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Case Study: Lives Lost – Lessons Learned

The Victims and Survivors of the 2005-2006


Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires

Prolonged drought, strong winds, and


extreme fire danger conspire to trigger
the explosive grass fires that rage across
Texas and Oklahoma in late 2005 and
early 2006. These historic fires kill 25
people—including 4 firefighters; evacuate
thousands of residents; destroy hundreds
of homes, structures, and outbuildings; and burn
millions of acres. An estimated 5,000 head of cattle also
perish and more than 2,000 miles of fencing burns.
What can we learn from these wildfire outbreak events?
That is the essence of this case study report.

By Bob Mutch and Paul Keller October • 2010


A 'Perfect Storm' for Extreme Wildfire
“I would describe this as a ‘perfect storm’ for extreme fire. The
weather conditions and the condition of the vegetation came
together in a nexus that created a force of nature much like a
hurricane or tornado. These are natural disasters that are truly
beyond our capability to do anything about. The fuels—the
grasses—were critically dry, and you had a combination of single-
digit humidity and winds gusting to 60 mph. Our models
that morning predicted flames spreading at 6 mph with
50-foot flame lengths, which is as tall as a four-story
building. By 1 o'clock in the afternoon, that is exactly
what we had.”

Mark Stanford, Chief of Operations


Texas Forest Service
Describing the history-making wildfires that burn
across his state on Sunday March 12, 2006—just one
of six similar major wildfire outbreaks that devastate
Oklahoma and Texas during 2005 and 2006.

Photo Courtesy Texas Forest Service

Contents
I Preface
We Must Ensure that Our Wildland-Urban Interface is Safe……..….. 6
A ‘Lessons Learned’ Examination of Grass-Fueled Wildfires –
Three Central Objectives…………………………………………………….……….. 7

II Introduction ……………………………………………………………………..……….….…. 8

III 2005-2006 Oklahoma-Texas Wildfire Summary……………..….……. 10


Background – Fire Weather, Fire Behavior, and Fire Situation……... 10

Cover Photos
Top: This photo, provided by the Borger Emergency Operations Center, shows billowing smoke across
roadway near Borger in the Texas Panhandle on March 12, 2006. Top inset: Private barn and other items
burn near Amarillo, Texas; The Associated Press Photo. Bottom inset: Wildfire threatens home as it burns
grass and rangeland across the Texas Panhandle near Pampa on March 13, 2006; photo by Michael
Lemmons/Amarillo Globe-News.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 2
Overall Impacts of the Six 2005-2006 Wildfire Outbreaks
Across Oklahoma and Texas…………………………………………….. 11
Other Causal Factors that Increase Wildfire
Threats in Texas……………………………………………………………….. 14
Oklahoma and Texas Host a Wide Diversity of Fuel Types…. 15

IV 2005-2006 Oklahoma-Texas Wildfire Chronology……………..…… 17

V Those Who Perished – How, Why, and What We Can Learn…. 27


The Firefighters
Volunteer Firefighter Clint Dewayne Rice……………………….………..…. 31
Lessons Learned
Lessons Learned from Clint Dewayne Rice’s Fatal Rollover.. 33

Firefighter Destry Horton……..……………………………………...…………….. 36


Lessons Learned
Specific Lessons Learned from the Empire Fire
Burnover Fatality…………………………………………………………………...... 42
Interagency Accident Review Team Recommendations…..… 43
Unsafe Common Themes Keep Surfacing………………………….. 45

Volunteer Firefighter James McMorries……………………….…………..…. 46


Lessons Learned
Lessons Learned from James McMorries’ Fatal Rollover…... 49

William L. Robinson III, Chief, Sarge Creek VFD……………………………. 52


Lessons Learned
Do Not Drink and Respond to Wildland Fire Incidents…..….. 54

The Wildland-Urban Interface Residents


Ralph Wedman…………………………………………….……….……..…………..…. 56

Maddie Fay Wilson………………………..….………………………...…………..…. 56

Maudie L. Sheppard………………………..………………...………..…………..…. 56
Cross Plains Fire………………………………………………………………… 57
Cross Plains Fire Lessons Learned………….………………………….. 60

Kelly Tiger, Sr.…………………………………..……………..…………..…………..…. 61

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 3
Elena Morrison………………………..…………….………..…………..…………..…. 63

Kenneth Byers……………….………..….…………………..…………..…………..…. 63

Gerald Roth……………………….………..….…………………….……..…………..…. 64

Allen Thomas Sefcik………………………..……………….…………..…………..…. 65

Kathy Ryan………………………..……………………..……..…………..…………..…. 66

Bill Pfeffer………………………..………………..………..…..…………..…………..…. 72

Jack Will.………………………..…….………………………….…………..…………..…. 72

Leonardo Flores Hernandez…………..……………………………..…………..…. 73

John Moore…………………………………..……………………………..…………..…. 76

People Who are in the Wrong Place


at the Wrong Time
Roberto Chavira………………..………..….……………………….…..…………..…. 78

Arthur Dominquez………………………..……………….…..………..…………..…. 78

Merdaro Garcia, Jr.…………….………………..…………….………..…………..…. 78

Gerardo Villareal…..………………………..…………..…..…………..…………..…. 78

Lawrence Schumacher………………...………….…………………..…………..…. 79

Susan Schumacher……..………..….………..…………….…………..…………..…. 79

Alexis Skenay’ah Burroughs.…………………..………....………..…………..…. 80

Karen DeWeese.…………….……………………..……………………..…………..…. 81

VI The Four-Legged Victims……………………………….………………………………. 82

VII Survivor Stories…………………………………………………….………………………… 86


Floyd Lott, Volunteer Firefighter…………………………………..…………..…. 87
Lessons Learned…………………………………...………………………….. 92

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 4
“Vegetation is critically dry in much of the state. Add winds and
low humidity during the afternoon prime burning period, and you
have a recipe for fast-spreading, dangerous wildfires. Most of the
large wildfires that already occurred statewide resulted from this
deadly combination of wildfire ingredients.”
Mike Dunivan, Fire Behavior Analyst, Texas Forest Service
Dec. 5, 2005

The L.H. Webb Family……………………………..…………….……..…………..…. ……….. 95


Lessons Learned…………………………………...…………………………………….. 99

VIII Key Overall Lessons Learned ………………………………………………..…… 101


1. From Firefighter Fatalities and Injuries……..………..…….…..………. 102
The Texas Wildfire Protection Plan……..……………………..…………..…. 107
2. From the Civilian Victims and Survivors……..…….…...…….……..…. 109
3. Fire Weather Forecasting………………………………...………….……..…. 115
4. The Importance of Prescribed Burning – and Other
Preventive Strategies……………………………………………….….……..…. 118

IX Conclusion – Recommended Follow-up Actions ……………………… 119

X Epilogue – Update: Extreme Fires and More Fatalities


Continue in Oklahoma and Texas………………………………..……………. 121

XI References…………………….…………………………………………….……………………. 125

XII Acknowledgements……………………..............……………………………….…… 127

XIII Appendices – ‘Prepare, Go Early, or Stay and Defend’:


An Australian Alternative for the Safety of
Wildland-Urban Interface Residents………………………..………………. 129

XIV About the Authors ……………………………………….…………..…………….…… 133

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 5
Robin O’Shaughnessy/Amarillo Globe-News
On March 13, 2006—as a large grass fire approaches—this Texas Panhandle rancher discs fire line with his tractor to
try to save his ranch by preventing the blaze from jumping road in foreground.

I Preface
We Must Ensure that Our Wildland-Urban Interface is Safe
The stories of the victims and survivors described in this report provide all of us with an
important learning opportunity. We must share these vital lessons to help ensure that our
country’s ever-growing wildland-urban interface environment will be a safer place for our
families to live.
A “Learning Organization”: Creates, acquires, interprets, transfers, and retains knowledge,
and it purposefully modifies its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights. The Six Critical
Tasks of a “Learning Organization” are: 1. Collect intelligence about the environment. 2. Learn
from the best practices of other organizations. 3. Learn from its own experiences and past
history. 4. Experiment with new approaches. 5. Encourage systematic problem solving. 6.
Transfer knowledge throughout the organization (Garvin 2000).
Lives Lost – Lessons Learned: Victims and Survivors of the 2005-2006 Oklahoma and Texas
Wildfires is a case study example of how these “Six Critical Tasks” provide the foundation of a
true Learning Organization. There’s no question that Bob Mutch and Paul Keller’s quest for
discovering and sharing the Lessons Learned from these victims and survivors epitomize all six of
these Organizational Learning characteristics.
On behalf of this country’s wildland fire community, all of us at the Wildland Fire Lessons
Learned Center express sincere thanks to Mutch and Keller for enlightening us to the significant
new knowledge and insights embodied in this report.

Dave Christenson, Acting Center Manager


Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center
Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 6
A ‘Lessons Learned’ Examination of Grass-Fueled Wildfires –
Three Central Objectives
A disaster of the magnitude of the historic 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma wildfires is
more reminiscent of the outcomes from the October 2003 southern California “Fire
Siege” in which 14 major fires killed 23 people and destroyed 3,710 homes.
Unlike these more typically studied high-intensity wildfires that burn in chaparral, the
2005-2006 Oklahoma and Texas wildfires were fueled by short grass, mixed grass, and
tall grass prairies. The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, therefore, realized this
prime opportunity to sponsor this in-depth examination of grass-fueled wildfires.
Three central objectives frame this case study “lessons learned” report:
Explain the circumstances of changes—for their future
the victims and survivors at survival—in the wildland-
the time of their entrapment urban interface.
by essentially grassland
Derive wildland-urban
wildfires.
interface “lessons learned”
Use the victims’ and insights from these grassland
survivors’ stories as a fires.
catalyst to motivate others
into making the appropriate
The many lessons learned from this wildfire assessment—all highlighted in this report—
can guide the actions of this country’s fire services, wildland-urban interface residents,
and resource managers and policy makers to ensure a safer future in our ever-evolving
fire ecology environment.

On June 10, 2006, the


1,250-acre Monaham
Fire threatens Texas
homes.

Photo Courtesy Texas Forest Service

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 7
The truly telling statistic is that 85 percent of these fires
were located less than two miles from a community.

II Introduction
These Wide-Ranging and Devastating Grass Fires Will Continue
Although wildland fire fatalities are reported for other states, especially in California
where 25 people died in the Tunnel Fire in 1991 and 23 people died in the southern
California Fire Siege of 2003 (Mutch 2007), great numbers of firefighter and civilian
fatalities are generally not associated with Oklahoma and Texas grassland fires.

Therefore, the loss of 25 lives during the historic 2005-2006 fire seasons in Oklahoma
and Texas become a startling wake-up call for the nation. These fires claim the lives of
six people in Oklahoma and 19 people in Texas. Four of these tragedies are firefighter
deaths.

Rural and Urban Issue


Wildfires in Oklahoma and Texas are both a rural and urban concern.

In Oklahoma, from November 2005 through August 2006, approximately 2,300-plus


wildfires burn 846,000 acres, kill six people, and destroy 378 homes and numerous
outbuildings (Society of American Foresters presentation by Oklahoma State Forester
James Burwell, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Dec. 8, 2006). These 2,300 wildfires are those incidents
that the Oklahoma Forestry Services suppress—or assist volunteer fire departments in
suppressing.

Since 1996, Texas has experienced significant fire seasons in seven out of the past ten
years. During 2005-2006, more than 2.2 million acres burn in Texas when more than
29,000 fires rage across the land (Texas Forest Service 2009).

The truly telling statistic is that 85 percent of these fires are located less than two miles
from a community. In other words, almost all fires that occurred in Texas during the
2005-2006 fire seasons are “wildland-urban interface” fires. From January 2005 to
September 2006, Texas wildfires claim 19 lives and destroy 734 homes and more than
1,000 outbuildings.

In 2008, 12,000 fires in Texas burn more than 1.4 million acres. Approximately 77
percent of these fires are also located within two miles of a community. Once again in
Texas in 2009, wildfires claim even more human lives.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 8
Map Courtesy Texas Forest Service

Wildland Fires Reach Urban Areas – For three and a-half months—from Dec. 1, 2005 to March 17, 2006—
12,072 wildfires ignite in Texas. As this map illustrates, 85 percent of these fires occur less than two miles
from a community.

As reported by the U.S. Fire Administration, this country’s first wildland firefighter
fatality of 2009 occurred in an Oklahoma grass fire on January 2—just two days into the
New Year.

Modifying Behaviors
These wide-ranging and devastating grass fires will continue to ignite in Oklahoma and
Texas. Thus, invaluable dividends will be gained by learning the critical lessons inherent
in these grassland fires. By heeding these lessons, we can help modify behaviors to
ensure that people can live more compatibly in these fire-prone environments.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 9
III 2005-2006 Oklahoma-Texas Wildfire Summary
“We’ve got fires burning structures in several counties. It’s just
critically, critically dry out there right now,” Traci Weaver,
Texas Forest Service, December 2005

Left Photo – Texas Forest Service crews try to contain a wildfire on March 14, 2006 in rural Roberts
County, north of Miami, Texas; photo by Michael Schumacher/Amarillo Globe-News. Right Photo – A
grass fire moves through a playground in Tarrant County Texas; The Associated Press Photo.

Background – Fire Weather, Fire Behavior, and Fire Situation


Across this country’s southern Great Plains—including the Oklahoma and Texas areas—
the 2005-2006 traditional winter “cold season” is characterized by an intensifying long-
term drought (U.S. Drought Monitor 2005 and 2006). These extreme drought
conditions—coupled with cured grass in both states—fuel an exceptional series of
wildfires throughout a two-year fire season that seemingly will not end. Remarkably, the
intense fire behavior continues across both Oklahoma and Texas for a devastating five-
month period, from December 2005 to April 2006.
Throughout this time period, extremely dry soil and enhanced curing of all vegetation
combines with unseasonable warmth, periodic episodes of strong winds, and very low
relative humidity to contribute to the high risk of wildfire activity across portions of
Oklahoma and Texas.
As this report will discuss in detail, particularly dangerous wildfires threaten—and
claim—life and property across the Southern Plains during six separate widespread and
destructive fire weather episodes on:

1. December 27, 2005; 4. March 12, 2006;


2. January 1, 2006; 5. April 6, 2006; and
3. January 12, 2006; 6. April 15, 2006.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 10
All but one of these six wildfire outbreaks causes human ‘Perfect’ Grassland Firestorm
casualties. From November 2005 through April of 2006, On March 12, 2006, the
wildfires claim the lives of 25 people—including four combined conditions of
drought, sustained strong
firefighters.
winds, and cured grass in the
In addition, during each of these outbreak events, a Texas Panhandle produce what
multitude of individual wildfires scorch from tens of has been—ironically—
described as “the perfect”
thousands to more than one million acres of prairie— grassland firestorm. In one 24-
including torching towns and wildland-urban interface hour period, two fires in one
areas—across both states. At least 655 structures are complex burn close to one
destroyed. Combined damages are estimated near $150 million acres as they scorch
million in economic loss. their way toward Oklahoma,
killing people and cattle and
destroying homes and
property.

Overall Impacts of the Six 2005-2006 Wildfire Outbreaks


Across Oklahoma and Texas

Wildfire
Event Major Acreage Economic Structures Reported Reported
Date Wildfires Burned Damages Destroyed Deaths Injuries

Dec. 27, 52 60,823 $19 341 4 28


2005 million

Jan. 1, 43 303,570 $25 115 2 19


2006 million

Jan. 12, 16 39,173 $600 48 0 0


2006 thousand

March 12,, 27 1,102,044 $96 102 12 11


2006 million

April 6, 26 119,846 $3 42 0 2
2006 million

April 15, 10 23,135 $290 7 0 3


2006 thousand

The 2005 and 2006 Southern Plains Wildfire Outbreaks (Lindley and others 2007).

