The Day The Panhandle Burned

Heston Williams
Mar 9, 2017 · 6 min read

Let me start this story by explaining that it isn’t a pretty one. In fact, it’s ugly. It’s horrifying. It’s heartbreakingly sad. There are images, and some are very graphic.

You’ve been warned.

March 6 2017 was a day that will forever live in the memories of thousands in the Texas, and Oklahoma panhandles, extending even into southern Kansas. For a few, this would be the day their lives were totally uprooted by the untimely death of loved ones; four people in my little corner of Texas alone.

A moment of thought, prayer, and silent respect for those people and their devastated families.

Let me stop here for a moment to tell you my objective for this article. I do not intend to deliberate regarding the source of ignition, or the immeasurable size of this inferno. My aim is not to discuss the lives of those lost; that job belongs to their families and loved ones. My goal is simply to document, and make people aware of the staggering amount of gut-wrenching suffering that can be brought about when someone is careless with fire. I will be documenting my experience with this fire beginning March 6 through [ongoing.]

My first indication of what lie ahead for the night and following day looked like this:

Fire as seen from Canadian TX

For scale, the above picture was taken approximately 15–20 miles away from the fire. Notice how the flames extend from edge to edge of the frame.

Fires erupted earlier in the day and traveled at speeds up to 70mph as reported by one helicopter pilot near Glazier, TX. The fire was carried and accelerated by strong winds and dry, heavy fuel loads. This was a beast of massive ferocity that exceeded anything that the heroic local Volunteer Fire Departments had ever encountered. The Forest Service responded with brigades of assistance. Municipalities from as far as the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex area responded with this pastural demon in their sights. All responders had one thing in mind: battle - and this kind of battle is life or death.

Photo Credit: Heston Williams

When I got closer to the blaze, we were presented with one of the most ominous scenes I’ve ever witnessed. I listened as my 20-yr VFD veteran father stated “Wow! Heston. This is really serious. I’ve never seen a fire move like this. It’s bad.”

And the hair stood erect on my neck as this loomed above our truck. Flames and burning debris being carried at highway speed vertically only to come raining back down as ironically and tragically beautiful glittering ashes.

Photo Credit: Heston Williams

The above image was taken as we hastily aided a high school friend of mine evacuate his family home (it was miraculously spared.) At this point, the flames were traveling directly toward us at a rapid pace.

This image was taken by a Facebook user near the town of Higgins TX where a good friend of mine was doing his part to defeat the flames.

Photo Credit: Cynthia Vasquez, Facebook

The fire raged.

The following morning I returned to my office in nearby Canadian, TX where I was presented with yet another reminder of the previous night’s fury. Thankful to have safely gotten sleep while others lost loved ones, homes, property, pets, and stayed awake with determination in the path of danger, I noticed although 20 miles from the fire, ashy fallout fell, dispersed and gathered on the ground.

Photo Credit: Heston Williams

With the fire beyond my friend’s ranches, I determined to check on them to discover if I could help in any way. Resources, labor, a friend. During this drive is when I discovered some of the most gruesome and disturbing sights. Remember when I warned you about graphic images? You may want to turn away now..

This deer was among a small herd that was attempting to flee. For unknown reasons, the deer couldn’t get over the normally inconsequential barbed obstacle. Rather, the legs became tangled in the wire and doomed the poor animal to an unfathomable fate.

Photo Credit: Heston Williams

In another area, I found a herd of Pronghorn Antelope which had been unceremoniously decimated. Normally, the animals look like this:

Image from Texas Parks and Wildlife, http://tpwd.texas.gov/

The one’s I found looked like this:

Photo Credit: Heston Williams
Photo Credit: Heston Williams

Notice in the photo above that the animal had been mercifully decapitated prior to burning. I believe this is the case because Pronghorn are the world’s fastest land animal behind a cheetah. They can reach speeds up to 55 mph, and they can sustain these speeds for much longer periods than the notorious speed-kitty. I imagine that this group was traveling totally blind at full speed as they impacted the fence line. Several sustained broken legs. All had major cuts. One, as seen above, was a complete decapitation.

The remarkable thing about this scene is that the will to live exists even in beings with no hope. God’s precious gift of life is so fragile, yet so strong. I was forced to shoot the following two animals on site with my .45ACP Glock — an experience I did not ask for. An experience that I will not forget. An experience that I would not hesitate to repeat in the name of mercy. These two seared animals were both physically fighting for each breath and gurgling their own blood as their scorched respiratory system oozed and bled in a slow, agonizing, suffocation.

Photo Credit: Heston Williams
Photo Credit: Heston Williams
Scorched Porcupine - Photo credit: Colby Waters, Facebook

My anger at the possible carelessness that may have started this fire at a highway intersection miles away can not be overstated. I will forever have a deep, seething hatred and no lack of strong language for anyone who throws a burning cigarette out of a car window. [It was suggested that I edit out the few sentences where this one now exists]

Breathe…

I’m sorry. This is still raw for me. I know that others are suffering worse trauma than I by several orders of magnitude, but this is my story.

Many local citizens will be out of power for days to come as utility companies repair miles of downed lines as seen here:

Photo Credit: Heston Williams

This fire is still burning as I write this on March 8 at 5:14p CST. That means that many people and animals are still in harm’s way. If you have any capacity to help, then please consider donating to the families who’ve suffered losses. Donate to volunteer fire departments. Donate fencing supplies. Help neighbors clean up after the devastation. Donate hay and/or feed for livestock. Educate yourself about fuel loads, and work to keep your home free of combustible debris. Most of all, be safe with fire. These exhausted fire fighters need your help.

Below: A fireman rests after fighting fire for 36 hours.

Photo Credit: Chris Ford

I’m looking forward to this spring’s inevitable tragic beauty as the landscape blossoms into hundreds of square miles of dancing Texas wildflowers, and we are reminded of Seneca’s words.

“Life is not short, but we make it so by wasting much of it.”

Be sure to stop and smell the flowers.

Photo Credit: https://goo.gl/BCsW7Z

Thanks to Chloe Northrop

Heston Williams

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