Preparing to Fight Flames

By Todd Neeley
DTN Staff Reporter

OMAHA (DTN) -- In the months that followed the March 2017 wildfires in the Texas Panhandle, volunteer fire departments and others began asking questions: What could have been done differently to combat the blaze, but also to prepare for it?

Farmers and ranchers continued to search for answers as to how they could have been better prepared for the wildfires that devastated parts of southwestern Kansas, the eastern Texas Panhandle and parts of the Oklahoma Panhandle.

A year later, the National Interagency Coordination Center has identified those areas -- and other areas in the Central and Southern Plains -- as being under significant wildland fire risk from now until April. (See https://www.dtnpf.com/…)

"We've had a few regular meetings and long conversations," said rancher Chaz Rutledge, of Canadian, Texas, several months after the fire last year. His homestead narrowly missed total disaster on March 6, 2017 in the eastern Panhandle. Rutledge is a volunteer firefighter for the tiny Locust Grove Volunteer Fire Department near Canadian.

"That fire itself was just an extreme situation no one today had seen before. We can't think of anything we could have done differently to change the outcome."

While the Texas Panhandle continues to recover from the blaze that killed ranchers, cattle and horses, and destroyed grasslands and property across 600 to 700 square miles, Rutledge said on the positive side rural fire departments such as his are beefing up their operations.

Thanks to monetary donations, the 10-member Locust Grove department focused on upgrading safety equipment and applied for grants to double the size of its fire facility. The moves will help improve safety for firefighters as well as stepped-up training.

Even then, the size of the fires and the rate of speed at which they ate up acres of grasslands was staggering.

"As far as things we could have done differently," Rutledge said, "if we would have had 10 more firefighters it wouldn't have made a difference. In our little department, we have more manpower than equipment."

TOO MUCH FOR LOCAL FIRE DEPARTMENTS

Gene Hall, director of public relations at the Texas Farm Bureau, said the size and scope of the March fires last year proved to be too much for local volunteer fire departments to fully handle. The Texas Farm Bureau and others are working to provide more money to rural departments in the Panhandle.

"They use up resources every time they go out and fight a fire," he said.

The wear-and-tear on their equipment "is atrocious" and it needs to be maintained as a last line of defense, Hall said.

"I think they did a good job given the circumstances, but more volunteers would help. That's a special kind of person. There needs to be an awareness of how crucial their role is. If you live in that area and you're not contributing, you're letting someone else carry the load," said Hall.

On July 10, 2017 the Texas Farm Bureau announced it distributed about $361,000 to panhandle victims, through the TFB Panhandle Wildfire Relief Fund.

Rutledge said the countryside has responded in places such as Canadian where there is a waiting list to join the local fire department.

The March fires "was the third time since 2006 we've had fires," he said. "It will happen again. Attentiveness to that kind of event is cyclical."

PROTECT CATTLE

Rutledge said he realized it's important to have safe areas to move cattle on his own ranch, perhaps where grass is short and use firebreaks. He added it's also a good idea to place more water tanks around the ranch and to keep grass mowed around the homestead.

When it came time to leave the ranch, it nearly was too late, Rutledge admitted. He suffered a significant amount of smoke inhalation that led to a severe sinus infection.

"There is no right answer," he said. "I sat down here and watched that smoke for too long."

Hall said there should be a "good common sense effort" by local authorities when conditions are perfect for wildfires: do whatever you can to send notices out to the public.

"Everybody ought to look at getting fire extinguishers. Make sure they are ready in case of equipment fires in or on barns," Hall advised. "People need to keep trees trimmed back. Any dead trees ought to be taken care of. Some guys are thinking about perimeter fire breaks."

Thousands of miles of fencing were lost in the blazes, leading many farmers and ranchers to favor the installation of steel corner posts. In addition, some ranchers are considering the merits of creating their own firefighting apparatus to compensate for when volunteer departments are overwhelmed.

That may include working with neighbors to buy firefighting equipment and coming up with unified plans. In other words, for some ranchers it's about taking increased responsibility to protect and defend their property.

"I think we all have to be more responsible ourselves for our own problems," said Canadian, Texas, rancher Steve Rader, who essentially was left to fight the fire on his own ranch. The March wildfires scorched his ranch in the Texas Panhandle, killing about 85 of his 520-head cattle operation, and wiped away about 60% of his pastures.

"Because if you can get it stopped early it's not a big deal. Once it gets big it's a big deal." For Rader, it became a big deal. Roughly 8,000 acres burned on his ranch.

While the March wildfires were a big deal to the people affected by them in the Southern Plains, they weren't the last of the wildfires making the news. Large, tragic, fast-moving fires have struck drought areas in the Northern Plains, Canadian Prairies and California since then.

BEING PREPARED TO LEAVE QUICKLY

Often when disasters such as wildfires hit, there's little time to react.

Back in Texas last year, as the fire approached Rutledge's place he rushed inside his home to see what he could take in seconds: he grabbed a computer and checkbook and rushed out the door.

Since the disaster, Rutledge said he is considering buying renter's insurance, and some families are considering cattle insurance in response to about 4,000 head of cattle lost in the Texas wildfires.

"There's been a few people after the fire who said they had it and it saved them," Rutledge said.

"We need to look into that for the future. Nobody thinks about flood insurance until they have a flood. I think the main thing is, you never know what's going to happen. May be better to have a backup plan. That fire, the only thing that would have stopped that would have been a wheat field or a plowed ground. If money were of no object -- and I had a wish list -- a bulldozer or maintainer, if I had a fire rig with a tanker on the back, I could have done a lot of good."

Several people were killed in the wildfires across the three states.

In Texas, two of those victims were 20-year-old Cody Crockett, and his 23-year-old girlfriend Sydney Wallace, who were killed heroically trying to move cattle away from the blaze.

Shamrock, Texas rancher Trent Cadra knew Crockett. He said the tragedy offers a lesson area ranchers will remember for years to come.

"As far as us and those situations in the future, I think it's a good thing if you can go in there and move your cattle out, open some gates and stuff like that," Cadra said.

"But I think, if anything we took away from that, is take care of your cattle and your country but then also be willing and able to say 'I've done all I can do, I'm going to get out while I can.' I'm not saying anything bad about Cody Crockett, if anything he taught us sometimes maybe you try too hard and put yourself in a bad situation you didn't plan for. If anything, he might have taught us that."

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @toddneeleyDTN

(ES/SK)

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