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 11
“Our entire county is just about on fire—it’s everywhere,” Tim Cooke, Bryan
County Emergency Management Director in southeast Oklahoma.

2005 Breaks 50- and 80-Year Drought Records


In parts of Texas, 2005 proves to be the rain—12 inches less than normal. Adding to
driest year on record since 1956. 2005 is the the extreme fire danger conditions, through
fifth driest year on record. December into January, temperatures
across Oklahoma and Texas range from 10
By December 2005, many of this state’s 254
to 20 degrees warmer than normal.
counties are experiencing drought
conditions after averaging just 21.5 inches Inside this environment, by the end of
of rain through the year’s first 11 months— November 2005, grass fires burn 50
16 full inches below the normal rainfall thousand acres across southern and eastern
amount. Oklahoma during this month alone.
In Oklahoma, the last six months of 2005 is At the end of December 2005, the National
the driest half-year recorded since 1921— Weather Service warns that this record-
an 80-year record. By the end of December, setting drought will continue into 2006.
the state has only received 24 inches of

Intense ‘Middle-Latitude Cyclones’ Help Fan Wildfires


The severity of these wildfire outbreaks is epitomized on Dec. 27, 2005, when one of the
major fires enters the central Texas town of Cross Plains in grass fuels. This fire essentially
burns completely through the entire community, killing two residents in their homes. A total
of 116 homes, one church, and several other structures are destroyed.
Lindley and others (2007) indicate that the six devastating Southern Plains outbreaks in
2005 and 2006 occur in association with the passage of intense middle-latitude
cyclones. Schroeder and others (1964) identify similar synoptic scale situations as a
“chinook-type” critical fire weather pattern for the Southern Plains.
The worst of the entrenched
drought conditions exist
across Texas from autumn
2005 through spring 2006
(Van Speybroeck and others
2007). Global climate
variability signals—such as
the El Niño-Southern
Oscillation (ENSO)—had
suggested that a drought
episode was possible during
this period. Several major
fires will burn millions of
acres before this drought
episode is diminished by
mid-2006.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 12
Southern Plains Drought Conditions Reported as of December 27, 2005.

National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 13
Other Causal Factors that Increase Wildfire Threats in Texas
Factors contributing to the increased risk of wildfires in Texas:

Location and size of this state, Climate and weather conditions,


Increasing population, and
Changing land use patterns.

The geographic position of Texas exposes this area to More People at Risk
entrenched drought conditions and seasonally strong From Wildfire
winds. During periods of “very high” to “extreme” fire
During the past two decades,
danger, the sheer expansive size of Texas stretches the the Texas Panhandle area has
deployment of firefighting resources to the breaking point. experienced dramatic land use
changes—moving from
In analyzing weather records from the past 100 years, the cultivated acreage to
Texas Forest Service recognizes three separate 25- to 30- grasslands. This transition has
year drought periods (From Texas Wildfire Protection Plan, increased available fuel for
2009, Texas Forest Service). The previous drought cycle fires. At the same time, some
Panhandle areas have also
occurred from the late 1950s to the late 1970s. The most experienced population
recent drought period began again in 1996. So far, it has growth—placing more and
produced several record-breaking fire seasons. more people and property at
risk from wildfire.
The population of Texas increased from 11,196,730 people
in 1970 to 20,851,820 people in 2000 (Texas Forest Service 2009). In 2000, the U.S.
Census Bureau estimated that almost 35 million people will inhabit the state by 2010.

In many areas, residents have expanded into undeveloped wildland areas with little
regard for developing defensible space around homes. The extreme fire seasons of
1996, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2005, and 2006 have placed this emerging wildland population
squarely in harm’s way.

Land use patterns also have changed in the past 100 years, resulting in more vegetation
and available fuels (Texas Forest Service 2009). For example, the town of Cross Plains in
central Texas was an agricultural community in the early 1900s, with little vegetation
around its homes, farms, and ranches. By 2005, a town of 1,076 people had replaced
that little farming community—which is now typified by tall grass, trees, and other
vegetation intermingled throughout the town.

Today, the Texas Forest Service estimates that 14,506 communities in the state are at
risk from devastating wildfires.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 14
Oklahoma and Texas Host a Wide Diversity of Fuel Types
While this report focuses on wildfires that occurred primarily in grassland ecosystems
within Oklahoma and Texas in 2005-2006, these two states comprise a wide range of
fuel types.

For instance, a variety of timber types exist in both states—from oak-hickory lands to
pinon-juniper stands in Oklahoma, and piney woods to mesquite and juniper areas in
Texas. (See map below and on following page.)

The tremendous diversity of plant species and communities in both states reflect the
considerable variation in Oklahoma and Texas’ climatic, physiographic, and geological
features.

Oklahoma Vegetation Types

Oklahoma’s native vegetation types map courtesy Natural Resource Ecology and Management, Oklahoma Cooperative
Extension Service, Oklahoma State University.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 15
Texas Vegetational Regions

1. Piney Woods
2. Gulf Prairies and Marshes
3. Post Oak Savannah
4. Blackland Prairies
5. Cross Timbers and Prairies
6. South Texas Plains
7. Edwards Plateau
8. Rolling Plains
9. High Plains
10. Trans-Pecos, Mountains and Basins

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 16
IV 2005-2006 Oklahoma-Texas Wildfire Chronology
‘By No Means are We Out of the Woods’
“It looked like we had been bombed in a big war. The whole city was on
fire everywhere.” Rancher Dean Dillard, Cross Plains, Texas.
“What can you do about it? You have no control.” Pat Hankins, resident
of Mustang, southwest of Oklahoma City. On Dec. 27, 2005, the
Mustang Fire burns 400 acres and destroys five homes.

“It’s like trying to stop a 30-mile-per-hour car coming at you down the
street. The wind is our worst enemy now,” Keith Ebel, Deputy Fire
Marshal, Arlington, Texas, on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2005. “It was only a
matter of time before this was going to happen. By no means
are we out of the woods.”

In the later part of


December 2005,
unseasonably warm
temperatures (in the
low 80s), low humidity,
and strong winds
prompt a “Red Flag”
warning for the entire
state of Oklahoma and
north Texas.
By Monday, Dec. 26,
residents are fleeing 73
fires that are closing
highways and
destroying towns The Associated Press Photo
across north and A wind-driven wildfire burns through the wildland-urban interface in
central Texas. The next South Arlington, Texas on Dec. 27, 2005.
day, stronger winds
spread even more fires across various parts of Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle area.
People are evacuating and homes are being lost across 12 Oklahoma counties. As many
as 50 homes burn in Oklahoma; more than 78 homes turn to ash in Texas. Across these
two states—in two quick days—wind-driven flames burn 20,000 acres. It is the
beginning of the catastrophic 2005-2006 Texas-Oklahoma siege of grass fires that will
take its toll on people and their land and their livelihood for the next five, wildfire
disaster-filled months.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 17
Photo Courtesy Texas Forest Service
The Dec. 27, 2005 Cross Plains Fire—charged with up to 38 mile-per-hour wind gusts coupled with 12
percent relative humidity—sweeps through the central Texas town of Cross Plains, population 1,076.
This wildfire—exhibiting 30-foot flame lengths at times—kills two Cross Plains residents who are both
trapped in their homes.

“We had a tornado here years ago and we thought that was
devastating. But this fire was worse.”
Patricia Cook, Cross Plains Texas resident, whose home was saved
by her teenage son and his friend who managed to keep the
approaching flames at bay with a garden hose.

Five People Perish in Fires


By the end of December, 2,953 fires in 176 counties burn 118,000 acres across Texas. In
Oklahoma and Texas during the last two weeks of December, wildfires burn more than
50,000 acres, kill five people, and destroy approximately 100 homes. Most of these fires
are started by people ignoring burn bans, shooting fireworks, and throwing out still-lit
cigarettes. Downed power lines also start some blazes.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 18
NOAA GOES-12 Satellite Image
Satellite imagery from Dec. 27, 2005 shows the wildfire outbreaks on this day—numerous large
grass fires (the red dots) and their smoke plumes across Oklahoma and Texas.

Major wildfire locations on


Dec. 27, 2005 as reported
by the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric
Administration and the
National Interagency Fire
Center.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 19
“The conditions couldn’t be worse for grass fires.” David Stapp,
Battalion Chief, Arlington, Texas Fire Department.

“Houses are burned down that nobody could ever get to. Instantly,
there were 15 or 20 houses on fire at the same time—and no way to
get to them all.” Dean Dillard, Cross Plains, Texas rancher.

“Homeowners, amazingly, were standing on their back porches


before firefighters got there, armed with only garden hoses and
sprinklers—trying to fend off this fire as the wind whipped
toward their houses.” Joel Thomas, television reporter, on the
grass fire that raged into Arlington, Texas—consuming 300
acres in minutes.

“We’ve even seen people with just milk jugs filled up with water,
just doing what they could, hoping that just the least bit of water
they could put on the ground would possibly save their homes.”
Doug Warner, television reporter.

“It just kept jumping. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Maria
Vantour-Smith, who lost her home to the Mustang Fire
southwest of Oklahoma City.

Drought Conditions and Wildfires Continue into 2006


Texas Governor Rick Perry warns
that the wildfire threat level is
expected to remain high across his
drought-stricken, windy, and
unseasonably hot state for the next
30 days. The National Weather
Service forecast confirms that the
current record-breaking drought
conditions should intensify into early
2006.

One of the barrage of wildfires that


erupts on December 27 burns into
Choctaw, located east of Oklahoma
City. The intense heat from this
fire—that claims five homes—melts
The Associated Press Photo
the aluminum cylinder heads on one Home Site – Cross Plains Texas resident Roger Hinkle examines
resident’s car. the burning remains of the home he shared with his father.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 20
“It looked like the world was on fire. There were flames 30 to 40-
feet high. Just a wall of flames.” David Stapp, Battalion Chief,
Arlington, Texas Fire Department.

“We have reports of a dozen fires that continue to burn across the
state. And we know there are more than that,” Michelann Ooten,
Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.

“That’s the nature of grass fires,” explains Dan Ware, spokesperson for the Oklahoma
Forestry Services. “They burn hot and they burn fast. They’re driven by wind. Once the
wind comes down, once the temperature comes down, they lie down.”
Ware continues, “But that doesn’t mean it’s over. As soon as the temperature comes
back up—tomorrow—as soon as the wind comes up—bam, we’re off to the races
again.”

Major new wildfire outbreak locations on Jan. 1, 2006 as reported by the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Interagency Fire Center.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 21
“Today (Jan. 1, 2006) has been extremely intense. I think it’s maybe
starting to take its toll on our department.” Brian Stanaland,
Oklahoma City Fire Battalion Chief.

January 2006 – Grass Fires Claim Two More Lives


On Sunday, Jan. 1—New Year’s Day—only eight days after the rash of fatal grass fires
had previously erupted across Texas and Oklahoma, wind gusts of more than 50 miles-
per-hour fan new blazes across the landscape.
Record-high temperatures continue to bake the region. Wildfires—some reported with
one-mile-wide moving fronts—threaten people, homes, property, and livestock from
north of Tulsa, Oklahoma to south of Fort Worth, Texas. By the early evening hours of
that first day of the New Year, 43 major wind-driven wildfires are causing significant
damage. Approximately 73 new fire starts—of varying sizes and severity—are burning in
Texas alone.
The combination of damaging winds, blinding dust, smoke, and wildfires during the
holiday weekend claim two more lives and result in at least 20 injuries. Two small Texas
communities, Ringgold and Kokomo, are virtually destroyed by fire.
Across southeastern Oklahoma during these first days of January 2006, numerous grass
fires evacuate entire towns, burn homes, and close roadways—including a five-mile
stretch of Oklahoma Highway 78 and portions of State Highway 91. Further south, grass
fires continue to rage across the Texas Panhandle. Property losses across the region
exceed $25 million. These early January fires destroy an estimated 115 structures and
scorch 300,000 acres.

Photo by Henry Bargas/Amarillo Globe-News

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 22
Large
Wildfires

Infrared satellite
image from Jan. 1,
2006 shows
substantial large-
sized wildfire
activity as well as
the comprehensive
geographic area
affected by blowing
dust and smoke. A
cold front is also
seen moving south
through the
Oklahoma and
north Texas
panhandles.

NOAA GOES-East
Satellite
Image

Fires
Visible
From Space

Large wildfires
raging in Texas
and Oklahoma
appear as
hotspots on
NOAA GOES-2
satellite image
taken on Jan. 1,
2006.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 23
On Jan. 12
New Wildfires
Rage Across
the Landscape

On Jan. 12, 16 new


grass fires ignite
that burn 40,000
acres, destroy 48
homes, and claim
$600,000 in
damages. These
new fire starts are
shown here as
reported by the
National Oceanic
and Atmospheric
Administration and
the National
Interagency Fire
Center.

The Associated Press Photo

Volunteer firefighters take suppression actions—attacking from the black—on a


wildfire burning through a hayfield west of Tyler, Texas.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 24
“This is probably the single worst day in Texas wildfire history.”
Warren Bielenberg, Texas Forest Service spokesperson, on March 12, 2006

Two fires, The Borger Fire and I-40 Fire, burn in the northern Texas Panhandle area northeast of Amarillo. The
active fire perimeters are outlined in red, with thick plumes of grey and white smoke streaming up from the fires.
This image was captured approximately 430-miles above the earth by the Moderate Resolution Imaging
Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite.

March 2006 – Largest Wildfires


in State History Claim 12 More Lives On Sunday March 12, 2006, the East
Just as the agency had done in January, the Amarillo Complex (Borger Fire and I-40
National Weather Service Storm Protection Center Fire) burns more than 800,000 acres in
issues an “Extremely Critical Fire Danger” warning a single day.
for March 8, 10, 11, and 12.
Then, on Sunday March 12, what will ironically
become known as a “perfect storm” for extreme fire develops when the critically dry
fuels and grasses combine with single-digit humidity and winds gusting to 60 mph to
propel another series of fast-moving grass fires—including 27 large fires—that spread
across Oklahoma and Texas.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 25
In Texas, two large fires—the Borger Fire and Interstate 40 (I-40) Fire—comprise the
East Amarillo Complex, whose final burn size becomes almost one million acres. These
wildfires kill 12 people—the greatest loss of life from wildfires in the United States in
2006, and the most deaths related to grass fires in Texas history. Both of these fires are
ignited by downed power lines. Pushed by over 50-mile-per-hour winds, they quickly
spread through nine Texas counties—evacuating eight towns and more than 4,000
residents. Cattle ranchers estimate as many as 5,000 cattle are lost.
In just nine hours, these two wildfires spread across 45 miles—exhibiting a remarkable
five mile-per-hour rate-of-spread and 11-foot flame lengths.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 26
V Those Who Perished – How, Why, and What We Can Learn

Destry Horton Kathy Ryan James McMorries

Arthur Roberto
Gerardo Merdaro Dominquez Chavira
Villareal Garcia Jr.

