Texas Neighbors Spring 2017 : Page 8

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From the Ashes

Ed Wolff

Wildfires sweep across Texas Panhandle

Consumed. Almost half a million acres of Texas turned to ash. Wildfires swept across the Texas Panhandle. An unrelenting force. Devastating all in its path.

“It was panic at first. I had my wife and our two girls pack up and get in the truck and they went to McLean to our aunt’s house,” Trent Cadra, Wheeler County rancher and county Farm Bureau president, said. “My dad and my brother and I were out here trying to help the fire department where we could and move cattle around to try to get out of the path of the fire.”

The Lefors East fire burned about 135,000 acres, and Cadra runs cattle on 600 of those acres. His once grass-covered pastures are now a black wasteland.

He was able to save his cattle, along with his dad’s and his neighbors’. But others weren’t so lucky.

Eighty miles north near Canadian, the largest of the three wildfires, the Perryton fire, devoured 38 miles of land from west to east. It ravaged four counties, and it’s the third largest single fire in Texas history. More than 318,000 acres were burned.

“I was in town when we saw the fires starting. The helicopter with water buckets came over the house and they called and said, ‘Your wife is running around between the house and the barn. She needs to get out,’” Chris Schwerzenbach, Lipscomb County rancher, recalled. “My wife was trying to get to the pickup. That didn’t work. It was burning across the road already. She was trying to run down to the barn, the metal building. She thought that would be better than going out into it.”

The first chance he had, he drove through the fire to his family. The flames were literally at his doorstep.

When Schwerzenbach got home, the fire was burning corner to corner across his property.

They waited it out. Five hours later, things calmed down. Everyone was okay and his house was still standing. But just about everything else was lost, including 36 head of cattle.

Every acre he owns burned.

Like many area ranchers, he wonders where to go from here.

“Well, we don’t know,” Schwerzenbach said. “Right now, I’ve got more hay than I have cattle. I know that much. Thanks to people I’ve never met.”

Almost as soon as the fires ignited, fellow farmers and ranchers across the state wanted to help. The most immediate need was hay, which started flowing into the Panhandle communities by the semi-loads.

“About daybreak, I got the truck out there by the hay pile and got the tractor and started loading. I left Waxahachie about 9:30 and got here about 4:30 in the afternoon,” said Scott Averhoff, an Ellis County rancher who brought in a load of hay. “It’s just what neighbors do for each other. We may be 400 miles apart, but I still consider us neighbors.”

In only a week, donation sites were flooded with hay. So much that they stopped taking anymore.

But help is still needed. Fencing supplies and monetary donations will help ranchers travel the long road ahead.

“When you talk about agriculture as a community, it’s a loving community that cares for people,” J.R. Sprague, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension agent in Lipscomb County, said. “People that when they’re in a time of need, their neighbors are going to step up and help them.”

As bad as it is, it could have been worse if not for the men and women on the front line, fighting the blaze.

The Texas Forest Service (TFS), Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, paid fire departments and volunteer firefighters all worked together to save lives and communities.

“The volunteers do the lion’s share of the work. They invite us to come help. We work in unified command with them,” Nick Harrison, TFS firewise coordinator, said.

Now, the recovery and rebuilding begins.

The three fires—Lefors East, Perryton and Dumas—burned nearly 500,000 acres and caused at least $21 million in agricultural losses. That estimate doesn’t yet account for the loss of equipment in the fires.

And those numbers are expected to climb as farmers, ranchers and landowners uncover more damage.

Current estimates show about 2,500 cattle died. Many were displaced.

Cadra and other ranchers are sorting their cows, and returning some back to their neighbors.

“When the fires were coming that first day, there were three sets of cows on grass. One set was my dad’s. One was mine, and one was our neighbors’,” Cadra said. “We threw them all together on a wheat pasture and the fire burned right up to that wheat pasture. So we’re gathering everything up and sorting everything back up to put back where it needs to go.”

It will take time. And some help from Mother Nature. But Texas ranchers will rise from the ashes.

TFB Panhandle Wildfire Relief Fund established

To help farmers and ranchers affected by the fires, Texas Farm Bureau (TFB) has set up the Panhandle Wildfire Relief Fund. Those interested can make a tax-deductible donation.

“Texas Farm Bureau members have always stepped up to help their neighbors in times of need,” TFB President Russell Boening said. “It will require years for some of those affected by this disaster to fully recover.”

Credit card donations may be made via the TFB website.

Checks may be made out to the Texas Farm Bureau Agriculture Research and Education Foundation and mailed to: Panhandle Wildfire Committee, P.O. Box 2689, Waco, Texas 76702-2689. Please include “Attention: Cyndi Gerik” on donation envelopes.

Read the full article at http://texasneighbors.texasfarmbureau.org/article/From+the+Ashes/2748635/396275/article.html.

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