what we were doing. We were just trying to save our own selves then. It was too late to save anything else.
"It was taking over cattle, burning them up as they were moving," Free continued. "They couldn't outrun it. They were trying to jump the fence and some caught on fire running from the fire. Anything in front of it burnt up in a matter of seconds. You couldn't stop it any way in the world, it was traveling so fast. "
The amount of smoke associated with the fire added to the fire's fury, according to the 30-year farmer.
"You couldn't see for the smoke, you couldn't breathe for the smoke, you couldn't hardly fight fires for the smoke. The grass was generating so much smoke. It was level, not blowing up in the air. It was going with us and wiped us out in a matter of 30 minutes," he said.
Free lost his combine, everything in his shop, which included about $250,000 worth of inventory, two parts combines, a cattle trailer, a hay baler, a tractor, a hopper bottom, and a grain truck, as well as the house his hired hands live in. He said his tractor and combine were the only items insured. Still, he came out better in the aftermath than many of his neighbors and friends.
"The north end of town is gone. The more expensive residential areait's gone. There ain't nothing there... Some don't have anything left. I still have my home," he said. "Anyone who thinks it can't happen to them, should think again, and be prepared. People were riding around watching the fire, and the next thing you know, their own homes were destroyed."
The Texas Forest Service offers these tips to protect your property from wildfire:
Call 9-1-1 immediately if you spot a fire. If fires are caught while small, the potential threat and damage they cause can be reduced.
Keep grasses around your home and outbuildings short.
Keep hoses hooked up to be able to wet down the lawn and house if needed.
Consider disking around homes and outbuildings to create a firebreak.
Store flammable materials away from homes, structures and barns.