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The long ride “home”

A rancher remembers a devastating fire


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The long ride “home”

Wildfires on March 6, 2017 burned 1.2 million acres in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, killing 12 people and 4,000 cattle. One of the destroyed homes belonged to John and Kris Erickson: As WORLD readers know, John is the author of Hank the Cowdog books as well as works on West Texas life. The Texas Tech University Press is publishing this month Bad Smoke, Good Smoke, Erickson’s account of fire and devastation. Here’s an excerpt. —Marvin Olasky

Kris and I began the long, silent, forty-mile drive to whatever was left of our ranch. Twenty-one miles south of town, we turned east on Highway 281. We had gone about three miles when we began seeing the black scar off to the south, a line that was pointing to the northeast.

At mile 5, we saw what the fire had left of a two-mile shelter belt of trees that had been planted during the Depression, probably by workers in the Civilian Conservation Corps. Those sturdy cedars and ash trees had survived the droughts of the ’30s and ’50s, as well as the drought of 2011–2014. They had survived at least two fires that I knew about and a tornado in 2009.

Now we saw them blackened, twisted, broken, and smoldering. The utility poles around them were on fire and some had burned in half. The asphalt pavement beside the tree row had been altered by the heat.

Those trees must have been the source of the cloud of dark smoke we had seen the day before. Burning grass produces smoke that is mostly white. Black smoke is a sign of burning cedar trees, which contain an oily sap that burns like petroleum.

At the end of the tree row, we turned south on County Road 23. Had we continued driving east, we would have passed the Githens’ place, the house and barns destroyed. Beyond the Githens’ home, a big metal hog barn had collapsed onto itself.

We drove south on CR 23. Off to the left, we saw what remained of Tark Cook’s section of Old World Bluestem grass that, the day before, had stood eighteen inches tall and made waves in the wind. What remained was 640 acres of black desert. We saw the same on the west side of the road, and to the south, as far as we could see, nothing but ash and dirt.

A mile beyond the tree row, we came to three utility poles that had burned in half and were still flaming. The wires had not broken but the burning poles blocked half the road, so I had to drive in the ditch to continue.

Two miles beyond the tree row, where the road took a sharp turn to the left, I caught a glimpse of Betsy Brownlee’s house off to the west, now a pile of smoking rubble. She had grown up on the place and after a career as a school librarian had retired, moved back to the ranch, and built a house.

It was directly in the path of the fire and she knew nothing about the impending danger. She was in the kitchen, baking cookies when Mike Wheat, our game warden, drove to the house, told her to evacuate, and saved her life. She escaped but lost everything.

Another two miles brought us to the caprock that gave a broad view of the Canadian River Valley. In better times, that spot had always stirred my heart, capturing the wild grandeur of this marvelous piece of the world. It wasn’t a stirring sight today, just mile after mile of cinders and the skeletons of burned mesquites and cedars. From that spot, I could see our east pasture, mostly black and still burning.

We drove off the caprock and continued through the Adams ranch to the cattle guard that led onto our property. There, we saw fire trucks in the distance, fighting flames west of the road. We still had fire on the ranch, but I didn’t see it as a threat to us. The wind had calmed and there wasn’t much left to burn, just a few islands of grass. The canyons and mesas would continue to burn for days.

We drove north through smoke and came to the barn. It hadn’t been touched by the fire, due to the fact that the area around it had been denuded by vehicle traffic. I was glad to see that my Caterpillar skid-steer tractor, a sixty-thousand-dollar piece of equipment, had survived. In weeks to come, we would use it for loading and unloading hundreds of round bales of hay.

I looked off to the northeast, toward the stack lot, and was relieved to see that sixteen round bales of alfalfa had survived. We would need them. Our cattle had nothing to eat . . . if we had any cattle left. News reports on the radio were full of horrible stories about ranchers who had lost 30 to 50 percent of their cow herds. Early estimates of death loss ranged between 2,000 and 3,000.

We continued north, past the shipping pens. We slowed and glanced off to the west at a heap of rubble: the bunkhouse. When we bought the ranch in 1990, it had been the only structure on the place, a 20ʹ x 30ʹ two-bedroom camp shack with a big gas heating stove and no air conditioning. The water froze up every winter and the house was a haven for mice, packrats, snakes, bats, coons, and skunks. Even so, I used it as my office for fifteen years and wrote a number of Hank books there.

In 2008, we moved the old house two hundred yards north to a better location, and our son-in-law spent the summer rebuilding it into a snug little lodge for family and guests: clean, bright, comfortable, and free of vermin. It wasn’t big or fancy, just cozy.

Only three days before, George Clay and Jeff Nichols, friends from downstate, had spent the night there and had watched the sunrise from the front porch. Now there was no porch and no bunkhouse. Nothing.

We continued north into Pickett Canyon and followed the road across the dam. Cedar trees and railroad ties were still burning in many places.

The day of the fire, I had parked my one-ton Chevy pickup and the Polaris Ranger in the circle drive in front of the house. It had seemed as safe a place to leave them as any, and sure enough, both vehicles survived. On the left side of the pickup, the side facing the house, some of the rubber and plastic had melted, and neither window on that side would roll down, but otherwise the pickup had come through in good shape. If the tires had ignited, we would have lost both vehicles.

The big oak tree Kris had started from a Walmart sprig in 1993 was now a tortured skeleton. Most of the piñon pines we had brought in from Wagon Mound, New Mexico, had suffered the same fate.

