By nine-thirty that morning, the west wind had begun picking up dirt, sending dust and even bits of gravel skating across the ground, then into the air. Just before ten the moan and howl became audible. Smaller birds walked, and the harriers fought the wind as they hunted. The western sky took on that reddish-tan color, then the entire sky turned brassy tan as soil from New Mexico and the western Panhandle took to the air. The howl became constant, punctuated with occasional rattles of small stones hitting the wall. The noise of the wind drowned out the singing of the power lines. People became twitchy, watching the sky, sniffing the wind, listening for the sound no one wanted to hear, the crackling roar of the red devil of the grasslands.
And then, somewhere, two powerlines touched and arced. Sparks flew. And the battle began.
Sparks touched dry grass, the wind fanned the tiny bit of flame, and within seconds hungry red and orange tongues licked across the ground, racing as fast as the air above them could move. Much fuel awaited the fire’s maw, and a grass fire began devouring ditch grass and pasture, first nibbling, then gobbling the winter-crisped plants and anything else it could find. And the wind roared louder, swirling white and tan smoke up into the dirty sky. Smoke over the road blinded any driver foolish enough to push into the sooty darkness.
Walls of white appeared to the east and south, warning of trouble, while warnings flashed out from the rugged terrain around the Canadian River – fire in the brush! Several little towns prepared to evacuate, rural schools closed, and everyone who could mustered to help, one way or another. Firefighters, paramedics, ranchers, people directing traffic, churches opening to act as shelters, firefighters from other counties going on standby, then TV news switching to constant fire updates (sorry, soap opera fans, lives are at risk). And the wild howled and the flames laughed.
Seven fires burned, two very close to Amarillo, five to the east. Oklahoma too had flames.
A cold front promised relief, perhaps, as the wind shifted and pushed back onto already burned areas.
But it didn’t! Seventy mile and hour winds chased the flames south, across I-40, down the highway, now packed with vehicles diverted off I-40 because of earlier fires. The town of Shamrock was endangered, residents told to be ready to run, fire departments gathering to try and protect the town of 2000 people. A rancher got out with his family and what they were wearing, opening gates as he fled in hopes that some of his livestock might escape the racing flames. The airplanes couldn’t fly because of the wind, but some helicopters appeared, from where no one knew, with buckets and began dropping water on the fire lines, helping the men and women on the ground.
Not until the full moon rose and the wind began fading did the humans establish a line – here and no farther! Shamrock was safe, Skellytown and Pampa residents could go home, and the long watch-and-water process of keeping flare-ups from starting again replaced the race to save lives and property. Only in Carson County, in the broken range land, did the battle continue unabated until the next day noon.
60,000 acres burned. A few homes and structures lost. Some cattle are gone and others scattered, waiting to be found and taken home, or fed by neighbors until their owners can get things sorted out and fences replaced.
One day, one low-pressure system, seven fires, two highways and one interstate closed, towns evacuated and schools closed, dirt and smoke filling the air. But no human lives lost, thanks be. No one wants to relive 2006.
But when the wind howls, and the brown grass waves, and powerlines kiss . . .