Four people—Susan and Lawrence Schumacher, Alexis Volunteer Firefighter Clint Dewayne Rice dies in this
Skenay’ah Burroughs, and Lachelle DeWeese—die in a water tender rollover accident while responding to a
multi-car collision when wildfire smoke obscures I-40. grass fire.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 27
“As director of the state agency responsible for protecting Texans
and the state’s forest resources from wildfire, I can tell you that
I’m extremely concerned and appalled at the devastating loss of
lives and property we’ve seen in less than three months.”
Jim Hull, Director, Texas Forest Service

Twenty Five People Perish in Texas and Oklahoma


A total of 25 people—including
four firefighters—die in fire-
related incidents during the
historic 2005-2006 Texas-
Oklahoma fire season. In 2006,
this wildfire outbreak results in
the greatest loss of life from
wildfires in the United States
that year.

Texas Fatalities
Nineteen of these deaths—
including two firefighters—occur
in Texas. Both of these
firefighters are driving water
tenders that overturn. Neither
men are wearing seatbelts; both
are ejected. Of the 17 civilians,
six die in their homes—or near them—either trying to escape or extinguish fire.

Four people die when they abandon their vehicle and try to outrun the flames. Four
others die in a multi-vehicle accident caused by wildfire smoke. One civilian dies
operating a dozer on a wildfire burnover. Three people die of fire-related heart attacks.

The March 2006 East Amarillo Complex fires—including the Borger Fire and I-40 Fire—
result in 12 of these Texas fatalities in four rural Texas Panhandle counties. [See map on
next page.] All of these deaths occur within a 45-mile radius during a six and one-half
hour period—between 1:30 and 7 p.m. These fire victims include eight males and four
females, ranging in age from 14 to 94.

Oklahoma Fatalities
Six people—including two firefighters—perish in Oklahoma. One firefighter is overrun
by flames while operating a water tender. The other dies when he falls from a water
tender. One civilian’s death is related to his attempt to save his home from fire.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 28
Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 29
The Firefighters

Photo by Robin O’Shaughnessy/Amarillo Globe-News

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 30
Clint Dewayne Rice
Volunteer Firefighter
At 2:27 p.m. on Nov. 22, 2005, Carlton
Volunteer Fire Department firefighter
Clint Dewayne Rice dies while driving a
department tractor-trailer water tender
to a large grass fire near Hamilton, Texas.
Driving into a curve in the road, Rice, 28,
loses control of the firefighting vehicle
and is ejected when it overturns. He
suffers catastrophic head injuries and is
pronounced dead at the scene. Volunteer Firefighter Clint Dewayne Rice, 28, dies when he is
Investigators report that this three- thrown in this tractor-trailer water tender rollover accident
while responding to a large grass fire near Hamilton, Texas.
month member of the Carlton
Volunteer Fire Department was not
wearing a seatbelt.
However, according to the Texas State
Fire Marshal’s Office Firefighter Fatality
Investigation Report, due to the forces
involved in this crash, it is not possible to
determine if safety belt use would have
prevented Rice’s fatal injuries.
The vehicle Rice is driving is a 1979
Freightliner cab-over tractor-trailer water
tender. His Carlton Volunteer Fire
Department purchased the Freightliner
tractor in 1996. The vehicle’s tank trailer
is a 1968 Heil 5,000-gallon fuel tanker
obtained from the Federal Excess Personal
Property (FEPP) program administered by the Texas Forest Service.
The Carlton Volunteer Fire Department converted the former M131A5 military fuel tank
trailer to a water tender, modified the tank compartment dividers into baffles, and
installed additional equipment, including a water pump, hose, and fittings.
Volunteer firefighter Rice had previously operated flight line refueling tankers for the
U.S. Air Force. He was a heavy-duty truck mechanic by trade, and had a Class C Texas
driver’s license.
Prior to this incident, Rice had not driven this tractor-trailer water tender to a fire.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 31
Above: Approaching the curve in the road where volunteer firefighter Clint
Firefighter Rice Dewayne Rice’s fatal accident occurred. Below: Diagram of the fatal
Served in Iraq rollover accident from the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office.
Firefighter Fatality Investigation report.
Clint Dewayne Rice graduated
from Hamilton High School in
1995 where he was active in
Future Farmers of America.
After high school, he joined the
U.S. Air Force, serving in Iraq,
Korea, and Alaska.
He worked as a mechanic for a
Hamilton electric company and
leaves behind his wife,
Stephanie.
His family says the young man
loved to fish, ride his dirt bike,
and restore old cars. Prior to the
accident, the volunteer
firefighter was in the process of
restoring two 1967 Mustangs.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 32
Lessons Learned from Clint Dewayne Rice’s Fatal Rollover
The following findings and recommendations from the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office
Firefighter Fatality Investigation Report are based on nationally recognized fire service
consensus standards. All fire departments should be aware of the content of these
standards and develop programs to increase the level of safety for their fire department
personnel.
Finding 1
Carlton Volunteer Fire Department Unit 610, driven by Firefighter Clint Dewayne Rice,
entered a marked curve at an unsafe speed. Volunteer firefighter Rice was unable to
maintain control of the vehicle, causing it to leave the roadway and overturn.
Contributing Factors:
The fully loaded cargo tank The tires on the tractor-trailer
trailer exceeded the maximum combination had inconsistent
gross weight listed on the data inflation pressures, some of
plate by at least 6,450 pounds. which were dangerously low.
The existing baffles in the cargo The Texas Department of Public
tank were inadequate to control Safety report cited “defective or
water movement and no trailer brakes.”
subsequent weight shifts.

This overloaded vehicle—combined with unsafe and inconsistent tire pressures and
inadequate water tank baffles—presented an extreme challenge to the driver to
maintain control—even at low speeds.

1. Lessons Learned Recommendation


All fire departments should consider safety and health as primary concerns in the
specification, design, construction, acquisition, operation, maintenance, inspection, and
repair of all fire department apparatus.

Finding 2
The Carlton Volunteer Fire Department did not implement measures to prevent the
Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) program tank vehicle from being loaded over
the maximum permissible gross weight when it was converted to firefighting use.

2. Lessons Learned Recommendation


Any fire department acquiring a vehicle, chassis, or trailer not originally designed as
firefighting apparatus should proceed with caution when converting equipment for use
in firefighting. During fire apparatus construction, fire departments should take into
account factors such as the weight of tank water and equipment, center of gravity, load
distribution, capacity of the drive-train, tires, steering, and braking systems.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 33
2a. Lessons Learned Recommendation
All fire departments acquiring vehicles, chassis, or trailers should refer to all available
manuals or documentation prior to commencing conversion or modification operations.
Water tanks should be clearly marked with the tank capacity and full gross weight. Fire
departments should install positive physical safeguards—such as overflow vents—to
prevent vehicles from exceeding maximum permissible gross weight when fully loaded.

Finding 3
At the time of the incident, the Carlton Volunteer Fire Department did not have an
apparatus driver education and qualification program in its standard operating
procedures manual. This was the first time that volunteer firefighter Rice had driven this
tractor-trailer water tender to a fire. At the time, the departmental standard operating
procedure (SOP) manual contained minimal information regarding safe operation of fire
department vehicles.

3. Lessons Learned Recommendation


All fire departments and fire officers should review departmental driver policies and
ensure that all drivers receive periodic training and skills testing. Drivers of specialized
vehicles should receive additional training in the unique handling, operations, and
performance characteristics of these vehicles. Fire apparatus should be operated only
by members who have successfully completed an approved driver training program, or
by trainee drivers who are under the supervision of a qualified driver.
Drivers of fire apparatus should have valid driver’s licenses. Vehicles should be operated
in compliance with all traffic laws, including sections pertaining to emergency vehicles.
Drivers of fire apparatus should have valid driver's licenses. Vehicles should be operated
in compliance with all traffic laws, including sections pertaining to emergency vehicles.
Drivers of fire apparatus should be directly responsible for the safe and prudent
operation of the vehicles under all conditions.
When the driver is under the direct supervision of an officer, that officer should also
assume responsibility for the driver's actions. Drivers should not move fire apparatus
until all persons on the vehicle are seated and secured with seat belts in approved riding
positions.

Finding 4
The Carlton Volunteer Fire Department did not maintain the tire pressures in water
tender Unit 610 in a consistent, safe, and legal manner. Multiple tires on both the truck-
tractor and trailer varied significantly in inflation pressure. This oversight could have
affected the handling characteristics of the vehicle.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 34
Arrow points to the path of tractor-trailer’s right tires just prior to rollover.

4. Lessons Learned Recommendation


All fire departments should institute inspection and maintenance programs in which fire
apparatus should be inspected to identify and correct unsafe conditions:
At least weekly, Prior to being placed in service
Within 24 hours after any use or or used for emergency purposes.
repair, and
A preventive maintenance program should be established and records should be
maintained. The National Fire Prevention Association’s (NFPA) “1915: Standard for Fire
Apparatus Preventive Maintenance Program” provides information regarding
inspection, maintenance, and repair of fire apparatus.
The fire department should establish a list of major defects to be utilized to evaluate
when a vehicle should be declared unsafe. Then, any fire department vehicle found to
be unsafe should be placed out-of-service until repaired. [The complete Texas State Fire
Marshal’s Office Firefighter Fatality Investigation Report on this incident is available at:
http://www.tdi.state.tx.us/reports/fire/documents/fmloddrice.pdf .]

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 35
Firefighter Destry Horton

Destry Horton, 32, is overrun by


flames while trying to help suppress
the Empire Fire in Oklahoma on
March 1, 2006. A fulltime, paid
firefighter with Oklahoma’s
Chickasha Fire Department, he also
serves as a volunteer for the nearby,
rural Acme Volunteer Fire
Department—for whom he is
volunteering when he perishes.
Horton leaves behind his wife,
Brandy, and daughters, Kiley, 6, and
McKenzie, 3 (ages in 2006).

Many Lessons Learned from this Firefighter’s Death


The Empire Fire breaks out on March 1,
2006 west of Duncan, Okla. in the
southwest portion of the state. Probable
fire cause is electrical arcing from
distribution lines or a transformer.

A “Red Flag Warning” for high winds and


low relative humidity has been forecasted
for this extreme fire weather day. Actual
fire weather observations on this day from
nearby Halliburton Field (located five miles
east of the Empire Fire’s point of origin)
include: west winds 21 mph with gusts up
to 35 mph; relative humidity 22 percent;
and temperature 88 degrees just before
noon. (High temperature records will be
broken today in Oklahoma City—92
degrees, and Tulsa—93 degrees.)

The passage of a cold front is also predicted


for later this afternoon. Furthermore, fuel
Model 1 for short grass indicates a spread
rate of 400-chains per hour.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 36
Pushed by strong winds on drought-stricken grounds, this grass fire will quickly grow
into a fast-moving, eight-mile-long fire front that—after an heroic three-week battle in a
burn ward—will claim one firefighter’s life, threaten another firefighter’s life, and
destroy 30 homes and an entire church building.

Firefighter Horton Tells His Wife:


‘I’ll Be Home in Time for Supper’
Destry Horton, 32, is a seven-year
veteran fulltime firefighter with the 38-
paid person Chickasha (pronounced
Chick-a-SHEY) Fire Department. An
emergency medical technician and
member of this department’s special
HAZMAT team, Horton has just been
promoted to “engineer”—fire engine
driver. This husband and father of two
also doubles as a volunteer firefighter
with the nearby rural Acme Volunteer The Associated Press Photo
Fire Department. Operator tries to plow mineral soil line with tractor
and disc to stop the approaching Empire Fire. This is
Even though Wednesday, March 1 is the grass fire that overruns firefighters Destry
Horton’s day off with the Chickasha Fire Horton and Larry Crabb.
Department, he opts to help fight the
grass fires that are igniting in and
around the rural Acme Fire
Department’s district.

At 11:10 a.m., Horton and fellow Acme


Fire Department volunteer Larry Crabb
are dispatched separately to the
Marlow Fire located north of Duncan.
At 2 p.m., they are released from
staging without being assigned and
return to the Acme Fire Station. At 3
p.m., after being paged to the Empire
Fire west of Duncan in a 1995 Chevrolet
The Associated Press Photo
one-ton brush rig, the chief of the Acme One of the 38 homes that the Empire Fire burns on
Fire Department reroutes Horton and March 1, 2006.
Crabb to nearby Farwell.

Thirty minutes later, after being unassigned and released at Farwell, they confer with
their Acme Fire Department chief again and then travel enroute to the Empire Fire.
Around 4 p.m., just before they engage in suppression activities on the Empire Fire,
Horton calls his wife to assure her that he will be home in time for supper.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 37
2009 Photo by Bob Mutch
Three Years Later – The field where Destry Horton and Larry Crabb are overrun by fire when
their water pumper vehicle becomes stuck in a ditch.

‘Just Find Some Fire and Fight It’


Driving just outside of Duncan enroute to the Empire Fire, Destry Horton and fellow
Acme Fire Department volunteer Larry Crabb encounter a group of firefighters. They
stop and ask them about the location of the staging area.

They are told to: “Just find some fire and fight it.”

Empire Volunteer Fire Chief Nathan Tole is the initial attack Incident Commander on the
Empire Fire. He is not aware of Horton and Crabb’s arrival. Horton and Crabb never
receive any formal briefing on the fire.

Continuing south, the two see a suppression grass rig engaged on the flank of a fire to
their east. They turn off the paved road to access this fire area.

The fire is moving rapidly to the east. Horton and Crabb conduct a direct attack on its
south flank—fighting fire from the black. Crabb is in the back of the vehicle operating a
nozzle from its rear bed.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 38
In driving the vehicle, Horton has
A Hero Lost removed his helmet, gloves, and jacket.
While he is wearing his flame-retardant
A previous “Storm Stories” segment on the personal protective equipment “bunker
Weather Channel entitled “Blown from Her pants”, he is not wearing firefighter
Arms” featured firefighter Destry Horton. boots. Rather, he has on nylon hiking
The Oklahoma firefighter had saved a baby boots and a t-shirt.
when a tornado ripped the child from its
mother’s arms.
Crabb is wearing his full “bunker”
firefighter gear as well as fire boots,
The segment highlighted Horton as an helmet, and Nomex hood. However, he is
“heroic” firefighter. not wearing gloves. Neither Crabb nor
Horton have fire shelters.

‘We Need to Get Out of Here’


By 4:30 p.m., inside the increasing
smoke and heat, Horton drives
from the black into unburned fuels.
Shifting winds and a sudden
increase in heat from these
unburned grass fuels—now
igniting—combined with poor
visibility from the thick smoke,
prompts Horton to put the truck in
reverse. He leans out the window
and yells to Crabb: “We need to get
out of here.”

In backing up, Horton inadvertently


backs into a ditch—knocking Crabb
off into barbed wire fencing. With
wind-whipped flames, heat,
and smoke overrunning
their position, the truck is
stuck.

With practically no
visibility, Horton
immediately jumps out of
the truck to help Crabb—
now entangled in the
barbed wire. In seconds, as
the fire front burns over
them, the flames and heat Photos from the Empire Fire Entrapment Report of the Accident Review
engulf Horton’s face and Team show Horton and Crabb’s burned fire vehicle.
upper torso. Crabb sees

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 39
“Destry always gave of himself. He didn’t have to go fight
that fire. It was his day off.”

Destry Horton’s Pastor, Larry Hatfield


Grand Assembly of God Church

Photo from
Empire Fire
Entrapment
Report
illustrates
where the one-
ton brush rig
became stuck
and was
overrun by fire.

Horton’s t-shirt melt to the man’s chest and his boots dissolve into his feet.

After the fire front burns over them, Crabb removes himself from the barbed wire. With
burns on his own hands, face, and lower back, he helps Horton away from the burning
truck and then runs for help. The smoke is so thick, he cannot see nearby firefighters—
approximately 100 yards away. He must locate them by voice.

