April 18, 2011 / 12:25 PM / in 7 years

West Texas ranchers lose cattle, livelihood to fires

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.

Bobby McKnight, a West Texas rancher, looks onto the ruins of his 100-year-old childhood home April 16, 2011. The Rock House Fire, which burned more than 160,000 acres between Marfa and Ft. Davis, destroyed the home as it moved through Jeff Davis County last week. REUTERS/Ben Wermund

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.

Slideshow (2 Images)

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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