We stopped in front of what remained of our beautiful log home. Kris uttered a cry and we stared in silence. It was all gone except the ghost of a stone chimney.

We got out of the car and walked up the flagstone steps that Bill Dudley and I, dripping sweat in the 105-degree heat, had built in the summer of 1994. The house rubble was still hot and smoking, and we recognized a few charred items: an exercise bike, porch chairs, hot-water heaters, the Viking stove, the deep freeze and refrigerator, washer and dryer. Everything else, the accumulation of twenty-four years, was ash.

Where we lived, electric power came through miles of lines that were vulnerable to storms, and a reliable generator was an important piece of equipment. In 2014, I had spent a lot of money to buy the best one available, and it had served us well during the sixteen-day power outage in January.

I could see that our 45kW generator, north of the house, had become a blackened hunk and appeared to be a total loss. Its John Deere industrial engine had retained its green paint, but two of the four tires, the battery, battery case, control panel, and all the wiring had burned or melted.

The fireplace remained intact, although part of the chimney had fallen …. I had no desire to walk through the ruins. The destruction appeared to be total and I felt numb. When Mark had said those words on the phone Tuesday morning—“The house is gone”—a curtain dropped on that period of my life. Everything was gone and that was the end of it. It didn’t occur to me that there might be anything worth saving.

As we walked back toward the pickup, Nathan heard something stirring in a shrub. He thought it might be Dixie, the blue heeler that had gone missing. He and Mark searched the shrub but didn’t find the dog. It must have been a bird.

Dixie never showed up, and we must assume that she died in the fire. It’s hard to imagine how that happened. There were places south of the house that didn’t burn, two dry ponds that would have been safe havens. Daisy, the big happy Lab, survived without any sign of damage.

Dixie was a smart dog but had a morbid fear of loud noises. A gunshot, bullwhip, or clap of thunder would send her streaking to a safe corner of the porch. I imagine that’s where she was when the fire hit. Even a smart dog doesn’t expect the porch to collapse on top of her.

Later

In 2018, the bare ground beneath the dead cedars finally returned to life and produced a solid carpet of ragweed, apparently the only species that could thrive in the baked ashy soil. Here and there a few brave sprigs of soapberry popped up, but not many.

What I found in May 2019 surprised me. I had expected to see another thick crop of ragweed on what used to be the floor of the cedar forest. Because ragweed produces an abundance of seeds, if you had ragweed in Year One, you would anticipate more ragweed in Year Two. Instead, I found a solid carpet of a more attractive weed, marestail, and almost no ragweed at all.

Before the fire, the old-guard cedars had ruled the area around Moonshine Springs for at least a century, their thick canopy shading out other trees that might have prospered around the springs. A few big elms and cottonwoods had fought their way to sunlight and had managed to survive into full growth, but they too had died in the fire. With an open sky and sunlight, new vegetation was moving into the territory once ruled by the mighty cedars.

The following summer, in 2020, I noticed further changes. The ragweed and marestail had disappeared and a thick carpet of grass had sprung up on both sides of the springs. These were tall grasses I didn’t recognize, not the gramas and buffalo grass we’re accustomed to or even Old World bluestem. One of the new varieties resembled tall green wheat.

Grapevines and skunkbush sumac were prospering in the post-cedar era, as was a type of vegetation I had never seen before, a vine that was climbing on dead cedar trunks and branches. I was able to identify the plant as climbing milkweed vine (Funastrum cynanchoides). It occurs in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, and California and needs full sun. Once established, it produces abundant seed and thrives, spreading along the ground and climbing trees.

Gardeners consider it a pest, but I think we will enjoy having it around. It will provide ground cover and will likely entertain Monarch butterflies on their annual migrations. In August, the vines yielded beautiful white puffy flowers that drew bees and butterflies. Those graceful flowers, draped on dead trees, seemed a perfect symbol of new life and rebirth.

The fire dramatically changed this little ecosystem. I predict that in ten years, the areas on both sides of the creek will become a soapberry forest, with a line of vine-draped willows and cottonwoods along the creek bed. Without the fire, those trees and vines wouldn’t have had a chance to prosper.

Once the rains started in May 2019, the cycle continued as storm after storm moved across the northeastern Panhandle. We finished the month of May with an incredible 14 inches of rain, making it the wettest month since I started keeping records in 2002.

I checked the records for Perryton’s rainfall, going back to 1900; they showed the average rainfall in May at three inches and the wettest month on record (July 1950) at 13.49′′. We had surpassed Perryton’s wettest month of the past 119 years.

Ranch folks celebrated green grass and pastures that had become vast quilts of wildflowers, but veterans of the fires of 2006 and 2017 were already thinking about the amount of fuel we would have standing for the fire season of 2020. We had acquired a mindset that divided the calendar into Fire Season and Everything Else.

So the cycle of life returned to our world. We had survived the bomb cyclone, the fury of March, and the floods of May. The winds calmed and the ranch transformed into a fireworks pageant, revealing the geometry and colors of millions of wildflowers displayed against a backdrop of solid green.

The same day that a crew of workers poured the concrete footing for our new house, a swallow returned to her mud nest on the porch of my writing office. She will repair the nest and raise another batch of chicks. We will build another house and try again.

From Bad Smoke, Good Smoke by John R. Erickson. Copyright © 2021. Published by Texas Tech University Press. All rights reserved. Used with permission.


John R. Erickson John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.

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