Burns Over Half His Body—Including Lungs


Horton suffers severe burns over half of his body—including his lungs. The flames that
overcome both men also destroy their vehicle.

As the paramedics rush the severely injured Horton to the hospital, the firefighter is
fully aware that he might die.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 40
“As a paramedic, himself,”
Chickasha Fire Chief Ronnie
Kessler tells reporter Susan
Nicol Kyle of Firehouse.com
News after the accident,
“Destry knew what was going
on. Before they inserted the
airway, he was able to say
that he loved his wife and
daughters.”

Crabb is transported to a
regional hospital where he is
treated for the second and
third degree burns to his
hands, face, and lower back. He is released later that day.

Probably Won’t Survive First Night


Horton is rushed to a nearby hospital and then airlifted by medical helicopter to
Oklahoma City’s Integris Baptist Medical Center’s burn unit.

When she arrives at the burn center—due to Horton’s severely swollen and blistered
face—wife Brandy doesn’t recognize her husband.

“The doctors said the burns were the worst they’d ever seen,” Fire Chief Kessler tells
Firehouse.com News. In fact, the physicians tell Horton’s wife that her husband will
probably not survive through that first night.

Day after day, however—almost miraculously—the injured firefighter—hooked to a


ventilator, feeding tube, and dialysis—defies death. Wife Brandy believes he is
communicating with her by blinking his eyes and wiggling his toes.

This five-foot 11-inch, 180-pound 32-year-old was in prime physical condition. Well-
known for doing hundreds of push-ups and sit-ups every day, Horton had also lifted
weights, jogged miles and miles, and avidly pursued water skiing, snow skiing, baseball,
and basketball.

On the fourth day, the doctors remove the mummy-like bandages wrapped around him
from head to toe. They had planned to scrape off the dead skin and tissue.
Unfortunately, they quickly realize, however, that Horton is burned so badly—he has no
skin left.

Horton’s face has suffered fifth-degree burns, leaving virtually nothing but bone. With
the exception of his legs (that had been protected by his firefighter bunker pants), his
entire body is covered in fourth-degree burns.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 41
Horton Defies the Odds
Six days into his ordeal, to prevent
gangrene from spreading, the surgeons
amputate both of Horton’s arms at his
elbows. After these amputations, the
doctors confide that they can do no more.
Horton’s family consults with burn
specialists from around the world. Everyone
agrees. In fact, no one has ever seen a
patient with such massive critical burns
survive this long.

Nonetheless, for the next 17 days, the Oklahoma firefighter defies


the odds. Horton’s strong heart continues to beat. All of the
doctors and nurses are dumbfounded.

On the evening of March 24—24 days after he is overrun by the


flames on the Empire Fire—Destry Horton passes away.

Approximately 3,000 people attend his memorial service—including the Governor of


Oklahoma. Dozens of firefighters—from as far away as New York City—are also there.

[Editor’s Note: Information from an article by John W. Kennedy, News Editor of Today’s
Pentecostal Evangel, contributed to this summary account.]

Specific Lessons Learned from the Empire Fire Burnover Fatality


In reviewing the burnover of Destry Horton and Larry Crabb on the Empire Fire during
this afternoon of extreme fire weather, several crucial observations surface:

No transfer of command No briefings for incoming


occurred at any time throughout firefighters occurred;
the incident;
Suppression strategies of
As mutual-aid responders began attacking from the black or
taking independent actions, anchoring and flanking tactics
command structure quickly did not occur; and
broke down;
Personal protective equipment
No reliable communications was not fully worn.
existed between the various
departments;

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 42
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) investigators (2007)—
working under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Center for Disease Control and Prevention—concluded that to reduce the risks of similar
fire entrapments in the future, fire departments must:

Ensure that wildland firefighting on proper deployment at least


crews check-in at the incident annually with periodic “refresher”
command post, staging area, or training.
with the division group Provide firefighters with wildland-
supervisor—and obtain a briefing appropriate personal protective
and assignment prior to engaging equipment that is NFPA 1977
in firefighting activities. compliant.
Ensure that all firefighters Ensure that personnel engaged in
expected to participate in wildland wildland firefighting follow the
firefighting receive training guidelines addressed in the
equivalent to the National Fire Fireline Handbook developed by
Protection Association (NFPA) the National Wildfire Coordinating
Wildland Firefighter Level I. Group.
Provide firefighters with approved
fire shelters and provide training

The NIOSH investigators made the additional point (2007) that procedures should be
established, implemented, and enforced to prohibit firefighters from fighting fires while
positioned inside the bed of pickup trucks or similarly outside on other types of
apparatus.

Interagency Accident Review Team Recommendations


In the aftermath of the Empire Fire burnover, an Interagency Accident Review Team also
made specific short-term and long-term recommendations.

Short-Term—Immediate—Recommendations
1. Conduct an “after action review” behavior, weather, communications,
(AAR) of the Empire Fire. Include all tactics, standards for survival,
agencies and departments involved understanding and establishing
in the incident. “LCES” (Lookouts, Communication,
Escape Routes, and Safety Zones),
2. Order and assign trained wildland personal protective equipment
firefighter personnel (supervisory (PPE), etc.
and managerial) to advise, train, and
guide rural fire departments. 4. Establish basic communication and
organization protocols between fire
3. Provide technical assistance for all departments and counties that will
rural fire departments. Address the be followed during any wildland fire
Incident Command System (ICS), fire incident and will serve as standard

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 43
operating procedures. Ensure roles departments, unified command,
and responsibilities and chains of communications, information
command are clearly identified with sharing, roles and responsibilities. In
one person in charge. Establish clear addition, improve acquisition and
procedures for unified command. utilization of weather information,
5. Enhance standard operating expected fire behavior, briefings,
procedures for rural fire lookouts, escape routes, safety
departments involved in wildland zones, and personal protective
fire suppression. Procedures for equipment.
mutual aid responses should be 6. Order a Fire Prevention Team to
clearly identified. Address raise awareness of fire danger in
cooperative management between high potential counties.

Long-Term Recommendations
1. Identify and empower an suppression: sound planning,
organization to train and guide the organizational structures,
wildland fire suppression activities communication protocols, roles and
of rural fire departments, including a responsibilities, chains of command,
structure and support for their and mutual aid procedures.
common communications. The
Oklahoma Forestry Services is the 4. Develop and implement a wildland
organization best suited to fulfill this fire training academy for the State
role. For example, this organization of Oklahoma. Ensure that training
already has fire protection materials, times, frequencies, and
responsibilities in the extreme methods meet the needs of all
eastern portion of the state. involved, especially the rural fire
departments.
2. Implement after action reviews of
large and complex incidents as 5. Develop and implement a Firewise
standard operating procedures. In Program for enhanced community
addition, conduct end-of-season protection and safer environments
reviews. Involve all agencies and for wildland firefighters in the
departments. wildland-urban interface.

3. Ensure that the following are clearly 6. Develop Community Wildfire


identified in cooperative Protection Plans that incorporate
agreements and action plans for fire hazard mitigation, fire prevention,
departments and other agencies and emergency response (structure,
(both State and Federal) that work command, etc.).
together in wildland fire
“Attack from the Black” Training DVD
The “Attack from the Black” training video, available from the Texas Forest Service, encourages
firefighters to think ahead while fighting wildfires. It includes fire re-enactment on sand tables,
helping firefighters think about initial attack strategies, contingency plans, safety zones, and the
importance of proper PPE. For ordering information: http://texasforestservice.tamu.edu
.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 44
“This kind of thinking scares me.”
Hunter Wistrand

Unsafe Common Themes Keep Surfacing


At the conclusion of the severe 2006 fire year, Hunter Wistrand reviewed five Texas wildland fire
incidents in which seven firefighters received 3rd degree burns while trying to suppress grass
fires. (Wistrand is a part time operations chief for the Texas Forest Service who also serves as a
private contractor/teacher for fire training courses. He is a former U.S. Forest Service Type 1 and
Type 2 incident management team member.)

Wistrand visited with all seven of the burned firefighters and with six of the seven fire chiefs
involved. When he performed the interviews, many of these burned firefighters were still
wearing bandages. All were scarred for life.

“As I went around and talked with these different fire departments and the firefighters who had
been seriously burned over the past 12 months,” Wistrand explained in 2007, “there were
common themes that kept coming up that bothered me.”

In each visit, he asked the participants: “If they had to do it all over again—what would they do
differently to prevent their burn accident from occurring?”

“Two of the departments told me that they would not


Following his review, Wistrand made six change a thing—that these kinds of things just happen in
important recommendations for fire our line of work,” Wistrand marvels. “This kind of thinking
departments, especially rural departments: scares me. These folks are still going to rehab for their
injuries and yet they say that they would not change a
1. Teach the dangers of having unburned thing if they had to do it again.”
fuel between the firefighter and the
fire’s edge. These firefighters went on to tell Wistrand that they are
2. Teach that the majority of firefighter trained to protect life and property and thus are willing to
fatalities are vehicle accidents and heart put themselves at risk in order to accomplish these goals.
attacks; and that vehicle accidents are However, Wistrand points out that no structures or lives
preventable. were at risk in any of these fires that burned firefighters.
3. Teach, preach, and promote the idea of “Grass fields and brush were the only things being
“Attack from the Black” when not using
protected,” he confirms.
anchor and flanking tactics.
4. Teach the importance of up-to-date fire Wistrand believes that most of these rural departments’
weather information. Assign someone
fire training focuses on structure and hazardous materials
the responsibility to keep firefighters
aware of what is going on.
with minimal emphasis placed on wildland fire training.
5. Teach the importance of good Thus, this wildland fire veteran asks, “If more than 50
communications between the driver percent of your fire calls are wildland fire, shouldn’t more
and the person on the outside of the than 50 percent of your training be in wildland fire
apparatus. suppression?”
6. Teach that no acre of vegetation (or any
house for that matter) is worth anyone *For more observations from Wistrand’s study, see section VIII
in our business getting injured or dying Key Overall Lessons Learned, page 101.]
for.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 45
James McMorries
Volunteer Firefighter
A 22,000-acrea wildfire on Jan. 1, 2006
threatens the small Texas Panhandle town of
Howardwick—including resident James
McMorries’ home and property.

This “near miss” proves to be a wake-up call


for the citizens of Howardwick, located 50
miles southeast of Amarillo. Previously, the
town had only six volunteer firefighters and
aging fire equipment. After the January
wildfire scare, 25 more people sign-up to be
volunteer firefighters—including McMorries,
a longtime area rancher.

Besides volunteering with the Hardwick


Volunteer Fire Department, McMorries, 62,
donates tires and radios for department’s
vehicles and performs mechanical work on
its engines. He also encourages others to
donate necessary items and to volunteer James McMorries with his wife, Tanis.
their time, too.

Winds Fan Blaze Along Highway


Just before noon on Sunday,
March 12, 2006, the Howardwick
Volunteer Fire Department is
dispatched to a wildfire—fanned
by 40 to 60-mile per hour winds—
that is burning across Interstate
Highway 40. This blaze becomes
part of the East Amarillo Complex,
one of hundreds of blazes that
ignite across the Texas Panhandle
today.

The department’s modified 1,000


gallon brush truck, driven by The 1,000-gallon brush truck after the rollover accident
volunteer firefighter McMorries, that inflicts driver James McMorries with extensive
internal—and eventually fatal—injuries, including a
responds to the area to assist in
broken back and ribs and collapsed lungs. At the time of
fighting the grass fires along the the accident, he is not wearing a seat belt.
highway. The vehicle is a
converted

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 46
James McMorries’ rollover accident occurs on this
embankment that drops off beside Interstate 40.

military 6-by-6, two-and-a-half ton flatbed


truck equipped with a 1,000-gallon non-baffled
water tank, pump, and piping—installed by
members of the Howardwick VFD.

The apparatus was originally obtained by the


Howardwick VFD in 1980 from the Federal
Excess Personal Property (FEPP) program
administered by the Texas Forest Service.

Fire ground operations include driving the tanker along the roadway and in the median
to extinguish areas of grass fire. The Howardwick VFD is working alongside other units
from the area, including the Clarendon, McLean, and Groom volunteer fire
departments. A water refill and command center is set up at a nearby Highway 40 rest
area.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 47
At approximately 7 p.m.—seven hours after arriving on the incident—McMorries has
just refilled the vehicle’s water tank. He is slowly driving the water tender along the
highway’s westbound shoulder in soft sand above a 60-foot drop-off that slants into a
ravine.

Howardwick Volunteer Captain Jeff Cook is riding with McMorries as passenger.


Howardwick volunteer firefighter Joseph Garcia is operating the vehicle’s front bumper
nozzle.

The wind suddenly shifts and fire begins to run up the ravine toward the vehicle.

Garcia, riding the front bumper, motions to McMorries to back up. As the truck starts to
move in reverse, the driver’s side rear wheels lose traction in soft sand and the truck—
loaded with water—turns over and rolls down the side of the ravine.

McMorries Not Wearing Seatbelt


Garcia attempts to jump from the bumper but is struck by the bumper guardrail as it
rolls into the fire area. He sustains second degree burns to his right hand and fractures a
leg in two places.

Captain Cook is ejected from the passenger seat. He lands nearly 30 yards down the side
of the ravine, fracturing his neck in three places, puncturing his left lung, and breaking
four ribs.

McMorries, who is not wearing a seatbelt, is ejected from the driver’s seat and sustains
critical head, back, rib, and spinal injuries. CPR is administered immediately to
McMorries by Howardwick VFD Volunteer Kenny Bridges, a registered nurse. Licensed
vocational nurses Chandra Holman and Rhonda Howell of the Clarendon VFD Auxiliary
also respond and assist in performing CPR and stabilizing all three of the injured
firefighters.

An air ambulance helicopter transports McMorries to Northwest Texas Hospital in


Amarillo.

Personal Protective Equipment


While operating the water tanker truck, McMorries is wearing his flame-retardant
personal protective equipment “bunker coat”. At the time of the accident, according to
Howardwick Volunteer Fire Department Assistant Chief Brian Burney, Cook and Garcia
are wearing full bunker gear with helmets and Nomex hoods.

By protecting his head, Captain Cook says his helmet probably saved his life.

Similarly, Assistant Chief Burney says Garcia would have sustained more serious burn
injuries if he had not been wearing his full personal protective equipment.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 48
Training
Volunteer firefighter McMorries was
not a certified firefighter through James McMorries
any state or national entity. He had
experience as a truck driver and
Loved Helping People
held a commercial drivers license “James was the type of person who did
issued by the State of Texas. In everything he could. He could fix anything. He just
addition, Howardwick Volunteer Fire loved helping people, that’s what he loved,”
Department Assistant Chief Burney McMorries’ step-daughter Megan Bowes tells
said that McMorries received in- Susan Nicol Kyle with Firehouse.Com News.
house training and testing on his “That’s why he enjoyed working for the fire
ability to operate the apparatus. company—because he was helping others.”

In an interview with The Associated Press, Bowes


Lessons Learned from explains, “Yeah, we worried, but you just don’t
think it’s going to happen to you. And you can’t
James McMorries’ Fatal tell him he can’t do something. He’s just a
Rollover stubborn cowboy.”

The following findings and For four weeks, McMorries remains unconscious
recommendations from the Texas on life support in the intensive care unit at
State Fire Marshal’s Office Amarillo’s Northwest Texas Hospital. During this
Firefighter Fatality Investigation time, his extensive injuries cause two massive
Report are based on nationally strokes.
recognized fire service consensus On April 9—29 days after the rollover accident on
standards. All fire departments the East Amarillo Complex—McMorries’ family
should be aware of the content of asks that he be removed from life support. He
these standards and develop passes away.
programs to increase the level of
safety for their fire department
personnel.

