Smoke on the Horizon

What no one from the High or Great Plains ever wants to see…

This is starting to look dreadfully like 2006, when over a million acres (the state of Rhode Island is 700,000 acres) burned and over a dozen people died in the fires or in wrecks caused by smoke across the road. As of writing this, seven people have died in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, three of them on one ranch when they were trapped by flame as they tried to save some cattle. The flames move with the wind, and when the wind gusts over fifty miles an hour, you can’t outrun the flame front.

Single engine air tanker north of Amarillo on Monday or Tuesday.

In Oklahoma, but this is what a grass fire on the edge of the Breaks looks like.

North of Amarillo, but not too far north, fire fighters put out hot-spots in the brush.

North of the River in Roberts County on the 7th.

It sounds silly. Grass burning. Grass is knee high at best, right? A forest fire, that’s serious, but grass? And brush, that’s bushes and things, easy to get around and spray with water. Except it isn’t, and large parts of the Canadian River Breaks don’t have roads where the fire departments need them right now. And it is windy, and terribly dry with dew points in the single digits. We had a good, damp winter and fall, so there is a lot of grass and brush that has been curing in the wind since the last rains around February 14th. All it needs is a spark from a downed power line, or train brakes, or a hot car exhaust, or a ciggy butt tossed out the window and carried into the grass, and disaster flares, hot and black and deadly.

When you can see the smoke on radar set to a standard sweep mode, it is a bad fire.

The people of the Tri-State area will get through this, as we always do. Already funds are being raised for the families of the dead, supplies are being collected for those fighting the fires and those who have lost homes, cattle and horses, pastures. I have a personal connection to the Perryton-Ochiltree Fire because John Erickson, of Hank the Cowdog, lost his home. I know Mr. Erickson both professionally and through a good friend and mentor of mine who is one of Mr. Erickson’s relatives. The son of a family friend is a volunteer fireman in the eastern Panhandle and got called out Monday and Tuesday.

When you walk outside your house at dawn and smell smoke, and when you see ash from a fire fifteen miles away floating in the outdoor critter-water dish, or oddly black dust on your windowsill, the fires affect you, too. The hazy sky, the faint whiff of char in the wind…

To paraphrase John Donne, ask not for whom the fire-bell rings. It rings for thee.


5 thoughts on “Smoke on the Horizon

  1. I’ve seen grass fires, and fought one, so I know they are serious. Forest fires are big, really hard to put out once they get to really going; but with the ability to spot them from satelites these days that shouldn’t be the problem it is… if we didn’t leave them unattended or refuse to use any motorized equipment (to include chainsaws) in wilderness areas and the like, because “fire is natural.” Once they get so big you can’t put them out, the best you can hope for is to attempt to contain them.
    Grass fires are fast though from the time they are no bigger than a teacup. Unbelievably fast to those who have never witnessed one.

    I always have a hard time visually the danger of grassfires in the south and southwest though… when our grass is under a couple feet of snow. 🙂

  2. Fought them as a VFD back in the 70s, NEVER fun and they will bite you in the butt… They can move faster than one would believe. Thoughts and prayers for those lost.

  3. Heard about the father of three and the young engaged couple– at least, I assume that’s the three on one ranch.

    My parents were hit really hard by that… it could’ve been them, at various times.

    • Yes. The others were killed in car wrecks in the smoke (came close to losing more when two fire vehicles collided in the smoke on Monday), and don’t know about the 7th. They were still waiting for word from next-of-kin before releasing the name and cause of death, last I heard.

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