West Texas ranchers lose cattle, livelihood to fires

FORT DAVIS, Texas Mon Apr 18, 2011 8:24am EDT

1 of 4. Bobby McKnight, a West Texas rancher, stands outside his Ft. Davis home April 16, 2011. A 20-foot wall of fire encircled the house as one of the fastest-moving wildfires in the city’s history swept through Jeff Davis County. McKnight’s home was saved but the flames blackened the land around it.

Credit: Reuters/Ben Wermund

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FORT DAVIS, Texas (Reuters) - Bobby McKnight knew fire was coming when he saw the pall of white smoke rising into the blue West Texas sky April 9 and, within an hour, a 20-foot wall of flame had reached the rancher's Fort Davis home.

"It was hot. It was just right in our doorstep," McKnight, 50, recalled on Saturday.

His home was one of the first hit by the so-called Rock House fire, which was sparked by undetermined causes in Marfa, Texas, and became the fastest-moving wildfire to scorch the area in decades.

By Sunday, it had seared at least 180,000 acres of land but was 70 percent contained.

The fire is one of about dozen that have consumed more than 500,000 acres over the past couple of weeks in drought-stricken West Texas, where some areas have gone without rain since last August, leaving grass and brush dangerously parched.

"The fuels on the ground are at historically dry levels," said Texas Forest Service spokeswoman Nicole Hawk.

At least 40 homes have been destroyed by the flames. No people have died, but the fires have killed at least 151 head of cattle and nine horses and laid waste to thousands of acres of grasslands -- a precious resource for the region's ranchers.

The Rock House fire advanced 30 miles in a matter of hours, overtaking the town of Fort Davis and the ranches beyond it.

Some ranchers in the area lost up to 95 percent of their land to the flames, said Logan Boswell, the Jeff Davis County extension agent tracking livestock affected by the fires.

Between 400,000 and 500,000 cattle have been injured by the fire but survived, he said.

Flames even singed McKnight's eyebrows and hair as he, his wife and friends from the fire department in neighboring Valentine fought the blaze encircling his home for hours.

"It was a little scary, but when your house is behind you, it kind of feels like the Alamo," McKnight said.

Although the efforts saved his house, the blaze destroyed McKnight's 100-year-old childhood home nearby.

The flames blackened the southern half of the 1,000-plus-acre ranch his family has owned for generations. Three of his horses died, but his cattle were spared.

Elsewhere, the blaze took a similarly random path. On some streets, homes untouched by the fire stood next to properties gutted to their skeletal frames.

Ranchers have been moving between 600,000 and 800,000 head of cattle to grazing lands a safe distance from the fire.

McKnight said he is considering leasing land for his cattle as far away as New Mexico until conditions improve.

There was no immediate no plan for disposing of charred cattle carcasses left by the flames, though there has been talk of a mass burial once the fires calm down.

The fires continued to rage through the weekend. East of Fort Davis, two fires were threatening the cities of Midland and San Angelo, burning more 120,000 acres combined.

The Rock House blazed into the rocky, steep terrain of the Davis Mountains, making it harder for fire crews to fight.

A Boy Scouts of America camp and the McDonald Observatory lay in the fire's path, but Texas Forest Service said both sites appeared safe for the time being.

The scorched landscape behind the fire, formerly golden fields of dry grass, extended for miles like ragged tar pits, with gray patches of ash visible beneath broken, burned trees.

Residents were praying for rain -- but none is expected any time soon.

McKnight is thinking about rebuilding his childhood home and said he's just thankful the flames didn't take everything.

"It's been devastating," McKnight said. "I don't know. We'll get over it."

(Edited by Colleen Jenkins and Steve Gorman)

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Comments (1)
onlyshiner wrote:
Mr. Wermund, Mrs. Jenkins, and Mr. Gorman,
Although your article, West Texas ranchers lose cattle, livelihood to fires, highlighted one of the most predominant ranches in West Texas, more ranchers not featured were more heavily affected by the Rockhouse Fire. Your numbers seem to be a bit off from reality. I am not sure if you happened to hit a few extra zeros, but there were not 400,000 to 500,000 head of cattle affected by the fire because there are not that many cattle in Northern Presidio and all of Jeff Davis counties. The estimated count for Jeff Davis County for 2010 was 25,000 cattle and all cattle in Presidio County was 13,000 in 2010 (USDA, 2011). The 151 cattle lost do not seem so significant with those astounding numbers you have provided.
As for the Boy Scout Ranch and the McDonald Observatory, another ranch and perhaps some older ranches were in the path of this fire. The ranch between the Boy Scout Ranch and the Observatory suffered loss to vital materials because of a back burn initiated to protect the telescopes at the Observatory. This ranch had to sacrifice their land, destroying precious grass and brand new pipeline replacing the ruined pipe as a result of freezing weather this winter. This rancher had to make a decision to either refuse the back burn to save his ranch or forgo his land for the sake of the telescopes. This rancher depends on the yearling cattle he raises each year to support the next fiscal year. They lost one third of their livelihood cattle herd pastured between Marfa and Ft. Davis, and now have yet another setback with the back burn at the Observatory.
Now a large portion of the ranch is burned and unusable until it rains, leaving a lot less grass for the cattle they depend on. Some ranches are not as blessed as others; therefore they have to work twice as hard to survive as third generation ranchers. What money they do have goes directly back in the ranch taking care of the cattle that provide monetary means for the people. If the cycle is interrupted, recovery is extremely difficult. I wish that reporters would seek out the less fortunate ranchers that define what ranching is all about.

Apr 19, 2011 12:16am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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