Finding 1
Volunteer firefighter McMorries is not wearing his safety belt while operating the
apparatus as required by the Texas Transportation Code—nor is he wearing his full
protective equipment while operating in a fire area.

1. Lessons Learned Recommendation


All firefighters should adhere to state traffic regulations and nationally recognized
standards regarding the use of vehicle safety belts. They should also heed the Standard
on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Programs, Chapters 6.3.1, 6.3.2.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 49
Finding 2
Volunteer firefighter McMorries drove the tanker into an area where the vehicle was
exposed to an unnecessary level of risk. Further, when faced with being overrun by the
wildfire, McMorries was not able to extricate the vehicle safely.

Contributing Factors:
The fully loaded cargo tank movement and subsequent
trailer exceeded the maximum weight shifts.
gross weight listed on the data
The overloaded vehicle with
plate by at least 3,500 pounds.
inadequate water tank baffles
The ground next to the roadway presented an extreme challenge
was newly graded and did not for the driver to successfully
provide a stable base for a truck maintain control.
of this size and weight.
There were no baffles in the
water tank to control water

2. Lessons Learned Recommendation


All fire departments should consider safety and health as primary concerns in the
specification, design, construction, acquisition, operation, maintenance, inspection, and
repair of all fire department apparatus.

Finding 3
The Howardwick Volunteer Fire Department did not implement measures to prevent
the Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) program vehicle from being loaded over the
maximum permissible gross weight when it was converted to firefighting use.

3. Lessons Learned Recommendation


Any fire department acquiring a vehicle, chassis, or trailer not originally designed as
firefighting apparatus should proceed with caution when converting equipment for use
in firefighting. During fire apparatus construction, fire departments should take into
account factors such as the weight of tank water and equipment, center of gravity, load
distribution, capacity of the drive-train, tires, steering, and braking systems.

All fire departments acquiring vehicles, chassis, or trailers should refer to all available
manuals or documentation prior to commencing conversion or modification operations.
Water tanks should be clearly marked with the tank capacity and full gross weight. Fire
departments should install positive physical safeguards, such as overflow vents, to
prevent vehicles from exceeding maximum permissible gross weight when fully loaded.

[The complete Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office Firefighter Fatality Investigation Report
of this incident is available at: http://www.tdi.state.tx.us/fire/fmloddinvesti.html .]

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 50
Warning to All Firefighters: Do Not Ride on Outside of Vehicles
When James McMorries’ fatal rollover accident occurs, fellow Howardwick Volunteer
Fire Department Volunteer Joseph Garcia is riding on the vehicle’s front bumper to
operate the front bumper nozzle. When the vehicle suddenly rolls, he sustains second
degree burns to his right hand and fractures a leg in two places. In 2002, another Texas
firefighter, likewise working on a moving vehicle, is killed in a similar rollover accident.

Therefore, the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office Firefighter Fatality Investigation Report
on McMorries’ death also addresses this unsafe practice of riding on moving fire
apparatus. The report points out that in the instructional handbook “Fundamentals of
Wildland Fire Fighting,” the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) makes
the following statement in a brightly colored “safety alert” box:

“WARNING: Exterior riding positions for pump-and-roll operations are


extremely dangerous and this practice should be discontinued by those
agencies still operating in this manner. Many firefighters have been seriously
injured or killed when riding in these positions when the vehicle was involved
in a collision or rollover accident.”

“Firefighter safety must always be the top tactical priority. Any operational
advantage gained by having firefighters ride on the outside of a moving
apparatus does not outweigh the potential danger to which they are exposed.
The only safe positions for firefighters during pump-and-roll operations are in
an area in or behind the cab while wearing a restraint system OR walking
beside the apparatus in view of the driver as the vehicle drives slowly.”

The Texas A&M University School of Engineering and the Indiana and Michigan
departments of natural resources have collaborated to develop a low-cost remote
control nozzle system for wildland firefighting with the specific intent of eliminating the
need for firefighters to ride in exposed positions on moving vehicles.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 51
William L. Robinson III, Chief
Sarge Creek Volunteer Fire Department

On the evening of April 21,


2006, William L. Robinson,
Chief of the Sarge Creek
Volunteer Fire Department, is
assisting with a controlled
burn on ranchland six miles
northeast of Ponca City, Okla.

Robinson, 39, ranch hand and


three-year member of the
Sarge Creek Volunteer Fire
Department, is operating a 6-
by-6, 2 ½ ton military surplus
1967 Kaiser Jeep that had
been converted into a 1,200-
gallon water tanker truck for
firefighting.

At 9:30 p.m., shortly after refilling the


tanker, authorities say that Robinson
apparently falls out of the truck in a
pasture and is crushed when the
water tanker travels over him. The
vehicle continues another 84 feet
before striking a parked fire truck.

Robinson is treated at the scene and


rushed to a nearby Ponca City
hospital, where—succumbing to his
traumatic injuries—he is pronounced
dead.
This is the same model of military surplus vehicle
According to Dale Block, Oklahoma
(1967 6-by-6, 2 ½ ton Kaiser Jeep)—without the 1,200
rural fire defense coordinator gallon water tank—that Fire Chief William L.
responsible for Tulsa and Osage Robinson III was driving the night he experienced his
counties, in 2006 the Sarge Creek fatal accident.
Department was five-years-old with a
half dozen members.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 52
William L. Robinson III
Chief Sarge Creek Volunteer Fire Department

William L. Robinson III was born in Ponca City, Okla. and graduated from nearby Shidler High
School in 1984. He had worked his entire life as a ranch hand in the Shidler and Foraker areas—
located outside of Ponca City.
“William was always there to help anyone no matter if he had his own stuff to do,” stated his
obituary in the Ponca City News. “He was always happy and had a grin that could melt your
heart. William really cared for his children and friends.”
The volunteer fire chief is survived by his wife Kerri, three daughters, Kadi Kremer and Logan
Robinson of Shidler; and Beth Robinson of Sanger, Texas; and one son, Chance Robinson of
Sanger, Texas.
“He was a fine young man with a nice family,” Dale Block, Oklahoma rural fire defense
coordinator responsible for Tulsa and Osage counties, tells Firehouse.com News after the
accident.

Police Say Fire Chief was ‘Impaired’ at Time of Accident


According to The Associated Press and Firehouse.com News, the Oklahoma Highway
Patrol’s investigation of Fire Chief Robinson’s fatal accident indicated that he was
“impaired” when he fell from the water tanker vehicle to his death.

“The investigating trooper listed Robinson as ‘impaired’ at the time of the crash
following a blood alcohol content test,” informed an April 23, 2006 Firehouse.com News
report.

The authors of this case study report have personally confirmed and verified the
existence of this police report.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 53
Lessons Learned: Do NOT Drink and Respond to Wildland Fire Incidents
On the surface, this “lessons learned” sounds
“Alcohol is the single largest human condition factor that straightforward and simple:
adversely affects driving performance leading to fatal Alcohol consumption can NEVER be
accidents. Alcohol acts on the central nervous system, the permitted or accepted and has absolutely NO
body’s command center. This slows the motor response of place in the wildland fire work environment.
the brain, greatly decreasing perception, information
processing, and reflexes. Risk taking, however, is And yet, Fire Chief Robinson’s tragic fatal accident was
increased. not the first time that a wildland firefighter died due to
Alcohol also impairs vision by acting on the optic nerve in alcohol consumption while on duty.
the process of sending images to the brain. This can lead
to unsafe false distance estimates, slower recovery time After a recent firefighter fatality in New Jersey—an
from glare, increased duration of eye fixations, reduced intoxicated firefighter who was off-duty and responded
peripheral vision, and tunnel vision. Studies have shown to a search for a drowning victim and died—the National
that even low alcohol levels (significantly lower than state Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
Driving Under the Influence [DUI] levels) cause recommends:
significantly reduced information processing in the brain All fire departments have written policies and
and deteriorating driving skills. Alcohol of any amount is procedures to enforce a zero-tolerance policy
too much to safely operate a motor vehicle.” prohibiting alcohol use by firefighters who may be
Mark T. Bailey, Certified Traffic Accident called upon to act on behalf of the department.
Reconstructionist
Furthermore, NIOSH said fire departments should
minimize the risk of similar events by:
Adopting the International Association of Fire Chief's Zero-Tolerance Policy for Alcohol and
Drinking to prohibit alcohol use by members of any fire or emergency services
agency/organization at any time when they may be called upon to act or respond as a member
of those departments. This policy specifically states that, “No member of a fire and emergency
services agency/organization shall participate in any aspect of the organization and operation
of the fire or emergency agency/organization vehicles and machinery under the influence of
alcohol . . .”
Developing written policies and procedures to enforce the zero-tolerance policy.

For instance, the South Dakota Department of Agriculture’s Wildland Fire Suppression Engine Operations Section
manual states:
Any member who consumes an alcoholic beverage while off-duty may not respond or report to duty
within 8 hours of the last drink consumed. Any member found to be under the influence of alcohol
while on-duty will face disciplinary action. Members on wildland fire assignments may not consume
alcohol until released from the incident at the home unit.

As reported in the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center’s publication, Scratchline—Issue 9, Spring 2004—Mark
T. Bailey, a certified and accredited traffic accident reconstructionist, makes the following observation:
“Driving is basically a ‘perceptual-motor oriented task’ requiring the driver to process information from the
roadway and vehicle, and to act accordingly to maintain safe control of the vehicle. Perceptual errors that
resulted in the majority of these serious accidents were caused by inattention, alcohol use, fatigue and
inexperience.”

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 54
The Wildland-Urban Interface Residents

Phillip Yates/Amarillo Globe-News

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 55
Ralph Wedman
It is Monday, Nov. 7, 2005.
Newkirk
A controlled burn on the outskirts of
Newkirk, Okla. escapes.

The grass and brush fire is now burning


uncontrolled toward—and threatening—
Ralph Wedman’s home.

The 66-year-old U.S. Army veteran and


former rancher and farmer is operating his riding lawn mower. He is alone.

Firefighters find his severely burned body beside the lawn mower.

An autopsy determines that Ralph experienced a heart attack, most likely fell from the
lawn mower, and was overcome by the flames.

He is survived by his niece, Kathryn J. Wedman of Newkirk; three brothers, Henry, Ponca
City, Okla., Anthony, of Leon, Okla., John J., Medford, Okla.; two sisters, Cecilia Preisser,
Haven, Okla., and Ida Mary Belmear, Medford, Okla.

The December 27, 2005 Cross Plains Fire


in central Texas claims the lives of two residents

Maddie Fay Wilson


Maddie Fay Wilson, 67, a retired school teacher, is trying to escape the sudden, wind-
driven Cross Plains firestorm when the flames and heat and smoke trap her and
consume her home.
She had taught several generations of Cross Plains’ first-graders.

“She was a really sweet woman,” said Cross Plains City Administrator Debbie Gosnell.

Maudie L. Sheppard
Cross Plains resident Maudie Sheppard, 89, is bedridden. She lives with her son.
However, when the Cross Plains Fire suddenly sweeps through town, her son is not at
home.
Neighbors say that by the time he rushes home to save his mother, it is too late.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 56
“The Cross Plains Fire was the beginning of what is turning into
one of the worst wildfire sieges I have witnessed in my entire
40-year career with the agency.”
Jim Hull, Director, Texas Forest Service

The Fatal Cross Plains Fire

It is just after noon—two days


after Christmas, December 2005.

Three miles west of Cross Plains,


Texas, on the south side of State
Highway 206, someone tosses a
cigarette butt out into dead
winter grasses—grass fuel model
GR4 fuels.

Despite the quick response of


local fire departments’ arrival on
scene, this fire quickly spreads through these grasses.

At the time of ignition: one-hour dead fuel moistures are calculated at five percent,
surface rates-of-spread are estimated at 2.4 mph, and flame lengths in this grass model
are initially observed at 13 feet.

In three quick hours, the wildfire roars into Cross Plains, burning entirely through this
1,076-resident town, located 47 miles southeast of Abilene and 150 miles west of Dallas.

The fire kills two people—Maddie Fay Wilson and Maudie L. Sheppard—and destroys 85
single-family homes, 25 mobile homes, 100 buildings—including Cross Plains High
School buildings, six motel units, and the town’s Methodist church building and
parsonage.

Cross Plains seems an unlikely candidate for such a devastating fire, situated on level
terrain with modest grass fuels.

But the well-entrenched drought, a cold front passage with winds gusting to 38 mph,
and relative humidity dropping to 12 percent, propels the fire to burn rapidly through
the town site—exhibiting up to 30-foot flame lengths.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 57
Photos Courtesy Texas Forest Service

A tossed cigarette three miles outside of Cross Plains triggers a grass fire that burns so fast and furious,
two of the town’s residents don’t have time to escape their homes.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 58
The Cross Plains Fire engulfs the
sanctuary of the town’s First United
Methodist Church. The church building is
gutted and destroyed, as is the nearby
parsonage. Four church members also
lose their homes in this devastating,
wind-driven fire. Nonetheless, 5 days
after the firestorm destroys half the
town, 165 church members hold their
worship service in the church’s soot-
covered parking lot on New Year’s Day.
During the sermon, one of the church’s
remaining walls crashes to the ground.
Parishioners also shudder during the
closing prayer when a fire engine, its
sirens blaring, roars down the highway,
presumably off to yet another wildfire.

Photos Courtesy Patricia Cook,


United Methodist News Service

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 59
Cross Plains Fire
Lessons Learned
A Texas Forest Service fire review team
conducts an in-depth study of homes that
are lost in the Cross Plains Fire. The team
identifies the following critical mitigation
actions that homeowners should
undertake to prevent similar losses in the
future:
Ensure that there is a break in
continuity of fuels surrounding the
home. Such mitigation can use river
rock or pea gravel landscaping to
prevent flame contact with any
flammable parts of the home.
Install screening over ridge vents,
attic vents, foundation vents, and
dryer vents. Also, chimneys should
have spark arresters to prevent
embers either leaving or entering.
Enclose decks, porches, and
walkways with fine mesh screen to
prevent the entry of embers.
Ensure that wooden fences, support
timbers, and boardwalks do not
come into contact with the home—
they can become “fuses” carrying
fire directly into the home.
Enclose eaves (soffits).
Reduce the flammability of
outbuildings that could be a source
of intense heat for threatening the
home.
As the fire danger increases, keep
lawn grass mowed short, lawns
watered, and trash removed.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 60
Kelly Tiger, Sr.

One of the many wind-


driven grass fires that ignite
across Oklahoma during that
last week of December
2005—consuming thousands
of acres and threatening and
destroying hundreds of
homes—is approaching the
Reverend Kelly Tiger, Sr.’s
home, located in rural
Hughes County near
Wewoka, several miles north
of Holdenville.

Tiger, 68, the father of four


children, grabs a garden
hose and takes a stand out in
his orchard— trying to
prevent the flames from
consuming his family’s
homestead, originally built
by his great-grandfather.

“When he saw the winds


shift and fire coming at our
house, he started running
toward us and collapsed,”
says Kelly, Jr., Tiger's son.

Despite the man’s


suppression efforts, the
grass fire destroys his
family’s home, barn,
outbuildings, and farm
equipment.

He is rushed by emergency
medical helicopter to the Integris Baptist Medical Center burn unit in Oklahoma City.

