Drought sparks worst fire season in Texas history

Apr 15, 2011

On Monday, April 11, the Swenson Fire, having burned six days in Stonewall, Knox and King counties in north-central Texas, was contained. The previous day, the Texas Forest Service stated, was the single worst day in documented Texas history for wildfires.

The first four months of 2011 in Texas have seen hundreds of fires in the state that’s looking to break their own record books for drought conditions. And without the widely needed precipitation, 2011 might be in contention for one of the worst years for wildfires in Texas history.

Severe winds, up to 40-50 miles per hour (mph) in some locations, created extreme conditions severely enhancing wildfire spread and minimizing the ability to control fires this year. The Swenson Fire burned 103,000 acres of ranchlands within six days. No homes and few structures were lost in this fire.

"We have reports of fires literally coming in by the minute, and tomorrow will be worse," said Mark Stafford, fire operations chief for the Texas Forest Service, on day three of the Swenson Fire that burned 90 miles northwest of Abilene. Fortunately, the high winds did not ground firefighting aircraft from making aerial drops of water and retardant. Unrelenting winds blew for five days until Sunday provided cooler winds managing to stay under 25 mph. Late Monday night, the fire was contained.

The fire, triggered by sparks from a cutting torch in Stonewall County, spread immediately by 35-40 mph southwest winds that zigzagged an estimated 50-60 miles within 36 hours to include adjoining King and Knox counties.

Fire crews from five counties were joined by the Texas Forest Service and their special task forces, the Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System. Texas Department of Transportation supplied crews and heavy equipment. Volunteer fire departments came from across the state bringing more equipment and workers. Countless ranchers, farmers, cowboys, neighbors, family and volunteers donated their time and use of road graders, water trucks and other heavy equipment. Local communities and the Red Cross fed firefighters in a display of the classic "helping a neighbor in need" characteristic that’s ever-present in agricultural communities.

The Swenson Fire was in the heart of the region’s ranching and farming country. "Red flag" weather conditions, including high temperatures, low humidity and strong winds, intensified firefighting efforts. The majority of the country burning was "rough, rough, and rough," a common description of the brushy arroyos and canyons making access to fires difficult. Fortunately, many locals familiar with the country were instrumental in aiding firefighting personnel to gain access to the fires. Locals were also instrumental in this region where many ranchers and cowboys have had years of experience with controlled burns and fighting wildfires.

In addition to the rough terrain, some ranchlands had become overgrown with cedars that burn hot and fast. When wildfire strikes cedars, it can quickly become a "forest fire" as branches explode sending sparks and burning limbs any direction the wind dictates. Frequent gusting wind changes made control difficult, although one lucky last-minute shift in wind direction diverted the monster fire as it headed straight for the Moorhouse Ranch headquarters.

King County Judge, and head of the Guthrie Volunteer Fire Department, Duane Daniel was fortunate. His ranch lies within the middle of one of the most active areas of the blaze. He lost no cattle and minimal grass.

"Definitely challenging!" is the understatement Daniels used when asked to describe containment of the Swenson Fire. Daniels has helped fight fires there his entire life but has never seen a fire of this magnitude in the area. "The fire was moving so hot and so fast you couldn’t get around it quick enough. With exception of one ranch, everyone was lucky they didn’t suffer the severe livestock losses wildfires have caused statewide." He stressed the difficulties, due to the terrain, of accessing accurate counts of cattle that died.

"We learned a lesson about estimating livestock loss from the 2006 fire which burned 1 million acres in the Texas panhandle. With early figures coming in at 20,000-30,000 head perishing, actual counts were lower in following weeks as cattle began emerging from their protective havens in draws," said Texas and Southwest Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA) Inspector Scott Williamson. Some cattle in the Swenson fire, especially cows with baby calves, weren’t so fortunate if they became trapped in the flame and brush-filled canyons when aggressively moving fires rolled through.

Firefighters working the east, central and southern parts of the blaze held the rapidly moving fire, with flames shooting up as high as 100-200’, at the highway. Their efforts were aided on the western end of the highway by the fire department of the 6666’s ranch. Men from the cattle and horse divisions and headquarters worked 24/7 shifts watering fires, cutting fireguards, and setting back fires. This kept the fire from crossing the western six miles of the highway and was instrumental in preventing the impending evacuation of the Guthrie community. The 6666’s felt very fortunate about their loss of 5,000 acres considering the scope of the fire destruction of their neighbors.

The day after the fire was contained, Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) Commissioner Todd Staples toured the burned country, both from the air and the ground. Sixteen ranchers impacted by the fire toured with him. Staples’ family is in the farming and ranching business and he understands how catastrophic wildfires devastate the livelihoods of that industry.

Staples had an "up close and personal"visual of how cedar overgrowth fueled the Swenson Fire and he listened about the difficulties smaller operators have with brush control expenses. Staples knew pertinent questions to ask and information to be gained, but was primarily there to listen to the ranchers. It was their podium and, as commissioner, he needed to hear specific problems producers face financially and logistically after wildfires.

Familiar with issues of finding pastures and hay for livestock after natural disasters, Staples spoke about the state’s involvement with producers after Hurricane Ike, including state financial aid, availability of feed and farming equipment, and furnishing available help with relocating livestock. The group spoke of the differences between the Ike catastrophe management versus needs of ranchers in rough country with pastures approaching 8,000–10,000 acres.

Staples informed the group of the newly formed State of Texas Agriculture Relief Fund, or STAR Fund. The fund is a monetary support fund from private contributions assisting farmers and ranchers in rebuilding hundreds of miles of fences and restoring operations destroyed by the blazes.

"Through the STAR Fund, we can help our fellow Texans reestablish their lives, rebuild fences and restore basic operations. As Texans, when disaster strikes, our strength rises to meet the challenge," Staples said. Those who wish to donate to the STAR Fund may do so by visiting the link at www.TexasAgriculture.gov.

TDA and TSCRA are encouraging ranchers to utilize the Hay Hotline to locate affordable pasture and hay supplies. The listings include individuals and business that have contacted those organizations indicating that they have hay for sale or pasture for lease. Folks can donate hay by calling the Hay Hotline at 877/429-1988 or go to the TDA website and look under the links. TSCRA is also working with the TDA’s STAR Fund and may be contacted about the programs.

Staples reminded that federal assistance is also available and the local Farm Service Agency can provide information about those programs.

This much-needed information was pertinent that afternoon to ranchers affected by the Swenson Fire. They were able to express their concerns about affordability of brush control and told Staples of issues they had encountered in the past after natural disaster struck their agricultural business.

One of the concerns addressed was documentation of livestock losses for federal and state reimbursement. Some situations, including limited access to country burned by wildfires, prevent meeting specific documentation requirements. Other ranchers described scenarios where multiple tight bag cows surviving fires should be ample verification for the loss of multiple baby calves during a fire, provided they belong to a herd with a good production history.

Replacement fencing reimbursement programs were addressed by Staples with the ranchers. Although quick to acknowledge that payments allotted are distributed in a timely manner, ranchers described previous difficulties with acceptance into the programs relating to fires.

The 16 ranchers who were able to come tour and speak with Staples appreciated his time taken viewing their devastation to discuss specific issues they feel need to be addressed regarding wildfires in Texas. They left feeling confident that Staples would make their concerns a priority item with the Legislature upon his return.

These 16 ranchers are part of a community of individuals that banded together during this crisis by fighting fire, moving cattle or keeping workers fed ... regardless of whether the individuals were directly impacted by the fire or not. They are also a part of their nation’s agricultural community that gives 100 percent when their neighbors are in need of help. — Ginger Elliott, WLJ Correspondent