11 die in fires in Panhandle

Thousands of acres of Texas ranchland destroyed, and burning continues

March 15, 2006|By LIANNE HART | LIANNE HART,LOS ANGELES TIMES

McLEAN, TEXAS -- When a wildfire rolled through this part of the Panhandle on Sunday, most of the Seven Cross cattle ranch went with it.

Eleven thousand acres of grazing land is now charred dirt dotted with blackened shrubs and the bloated corpses of at least 100 cows that died while trying to escape the flames.

Surveying his property, ranch owner L.H. Webb could do little more than square his shoulders and vow to somehow rebuild.

This ranch has been in the family for 100 years, Webb said, and he's not about to give up now: "It's a shock, there's so much loss in one fell swoop. The fire came through so fast, it may not have all sunk in yet."

In Roberts County, northeast of Amarillo, the bodies of four men found Monday were identified as oil field workers who apparently drove off a gravel road while trying to outrun the fire and got stuck in a ravine.

Eleven people have died since the fires ignited Sunday.

All across the Texas Panhandle, stunned residents are trying to come to terms with devastation of historic proportions.

Wildfires have consumed more than 840,000 acres of land, and three major fires, each about 50 percent contained, continue to burn in parts of eight counties.

In the 24 hours starting midday Monday, the state responded to more than 200 fires covering 191,000 acres.

Yesterday, a 2-mile-long fire sprang up near the town of McLean, west of Amarillo, sending tall stacks of smoke into the air. Planes loaded with tanks of fire retardant were sent to the area to put it out.

High winds that fanned the flames Sunday were relatively calm yesterday but south winds with gusts of up to 45 mph are expected today.

"There's the potential for a bad day," Texas Forest Service spokesman Warren Bielenberg said.

For Webb, any uptick in wind speed is irrelevant: "There's not much left to burn here."

On Sunday, as others fled the area, Webb stayed behind to save his house with the help of the local fire department.

As immense wheels of fire rolled in from two directions, Webb hurried to the cattle pens to let the animals out. About two-thirds of his black Angus and Hereford cows survived the flames, some losing all of their hair or parts of their ears, tail or hooves.

Webb's foreman shot about 50 cows - badly maimed by the fire but still breathing - to put them out of their misery.

Everywhere in the region is the heavy smell of smoke. Turn down almost any country road and fields of black, charred earth appear and seem to go on for miles.

Telephone poles smolder days after a fire tears through, as do dirt roads and ravines. The grasslands of the Panhandle now look like a vast, scorched desert.

Lianne Hart writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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