Even though burns cover 70 percent of his body, doctors believe that he dies of a heart
attack.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 61
Reverend Tiger was a ‘People Person’
Reverend Tiger was pastor of Hilltop Indian Presbyterian Church in nearby Wewoka.
“I had filed away all the sermons he preached—and those are gone. Everything
pertaining to what he did in his life—is gone,” laments the reverend’s wife, Norean
Tiger.
“Kelly was a ‘people person’. It didn't matter if you were white or black or Indian. He
was determined to do what he could for his fellow man,” she says.
Kelly, Jr. said that the first person who called the family after the fire and his father’s
death was Phillis McCarty, disaster response coordinator for the Oklahoma Indian
Missionary Conference of the United Methodist Church.
“She told me, ‘We have a check for you right now, and if there's any more assistance we
can give you, then just let us know.’” Five minutes after McCarty called, Kelly, Jr. says,
Roger Barnett from the Creek Indian Nation called to inform that the Creeks would build
Mrs. Tiger a new home and have it ready for her in less than two months. Minutes later,
Seminole Tribe Chief Kelly Haney called, assuring that the Seminoles would help, too.
This outpouring of community support continued at the funeral, attended by an
overflow crowd of 1,000 people.
At a special celebration after the funeral, A. D. Ellis, principle chief of the Creek Indian
Nation, handed Mrs. Tiger the keys to a new 1,400-square-foot home that members of
the Creek Nation built for her just a few feet from where the Tiger’s original home had
stood before the fire swept over it.
[Editor’s Note: Information from an article by Boyce Bowdon that appeared in the Disaster News
Network contributed to this summary account.]

Satellite photo shows the grass fires burning across central Oklahoma on Dec. 29, 2005. The fatal grass fire that took
Kelly Tiger Sr.’s life and burned his family’s home ended up being 10,000 acres in size.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 62
Elena Morrison

It is December 2005. Just three days after


Christmas.

As the Walnut Bend Fire burns toward her


home—located near Gainesville, Texas—Elena Gainesville
Morrison, 63, tries to water down her lawn
with a garden hose.

As the flames draw closer, a sudden wind shift


blows the fire directly into her.

Elena’s body is found near charred Christmas


decorations in her yard.

“I heard her holler, but it didn't seem like she


was in trouble,” said her husband, Vernon
Morrison. “I looked for her and hollered and hollered, but didn't see her. The smoke
cleared, and she was down. It all happened in three minutes.”

Elena was a well-liked clerk at the Wal-Mart in Gainesville. "Everybody knew this lady
and liked her," said Cooke County Justice of the Peace Dorothy Lewis.

Kenneth Byers
Three days into 2006, Oklahoma
firefighters from the Kildare,
Kaw City, and Newkirk fire
departments are called to a
brush fire outside of Kildare.

They find a Chevrolet pickup—


stuck in the roadside ditch—
burned. The driver’s side door is
open.

The body of the truck’s severely burned driver, Kenneth Byers, 57, of Oklahoma City, is
found partially inside the truck.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 63
Gerald ‘Jerry’ Roth
It is Jan. 31, 2006.

Gerald Roth, 87, is welding a special latch to the gate beside his mailbox at his home
located outside Hulbert, Okla. Sparks from the welding ignite the nearby drought-
parched tall grass. The wind-driven fire burns 200 acres on his daughter and son-in-law’s
adjacent 500-acre ranch.

Roth’s body is found between the gate and his truck. The medical examiner’s report
confirms that he died of a heart attack and not directly from the fire.

Roth’s daughter, who lives on the adjacent 500-acre ranch, praised the hard work of the
Peggs Volunteer Fire Department and the other fire units—including a private citizen on
a dozer who had been excavating a pond nearby—who helped stop the blaze. “Without
those people, we would have lost our ranch. They were remarkable,” she tells the Tulsa
World newspaper.

“Daddy was a wonderful personality. He was a prankster and as happy as he could be,”
Deanna says. She recalls how her sometimes jokester father would clandestinely wire
electricity to his shop door—or even “wire some juice to his friends’ vehicle seats for a
light jolt in their rear!”
Deanna explains how her father, a retired blacksmith, died doing what he loved best—
making gadgets. “He always had a project, he was always fixing things, he was very
active. He was very patient at taking things apart to see how they worked.”

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 64
On the day of the fire, Roth was—typically—
making a unique gate latch. “All you had to do
was step on the bottom rung of the metal gate
and it would pop open—very secure, no
chains,” daughter Deanna explains.

“When I was young he made me my very own


go-cart, scooter, and a sled that I steered with
my feet. He also made us an ice sled with a sail
on it.”

Roth, a World War II veteran, served as a U.S.


Navy chief metal smith, responsible for
repairing ships and submarines. Much of this
work required underwater welding.

He is survived by his wife, Eleanor, and four


children: son Garret Roth of Bixby, Okla.; three Gerald “Jerry” Roth in 1997 at he and wife
daughters, Deanna Christ of Hulbert, Okla., Eleanor’s 50th wedding anniversary
celebration.
Vickie Roth of Bixby, Okla., and Pamela Speraw
of Little Rock, Ark.; as well as nine
grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

“My daddy was the type of fellow,” daughter Deanna fondly recalls, “who would think it
was OK to mix pancakes with a whisk attached to his shop drill.”

Allen T. ‘Tommy’ Sefcik


It is Saturday, Feb. 25, 2006.
A brush fire is burning toward Allen T. “Tommy”
Sefcik’s home located on Blanco Road outside
Bulverde, Texas.
The 65-year-old man tries to fight the flames that
are engulfing his property and threatening his
Bulverde home.
Firefighters find his burned body. An autopsy
reveals that Tommy died of heart attack.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 65
“It was a deadly day. It was a tragic day.”
Danny Richards, Hutchinson County Emergency
Operations Center

Kathy Ryan

It is Sunday March 12, 2006.

Kathy Ryan is celebrating her parents’ wedding


anniversary by treating them to lunch at a restaurant in
Borger, their Texas Panhandle town.

Around 10:30 this morning, some Borger residents had


noticed distant smoke filling the sky southwest of town.
Kathy Ryan
At 11:01 a.m., the Borger Fire Department gets its first
report of what will be known as the Borger Fire—the
largest grass fire in Texas history.

Kathy Ryan learns that this fast-moving grass fire has ignited on the Four Sixes Ranch
southeast of town—out toward her home. At 12:23, after lunch with her parents, she
calls her brother, who happens to be the Borger Fire Chief, to tell him that she is going
to drive out to check on her home.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 66
Michelle Norris/The Amarillo Globe-News
Sheriff’s Department tape surrounds Bill and Oleta Pfeffer’s house the day after the wind-
whipped fatal Borger Fire consumes their home.

At the time, had Kathy’s brother known how severe this new fire was—or what would
transpire over the next four hours—he never would have let her go.
As the 64-year-old widow and grandmother drives her white pickup toward her home
located outside nearby Skellytown—approximately 14 miles southeast of Borger—she
sees how this large grass fire is now quickly spreading toward her. Fifty-seven mph
wind-gusts are fanning the growing orange wall of flames across the drought-parched
grasslands. Fire officials will later report that the fire is moving 200 yards—two football
field lengths—every minute.

Rather then continue on her own evacuation mission, Kathy, a former Girl Scout leader
and breast cancer survivor, decides that she needs to check on her two elderly, disabled
neighbors, Bill and Oleta Pfeffer. She can see that the fire is closing in on their house.
She wants to make sure that they have been safely evacuated.
The couple lives on the grounds of their former Borger Greenhouse and Nursery
business. Their home is surrounded by an oasis of pines, cedars, and various shrubs. Bill,
84, is dependent on supplemental oxygen and uses a cane. Oleta, 91, is totally disabled
with advanced Alzheimer’s disease.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 67
“The visibility was poor because the dust and ash was
just blowing. It was hard to breathe and see. It was
definitely a very dangerous fire to fight.”
Mike Galloway, Captain
Borger Fire Department

Elderly Couple Inside Their


Wildfire-Threatened Home
The Pfeffers do need help. They are still inside
their wildfire-threatened home.

With the flames closing in on the house, as


Kathy helps Bill prepare his oxygen rig for
evacuation, two other Good Samaritans—
James Cornelius, a Hutchinson County
Emergency Operations volunteer, and Ken
Winters, a nearby ranch foreman—hurry through the door into the Pfeffers’ house.

James Cornelius, 64, will later explain: “I had told Ken that Bill and Oleta were in there
and we had to go get them.” Ken Winters, 64, replied: “Lead the way.”

While Kathy helps Bill try to change his oxygen bottle, the two men rush to bedridden
Oleta’s room. “We’ve come to help you,” James tells her, “we got to get you out of
here.”

The two men help the woman out of bed. Together, they carry her out in her
wheelchair, down the front porch steps, and over to James’ pickup. All around them, the
adjacent trees and greenhouse buildings are already on fire.

Ken tells James: “Let me get Bill and Kathy. You get on out of here. We’ll be right behind
you.”

With Oleta on the seat beside him, James backs his truck up. “I could see the flames. It
became solid fire all around us—everywhere. I couldn’t see anything out the windshield.
I just drove west down the lane with trees burning on both sides of me.”

The fire singes James’ hair and embers ignite a fire in his pickup’s back seat—that he
extinguishes after they escape the main fire.

(Later, when asked how he was able to escape through that intense fire front, James
shakes his head. “Well,” he says, holding back his emotions, “There’s no logic as to how I
got out.”)

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 68
Natural Resources Conservation Service Photo
The head of the Borger Fire will defy all suppression efforts. On the morning of March 12, 2006, within
hours of ignition, this grass fire will be 45-miles wide and 30-miles long, rushing at-will across the
landscape—as illustrated in this aftermath photo of Hutchinson County. This is the county in which Kathy
Ryan, James Cornelius, and Ken Winters attempt their heroic rescue effort of an elderly disabled couple
whose home is in this fire’s path.

Fire Blocks Driveway Exit “There’s no logic as to how


Ken runs back into the house to help Kathy with Bill. I got out.”
They are still having problems getting his oxygen bottle
to work.

When Bill tells Ken that he has another full bottle in his
bedroom, Ken hurries into the room and finds it.

Together, with Kathy on one side of Bill—and his


oxygen—and Ken on the other, they rush the 84-year-
old out into Kathy’s pickup.

“We was moving right along,” Ken assures.


James Cornelius
on his Borger Fire
rescue ordeal of Oleta Pfeffer

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 69
“When the fire is advancing at 40 miles per hour, you can’t put
it out. It would be like trying to stop a tornado.”
Gayland Darnell, Borger Fire Chief
(Kathy Ryan’s brother)

By now, the flames have reached the house. Thick smoke is everywhere. In fact, the fire
and smoke have blocked their driveway exit. Ken realizes that their only way out is to
drive through a nearby fence and try to get away through a back pasture.
Ken yells to Kathy, “You stay right on my bumper.” He is concerned about making it
through the fence. “If my pickup stalls, you hit me because I’m going to break the fence
with my truck.”
With smoke and heat encircling them—and the house beside them now totally aflame—
Ken drops his truck into gear, steers off the driveway into the burning trees, bangs
through the fence, and speeds through a burned pasture to the highway. The entire
time, he thinks that Kathy—driving her truck with Bill—is right behind him.
But—just has happened to others elsewhere in this country who try to flee large
wildland-urban interface fires in their vehicles at the last minute—the oxygen-deprived
and hot, smoke-filled air never lets Kathy’s engine start. (Not that many miles away, this
same engine stalling predicament is imperiling Texas Panhandle resident L.H. Webb and
his son. See their survivor story on page 95.)
Kathy and Bill Pfeffer try to escape on foot. Their bodies are found several yards away
from her truck.
“She did what she had to do,” says Kathy’s daughter, Pamela Ayers. “She was always
looking out for others more than herself.”

Flames from the fatal


March 12, 2006 Borger
Fire engulf the horizon
outside Borger, Texas.
Photo provided by the
Borger Emergency
Operations Center.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 70
“Taking care of others is how my mom spent her life. She was always a
caregiver. She did whatever she had to do. She was incredibly strong.”
Pamela Ayers, Kathy Ryan’s daughter

“On the day of the fire, she was taking my grandparents out to eat on
their anniversary. On any given day, that’s most likely what you’d find her
doing—taking care of somebody else.”
Donald Ryan, Kathy Ryan’s son

Endowment Fund in Kathy Ryan’s Name Helps Rural Firefighters


To honor the memory of Kathy Ryan—who sacrificed her life trying to help others—and
to help support rural fire and rescue volunteers in the Texas Panhandle area, the “Kathy
Ryan Rural Fire and Rescue Endowment Fund” has been established.
This special endowment fund, created through the non-profit Amarillo Area Foundation,
now grants financial assistance to rural fire and rescue personnel in 26 rural Texas
counties. “It provides scholarship grants for fire and rescue training or education of the
fire and rescue personnel and volunteers throughout the rural Texas Panhandle,”
explains Joe Lovell, of the Amarillo law firm Lovell, Lovell, Newsom, and Isern. The firm
helped launch the fund with Kathy Ryan’s three children: Pamela Ayers, Tonya Griffin,
and Donald Ryan.
According to Lovell, rural fire and rescue volunteers protect more than 27,000 square
miles in the Texas Panhandle, paying for their training out of their own pockets.
“The more money we can get into this fund, the more people we can help,” Lovell said.
“We want to take this tragedy and turn it into something real—something that will help
others—as Kathy Ryan would have wanted.”
“This is what she would have wanted,” assures daughter Pamela Ayers. “She would
have wanted us to do something that would help others. Taking care of others is how
she spent her life.” “My mother really loved people and helping people—more than just
on March the 12th,” Ayers affirms.
More information on the “Kathy Ryan Rural Fire and Rescue Endowment Fund” is
available at www.kathyryanfund.com.

‘You Don’t Think About It’


After the Pfeffer rescue mission, when the news media representatives interview ranch foreman—and
Good Samaritan—Ken Winters, 64, they tell him that he is a “hero.”
The man pooh-poohs the notion—as well as the attention. He says he performed the rescue attempt on
adrenaline, not heroics. “You don’t think about it,” Winters tells the Amarillo Globe-News. “If you think
about it—you ain’t gonna do it.”

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 71
Bill Pfeffer
Borger, Texas resident Bill Pfeffer, 84, loses his life on Sunday, March 12, 2006 trying to
evacuate his home and flee the Borger Fire. He and neighbor Kathy Ryan, who was
helping Bill escape the fire, both perish when the thick smoke and flames prevent her
pickup truck from starting.

[For full details of this escape attempt, please see the previous “Kathy Ryan” section.+

Pfeffer owned and operated the Borger Greenhouse for many years. He was born in
Oklahoma City on Jan. 10, 1922. Survivors include his wife, Oleta Pfeffer of Borger—who
successfully escaped the fire minutes before Kathy Ryan and Bill Pfeffer’s evacuation
attempt; son, Gary Pfeffer of
Amarillo; sister, Betty Pfeffer of
South Fork, Colo.; and two
grandsons.

Jack Will
The fateful Sunday March 12,
2006 Borger Fire also claims the
life of Skellytown resident
Herman Albert Jack Will.

Will, 94, a widower, is found


perished inside his burned ranch
house located outside of
Skellytown on Telephone Pole
Road.

In the late 1930s, he began working for the nearby Flying W Ranch. After 45 years, he
retired from this job, but continued to help out on the ranch until his death.

An autopsy confirms that Jack died of smoke inhalation when the Borger Fire burned
through his home.

His family suggests memorials be made to White Deer Church of Christ, 501 Doucette,
White Deer, TX 79097, or Cal Farley's Boys Ranch and Affiliates, 600 S.W. 11th Ave.,
Amarillo, TX 79101.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 72
Uvalde

Leonardo Flores Hernandez

It is Friday afternoon, April 7, 2006.


On the Benny H. Ewing Ranch—located near Montell, 25
miles northwest of Uvalde, Texas—it is 92 degrees.
Relative humidity is six percent. The west winds are
blowing 19 mph—with 25 mph gusts.
The surrounding rolling hills and rugged ridgelines
contain drought-stressed mesquite and cedar trees,
interspersed with dry grassy areas. This afternoon,
workers on the Benny H. Ewing Ranch are busy burning
brush piles.
Leonardo Flores Hernandez
Today, no burn ban is in place.
At 4:30 p.m., the brush pile fires ignite a wildfire in the crowns of the nearby mesquite and
cedar trees. The Montell Fire spreads rapidly—growing to 2,500 acres in the next three hours.
The Nueces Canyon, Uvalde, and Camp Wood volunteer fire departments respond. Fire
behavior is extreme. With erratic wind-channeling on the slopes, flame lengths exceed 100 feet.
The fire quickly burns onto three adjacent ranches, including the Reese Ranch, where Leonardo
Flores Hernandez, 43, has worked as ranch hand for several years. He is an experienced dozer
operator.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 73
At 6:30 p.m., a
column of three
dozers, led by
Flores Hernandez,
start building fire
line. All three of
these dozer
operators are
wearing long-sleeve
denim shirts, jeans,
and leather gloves
and boots.
On the north side
of an east-to-west
ridge line vegetated
in mesquite and
cedar stands, they
reach the bottom of Photos Courtesy Texas Forest Service
a slope and attempt Where civilian Leonardo Flores Hernandez perishes fighting the Montell Fire
to cut off the fire at while operating his dozer.
the edge of a
ravine.

However, the fire’s


heat intensity and
thick smoke forces
the dozer operators
to turn their
machines around
and retreat. At this
same time, a
westerly wind shift
occurs for several
minutes.
Two of the dozer
operators manage
to get their
machines out of the
fire area and
intense smoke.
Dozer operator Leonardo Flores Hernandez’s body is found
Flores Hernandez is in the ravine 25 feet away from his dozer.
missing.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 74
“He was trying to save his employer’s ranch from burning.
He was just engulfed in the flames. He obviously didn't
realize the danger he was in.”

They are unable to contact Flores Hernandez on his cell phone.


Once the area cools, they find his burned-over dozer approximately 100 feet from the
edge of the black. Leonardo Flores Hernandez’s body is located at the bottom of the
ravine, approximately 25 feet from his dozer.
“He jumped into the ditch and put his arms over his head with his face in the dirt,” said
Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Wayne Whiteaker.
“He was trying to save his employer’s ranch from burning,” Flores Hernandez’s friend
and neighbor Bill Luce explained to The Uvalde Leader-News. “He was just engulfed in
the flames. He obviously didn't realize the danger he was in.”
Luce said that Flores Hernandez was a master dozer operator. “The landscape was his
canvas. He took pride in everything he did.” Luce said that Flores Hernandez was the
only person he ever knew who could run a dozer right up next to a tree without dinging
the tree.
Born in Mexico, Flores Hernandez had lived in the United States since he was 16. “He
became a citizen the correct way, paid taxes, took care of his family, and had honor in his work and his life,” Luce said.

“Leonardo was a very honorable man,” said Luce. “He was a very bright spot in a lot of
people’s lives.”
Flores Hernandez is survived by his wife, Evangelina Cazarez de Flores; one son,
Christian Flores; and one daughter, Nereyda Flores.
“I've known him a long time and I never heard him say an ugly word about anybody,”
Luce told The Uvalde Leader-News. “Leonardo always had a grin on his face. You don't
find this kind of person very often. That's what makes this very sad.”

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 75
John Robert Moore

It is 7 p.m. on April 15, 2006 in the small, central Texas town of


Harper, located 70 miles northwest of San Antonio.

The Harper Volunteer Fire Department responds to a small


grass fire out on Wendel Road. Winds are estimated at 10
mph, with some lighter gusts. Relative humidity is in the mid-
20 percent range.

John and Joyce Moore, the residents at this location, are


suppressing the fire—that escaped from their burn barrel.

By the time the firefighters arrive, the Moore’s have basically


stopped the fire’s spread. The firefighters put a wet line
around the 50-square-foot burn area and begin mop-up
operations. John Moore

While John Moore, 51, is talking with the Harper Fire Chief, he suddenly collapses and
falls to the ground.

After a quick medical assessment by medic-certified firefighters, John is shocked with an


“automated external defibrillator” seven times. However, he fails to respond to these
emergency procedures. John passes away on scene, the victim of an apparent heart
attack.

Former Mayor and Civic Volunteer


John had worked in oil and gas production in the nearby Dilley area for 28 years, where
he served as alderman and was mayor of the City of Dilley. John was also a member of
the Dilley Volunteer Fire Department and volunteered as a non-paid peace officer for
the Frio County Sheriff’s Office.

In July 2004, the Moore family moved to Harper, where John started a trucking business
and took over the operation of his wife’s family’s ranch. John was an active member of
St. Anthony Catholic Church and the Harper Community Choir.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 76
People Who are in the Wrong Place
at the Wrong Time

Photo by Tony Gutierrez/The Associated Press

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 77
Roberto Chavira
Arthur Dominquez
Merdaro Garcia, Jr.
Gerardo Villareal

While driving to work on a county road in


heavy smoke from the March 12 , 2006 I-40
Fire, four men become disoriented and
drive off the road into a pasture. When
they try to turn around, their vehicle
becomes stuck (shown left). As they try to
outrun the flames on foot, all four perish.
They are oilfield workers: Roberto Chavira,
42, of Cactus, Texas; Arthur Dominquez, 32,
Photo by Tony Gutierrez/The Associated Press
and Merdaro Garcia, Jr., 32, of Pampa,
Texas; and Gerardo Villareal, 30, of Rio
Grande City, Texas.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 78
Lawrence and
Susan Schumacher
It is Sunday March 12, 2006.

Husband Lawrence Schumacher,


56, and wife Susan Schumacher,
49—along with their daughter
Shana, 15, and family friend,
Alexis Skenay’ah Burroughs,
14—are traveling from their
hometown of Grove, Okla. to Las
Vegas, Nev. to celebrate the
girls’ spring break vacation.

They are heading east on


Interstate Highway 40 near the
Texas Panhandle town of
Groom, approximately 40 miles east of Amarillo,
when thick smoke from the newly ignited—and
running—I-40 Fire crosses the highway—causing
“zero visibility”. (This grass fire had only been
burning for approximately five minutes.)

This emergency scenario triggers a nine-car “chain-reaction” pile-up that involves the
Schumacher’s vehicle. Lawrence, Susan, and Alexis all perish in the collision. Daughter
Shana is rushed to a Lubbock hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit where she
undergoes surgery and survives.

Smoke from the I-40


Fire obstructs visibility
on Interstate Highway
40 at 12:20 a.m. on
March 12, 2006.
After the Schumacher
and DeWeese fatalities
occur, continued heavy
smoke closes a 90-mile
stretch of this major
interstate highway for
nine hours.

Photo Courtesy Texas


Department of Public
Safety

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 79
Family members and friends rush to this hospital to be by Shana's side. They plan to
dote on Shana just the way her loving parents always did, family friend Rusty Shaffer
tells the Amarillo Globe-News.

To be closer to relatives, the Schumachers had moved from Las Vegas to Grove about
two years before. Lawrence grew up a few miles away in Welch, Okla. Susan, who
worked for a Grove real estate firm, was originally from Iowa.

Friends remember her as an organized but lively woman who had recently taken up hula
dancing with daughter Shana. Coworkers say that Susan had a knack for clever quips and
pranks to keep their office’s mood cheerful. “She was our little wit in the office, and she
also had a very level head,” coworker Rhonda Denzer tells the Amarillo Globe-News.

Lawrence, who had worked as a coal miner after graduating from high school, became a
builder and developer. Even though he had recently retired—replacing their lakefront
home’s lawn with a huge garden was one of the first of his post-retirement projects—he
continued to build spec homes for his wife’s firm.

In fact, together, he and Susan had just started to create their own building business. “It
looked like it was going to take off and be a good thing," friend Rusty Shaffer informed.
“They touched a lot of people's hearts.”

Alexis Skenay’ah Burroughs


Fourteen-year-old Alexis Skenay’ah Burroughs of Grove, Oklahoma, a ninth grade
student at Grove High School, is celebrating spring break with her good friend Shana
Schumacher. They are driving with Shana’s parents to Las Vegas, Nevada.

It is Sunday, March 12, 2006—the day so many lives are claimed by the sudden grass
fires that ravage the Texas Panhandle, including Alexis’s young life. (For more details on
this grass fire-triggered fatal accident, see the previous section on Lawrence and Susan
Schumacher.)

To say that Alexis was active in school activities is a huge understatement.

She was an active member of the Future Business Leaders of America, Family Career
Community Leaders of America, the Native American Performing Arts Troupe, the Indian
Heritage Club, and the Speech and Drama Club.

With all of these activities and associations, this honor student still found the time to
serve as Student Council Reporter.

A paper she had recently submitted to the Oklahoma Junior Academy of Science entitled
“Give Me Some Oxygen! The Effects of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy on the Tissue
Regeneration of Lumbriculus Variegatus” earned the Ruth Richardson Magrath Award
for best written presentation in a high school research paper. Alexis received this
statewide honor in memoriam.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 80
A member of the Long House Religion, Alexis was born on March 28, 1991 in
Woodward, Okla. Her parents are Randy and Carole (Killion) Burroughs of Grove.

Besides her parents, her survivors include: her sister, Amber Michelle Burroughs of Six
Nations Reservation, Canada; her niece, Bo Alexis Jacobs of Six Nations Reservation,
Canada; her paternal grandparents, Phillips and Janet Burroughs of Miami, Okla.; her
adopted grandmother, Susie Nuckolls, of Wyandotte, Okla.; and her godparents, Stanley
and Maria Western, of Bartlesville, Okla.

Karen DeWeese
Karen DeWeese and her husband Mark DeWeese of rural Wagoner, Okla. are also
driving on Interstate Highway 40 near Groom, Texas on March 12, 2006.

Their vehicle is also involved in the fatal nine-car pile-up caused by smoke from the I-40
Fire.

Karen DeWeese is killed. Husband Mark is taken to the University Medical Center in
Lubbock, Texas, where he survives.

Photo by Tony Gutierrez/The Associated Press

The day after March 12, 2006—when brush fires claim the lives of 12 people—fires continue to burn, like
this one moving along U.S. 70 north of Pampa in the Texas Panhandle.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 81
“I just heard one of my friends who was out shooting
cows this morning that were suffering because they
were burned up too bad.”
John Spearoan, Texas Panhandle Resident

“I think it’s going to be devastating once we


get out there and look.”
Gene Hall, Texas Farm Bureau Spokesman,
commenting on the widespread fatalities to cattle
from the March 12 Texas Panhandle
wildfire outbreaks

VI The Four-Legged Victims

Photo by Tony Gutierrez/The Associated Press

The bodies of dead cattle are a common sight within the thousands of acres of ranching and
grazing lands that burn across the Texas Panhandle. This photo is taken
west of Pampa, Texas on March 13, 2006.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 82
Grass Fires Take the Lives of Five-Thousand Cattle
Of the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma severe wildfire season, the March 2006 grass
fires that rage across the Texas Panhandle area prove to be the most devastating to
ranchers’ livestock.
An estimated 5,000 head of cattle and more than 2,000 miles of fencing burns.
Ranchers also lose an estimated one-million grazing acres across this wildfire devastated
region.
Horses are victims of these grass fires, too, as are various wildlife species, including
antelope, deer, and wild turkey.
By the end of March, almost $50,000 in donated funds and 119,000 tons of donated hay
are delivered to Texas Panhandle ranchers—coordinated by cattle and agriculture
groups.
“Just like we saw with the hurricane last fall, when folks are in need, people step up and
help out,” explains Burt Rutherford of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association.

The Associated Press Photo

Burn injuries from the I-40 Fire damage the eyes, face, neck, and mane of Sissy, a horse who
belongs to McLean, Texas-area resident Bennie Williams. Williams loses six vehicles to the fire. His
daughter’s family’s home—located beside his—is also burned and destroyed when the grass fire
sweeps through the area.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 83
Rancher Balks at Killing His Fire-Injured Cattle
L.H. Webb, a Texas Panhandle rancher, will never
forget that day after the March 2006 East Amarillo
Complex fires burn through his land. It is the day when
the veterinarian comes out to his place.
Webb is to help the doctor triage his fire-injured cattle.
The animals that can be saved are to go into one
corral. The animals that will have to be killed are to go
into another.
Webb, however, ends up placing most of his cattle into
the “to be saved” corral. He simply does not have the
heart to do otherwise. After all—as all ranchers
realize—these animals are his family.
Unfortunately, most of Webb’s cattle are so badly
injured, he eventually has to put them down. This
rancher ends up losing 179 head of his yearling cattle
to the East Amarillo Complex fires.
Webb also loses more than 15 miles of perimeter
Texas Panhandle Rancher L.H. Webbfencing and approximately 30 miles of interior fencing
to the fires. It takes him several days to round-up his
stray cattle that had ranged beyond his destroyed perimeter fences.

For ranchers,
such as L.H.
Webb, losing
their cattle to
the grassfires
becomes an
economic as
well as
emotional
loss.

Photo Courtesy L.H. Webb

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 84
Across the Texas Panhandle area, it takes weeks—even months in
[Editor’s Note: For more some cases—to totally rebuild all of the destroyed fencing.
information on L.H. Everywhere, neighbors help to care for wandering cattle until
Webb and his family’s
they are placed back on their home ranches.
fire experience, see
page 95.]
Also, everywhere, large pits are excavated for the mass burial of
the fire-killed cattle.

Many of L.H.
Webb’s severely
burned cattle
(some of whom
are pictured on
right) survived for
a few weeks
before succumbing
to their injuries.
“The lucky ones,”
laments the Texas
Panhandle cattle
rancher, “died
during the fire.”

P
Photos Courtesy L.H. Webb

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 85
VII Survivor Stories

“Gray County is 900 square miles


and three-fourths of it is just
burned to a crisp. It’s gone.”
Gray County Sheriff Don
Copeland the day after the
March 12, 2006 wildfires burn
through the Texas Panhandle.
The Floyd Lott and L.H. Webb
survivor accounts in this chapter
both occur in Gray County.

“That’s one of my most vivid


recollections. That fire coming
down off the edge of that hill.
Knowing that without something
intervening—we’re not going to
stop it.”
Floyd Lott,
Lefors Volunteer Firefighter,
who helped battle the wildfires
that threatened Lefors.

“The lesson that this fire taught


me is that the trees, grass, fences,
vehicles, equipment, cattle, and
houses are just ‘stuff’ that can be
rebuilt and replaced. I would not
risk my life or my family’s life to
save ‘stuff’ again.”
L.H. Webb,
Gray County Rancher
Photo Courtesy Texas Forest Service

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 86
Volunteer Firefighter Floyd Lott’s Suppression Story
‘We Had a Quarter of a Mile of Solid Flames Coming Over that Hill’

On Sunday morning, March 12, 2006,


The I-40 range fire—part of the East
Amarillo Complex, one of the largest
wildfires in Texas history—is racing
across dry and parched ranchlands
and grasslands toward several rural
Texas Panhandle towns.

Lefors, population 600, located north


of Amarillo in Gray County, is one of
these threatened towns. The I-40 Fire,
already thousands of acres in size, is quickly closing in on Lefors.

Floyd Lott, a member of the Lefors Volunteer Fire Department, says the winds that
morning were blowing up to 30 and 40 miles per hour. His small, all-volunteer
department already had two fire dispatches that morning to a structure fire in nearby
Pampa, and the multi-vehicle pile-up on the Interstate 40 highway in which blowing
wildfire smoke triggered a collision that killed four people (see pages 79-81).

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 87
“We spent all of our time trying to stop the fire at that creek. We didn’t
have enough resources. We didn’t have enough water. It gets in the trees
and it tops the trees and you can’t stop it.”

Floyd Lott, 72 (in 2006), Lefors Volunteer Firefighter


who helped battle the wildfires that threatened Lefors.

“The fire was endangering Lefors,” Lott, now 76, assures. “We had determined that it
was going to get pretty raunchy. My chief told me to get some water trucks rounded
up.”

By the time this longtime Texas Panhandle farmer and former oil field worker was
organizing and coordinating this water truck attack, the fire was already approaching
the creek that borders the southeast edge of town. Lefors had been evacuated.

Lott has been in the rural volunteer fire services for 50 years. He is a former Lefors fire
chief who had to step down from this position due to his heart condition.

With the I-40 Fire bearing down on Lefors, Lott says his chief told him to “coordinate
where our people are at and what our people are doing.”

“We spent all of our time trying to stop the fire at that creek,” Lott says. “We didn’t
have enough resources. We didn’t have enough water. It gets in the trees and it tops the
trees and you can’t stop it.”

Under “normal” situations, Lefors would have had mutual aid response from other
nearby town’s volunteer fire departments. But—on March 12, 2006—these forces were
already trying to save their own towns. Even so, where his department made its stand at
the creek, Lott says they did have “a bunch of trucks” and “a lot of personnel down
there.”

Lott said that this suppression force included people from nearby (100 miles-plus away)
Tulia and Happy, and even fire trucks from as far away as Wichita Falls. “And we also
had people coming up off the street asking ‘What can I do to help?’”

Everything Around You Was On Fire


“It looked like the world was on fire,” Lott recalls. “Everything around you was on fire.
And the smoke was outrageous. To the people that had never experienced something
like this—had never experienced a big fire—it was pretty awesome. It was like we was
going to burn up . . .” [Editor’s Note: At this point in the interview, Mr. Lott is briefly
overcome with emotion.] “I’m sorry . . . When I stop and think about some of the things
that went on . . . I hadn’t really thought back to some of these things that touched me
pretty deep . . . Because we did have some heroes.”

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 88
“This old Texas panhandle is an inspiration to me for the
people that live in it. I get kind of choked-up because it really
is a fantastic country to live in. You have a fire this big in
which a lot of people lost a lot of stuff. And you know some
of those people that lost cattle and even lost their homes
were still there donating. I’m just proud to be a part of an
organization that can say that they helped a little.”
Floyd Lott

Photo by T.J. Pierce


Lefors volunteer firefighter Floyd Lott, a former chief of the department, believes much
was gained from their assignments on the I-40 Fire. (See sidebar on page 92 for these
benefits and lessons learned.)

Lott recalled that three of these heroes were firefighters in a truck that rolled over. He
said the fire burned under their truck while these three were still inside—with spilled
gasoline all around. All three survived. “We lost a truck, but luckily, they weren’t
seriously hurt. In fact, six hours later, one of these firefighters was back on the line
fighting fires.”
“Like I say, the thing that stands out to me is how people come together. How they
helped each other. We had firefighters in real desperate situations.”
Lott firmly believes that some of the unsung heroes of the I-40 Fire grassfires were the
county grader operators. He says that they were never truly recognized for their efforts.
“They put themselves on the line. It’s unbelievable how people will respond to a major
disaster. Where you couldn’t control the fire, these grader operators would come in and
help you get that fire calmed down.”
Looking back, Lott also knows that as that Sunday—March 12—proceeded, he sent
people into high-risk situations.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 89
Photo by Michael Lemmons/Amarillo Globe-News
Red strips of aerial-applied fire retardant are dropped onto the I-40 wildfire outside Pampa in the
Texas Panhandle on Monday, March 13, 2006. Pampa is located just northwest of Lefors, where
retardant dropped by air tankers helped Floyd Lott and his fellow fire volunteers save their town.

He says that even though he was—for the most part—usually in a safe place, there were
times during the Lefors initial attack wildfire campaign when the flames were closing in
and even he “didn’t have any place to go.”
“But while I wasn’t in a position in which it was all that dangerous, I probably put some
people in that type of an area,” Lott explains. “Some of the water truck drivers probably
didn’t think that I was thinking real clearly. But when my chief tells me that we need
water somewhere and I have water trucks available—I’m going to send them. Then,
these people have to determine whether they’re going to make it or not—or whether
they need to go. If they don’t, that’s their priority. They have to be the ones to decide
that—not me.” [See page 92 for volunteer department lessons learned insights.]

We’re Not Going to Stop It


Lott estimates that from 50 to 60-mile-per-hour winds were pushing the fire front into
Lefors.
“We had a quarter of a mile of solid flames coming over that hill. Just kind of rolling at
you. I saw the fire go three hundred feet without burning in between—jump three
hundred feet. And you know, I thought—I knew—we can’t put this thing out.”

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 90
“That’s one of my most vivid recollections. That fire coming down
off the edge of that hill. Knowing that without something
intervening—we’re not going to stop it.”

Floyd Lott

Lott continues, “That’s one of my most vivid recollections. That fire coming down off the
edge of that hill. Knowing that without something intervening—we’re not going to stop
it.”

Just as the I-40 flame front starts to enter the town of Lefors, air tanker retardant drops
sent and coordinated by the Texas Forest Service halt the fire’s progress.

“They saved our butts—excuse me—but they did. That’s the only reason that all of
Lefors is still alive. I don’t think we could have stopped it without those big tankers, the
fire retardant. And, like I say, we had a lot of resources down there. But I don’t think
we’d have got her shut down if it hadn’t been for those big tankers dropping.”

Lott explains how that first aerial-applied strip of retardant slowed the fire down.

“We breathed a sigh of relief. We didn’t quit. We breathed. That retardant gave us time
to collect some resources. We started watering the edges of road down and the fire
flared back again. About the time we thought it was going to jump the creek—get across

Photo by Michael Lemmons/Amarillo Globe-News

Ranch house and property located between McLean and Pampa


in the Texas Panhandle is spared from the I-40 wildfire.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 91
into Lefors—the second tanker
showed up and got it, got it Lessons Learned and Benefits
down, right down. Killed it. We of the I-40 Fire Experience
could go ahead and put the fire
out. That was about dark.” Lefors volunteer firefighter Floyd Lott, a former
chief of the department, believes much was
gained from their assignments on the I-40 Fire.
On Being a Volunteer
Firefighter “We’re a lot more experienced this time. We’ve
While Lott was stationed on the updated our equipment. And we’re in a lot better
edge of Lefors, trying to save the shape personnel wise,” he confirms.
town, was he worried about his
own home being in jeopardy? “We finally figured out that we need to do some
training for how to respond and operate in this
The longtime rural volunteer kind of a (large wildfire) situation.”
firefighter says of course he was
concerned about his home and Lott says that one of the prime I-40 Fire lessons
his wife, a former rural was that his department needed to be able to
volunteer firefighter herself. haul more water. “Water is our most precious
commodity up here,” he says.
“If you’re not, you’re not
human,” he confides. “But I’ve Today, his department is prepared to respond to
learned in my years of fires with more than 15,000 gallons of water. It
experience that you have to get now has access to two 6,000-gallon tankers, one
your priorities lined up. I knew 2,000-gallon tanker, and a 1,200-gallon brush
my wife could take care of vehicle. (Prior to March 12, 2006, their capacity
herself and of the house. If that was 6,000 gallons. At the time, Lott says, they
fire got there, she’s had enough thought that would be fine.) Adding to Lefor’s
experience, had enough training, current water suppression capability, Lott’s
she knew what she needed to department now also has a water tanker available
do.” through Gray County.
Even so, Lott says, as he was “All of us up here in this country are now
coordinating the water trucks compatible. We can transfer water from one truck
during his own high-risk to another,” Lott explains. “We can transfer off
contribution to trying to keep the brush truck onto another truck. I’m not sure
the wind-driven wildfire from that that was so before these fires.”
entering Lefors, he worried
about his loved ones. “And we’ve gotten where we’re closer-knit
people; we’re closer together. We may not like
“I worried about my people and
each other. But that’s alright. When it gets down
my friends. My son lives right
to where we’re needed, everybody falls in there
next door, I was worried about
and gets after it.”
him and his family, too. But you
have to put your priorities in

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 92
How Did Anything Survive?
“Now, when I look at the aerial photographs, there’s not
anything for miles except burnt grass and burnt ground.”
“How did anything survive? That was my first
impression. Because we had miles and miles with nothing
left on it. No fences, no telephone poles. Lines on the
ground. How could anything survive?”
Floyd Lott

line. If you’re assigned a job, you need to go do it. And if you can’t do it, you shouldn’t
be in the department.”
No doubt about it, Lott has strong feelings about this dedication required to be a
member of a rural volunteer firefighting force.
“When it comes to being part of a volunteer fire department, if you can’t give of your
time and satisfy your family, satisfy your finances—then don’t obligate yourself to be a
volunteer firefighter. I think a lot of people miss that. I think they want to grow salary
and run fast and shoot water. And that’s really not what it’s all about. It’s about
dedication and helping your neighbor.”
Lott continues, “That’s the way I feel about being a volunteer firefighter. Maybe I can
make a difference. For a volunteer firefighter, that’s where it has to come from. It’s not
about blowing the whistle and shooting water and turning the red lights on and driving
fast. To be a true volunteer firefighter, it has to come from inside—it has to come from
the heart. And we’ve got a bunch of heroes in volunteer firefighting.”

Wind-driven wildfire,
part of the I-40 Fire,
burns north of Lefors
on Monday, March 13,
2006.

Photo by Betsy Blaney/The


Associated Press

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 93
Photo by Michael Lemmons/Amarillo Globe-News
Air tanker above rural Texas Panhandle near Lefors returns for another retardant load.

Went 32 Hours Straight


At 10 p.m. that night—Sunday, March 12, 2006—Lott’s chief told him that they “were in
pretty good shape” and to take a rest. Two hours later, at midnight, the call came in that
the airport in nearby Pampa was on fire.
Once again, the chief assigned Lott to be in charge of coordinating water trucks and
dispersing water. “This went on all night long,” Lott recalls. “I started out with about
twelve water trucks and by six o’clock in the morning, I was down to three.”
“When I come off of that fire in Pampa, the back end of my pickup had water,
sandwiches, pizza, and donuts. I have no idea where it all come from. The people would
just come by my pickup and put it in there. It was amazing to me how everybody come
together. They knew what we needed and they brought it. They didn’t even want to be
recognized.”
For the next three days, Lott and his volunteer fire department fought fire. He said they
were “chasing smokes” for a full week. “I went one stretch for 32 hours straight,”
vouches the heart quadruple bypass veteran.
“I thought, man, I’m going to be running out of gas here pretty quick. And every time
my tongue would drop, every time we needed to go somewhere else, I’d pull them
boots on and here we go again.”

[Editor’s Note: This article is based on information gathered from an interview


by Sandra Rideout-Hanzak.]
Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 94
The Webb Family’s Ordeal
with the I-40 Fire

Mother and Daughters Evacuate;


Father and Son Defend Home

It is Sunday morning, March 12, 2006.

The winds, here in eastern Gray


County—16 miles north of McLean and
25 miles east of Pampa—are blowing
60 mph.

On their way home from church, L.H.


(Lynn Hilton) Webb and his son, 15-
year-old Lucas, stop to turn off one of
their 10,000-acre ranch’s windmills
that has been torn up by these
powerful gusts.
As the I-40 Fire approaches, L.H. Webb (above) and
his 15-year-old son stay behind to try to protect
Lucas smells smoke. their home and animals. At one point, the Texas
Panhandle rancher thinks that he and his son are
His father reminds him that, out here in surely going to die.
this rural Texas Panhandle country,
smoke can easily come from a fire that is many, many miles away.

Unalarmed, they continue driving back to their house, where wife and mother Nama
Webb has stayed home from church to care for the family’s two young daughters,
Charlie Irene, 10, and Millie Shiner, 6, who are both sick.

Within an hour, a neighbor calls to tell them that a large grass fire is headed their way.
“Everyone,” says the neighbor, “should evacuate.” Even though more neighbors
continue to call to warn about the wildfire, it is so far away that L.H. and Nama don’t
think that they need to be in a huge hurry to evacuate.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 95
L.H. Webb
Ranch

Red arrow points to approximate location of the L.H. Webb ranch.

At first that morning, no one in their area has any idea about the true size, intensity, and
incredibly fast rate-of-spread that this approaching grass fire front is actually exhibiting.
“No, we never realized the amount of ground that fire was covering,” L.H. will later
explain.

Evacuation Plans
L.H. and Nama decide that she and the children will leave first. L.H. will stay behind to
try to “fire proof” everything as best as possible. Nama will drive the kids to a highway
crossroads about four miles north of their home—where L.H. will meet them later.

Before they leave, Nama calmly instructs each girl to collect any special toys that they
want to take. She gathers family photos and baby books.

Teenager Lucas asks if he can stay back to help his father. His parents agree that he can.
L.H. and Lucas start gathering garden hose to try to water down their house, the nearby
bunkhouse, and their surrounding grounds. They set up sprinkler systems on the yard
that surrounds their house and on the nearby wood-shingle bunkhouse roof.

When Nama and the girls are taking items to their vehicle, the outside air is already
“dirty” with blowing dust and smoke. By the time that they drive away from the house,
the sky is turning fire orange.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 96
Photo Courtesy L.H. Webb
The burned truck in which L.H. Webb and his son almost lose their lives. Notice the miles and
miles of I-40 fire-scorched prairie that surround the vehicle.

As they head toward their designated meeting spot, volunteer firefighters from the
area’s Wheeler Volunteer Fire Department stop Nama and the girls. “We’re going to try
to save your house,” the firefighters tell them. “We’re losing houses everywhere.”
As the fire approaches, L.H. and Lucas load more items—that they don’t want to
potentially lose to the fire—into their truck. They then drive out to open gates for their
cattle—to enable these animals to flee the approaching fire. Arriving at the first gate,
the air quickly becomes so filled with smoke that visibility becomes close to zero.
“I thought that if we didn’t get out of there,” L.H. recalls, “we are surely going to die.”
Despite the smoke and poor visibility, he and Lucas escape from that area and drive
back home, where the volunteer
firefighters are now helping with fire
protection-suppression efforts. The
entire horizon starts to turn orange.
One of the volunteer firefighters
says: “Here it comes.”

The Fire is On Top of Them


L.H. suddenly realizes that still they
need to open the gates for the
cattle in one of their nearby
pastures. He and Lucas quickly jump into Photo Courtesy L.H. Webb
the pick-up—with their border collie in the Perished prairie chicken (a threatened species) on L.H.
Webb ranch. The burned bodies of a porcupine and an
back—and race out to open that pasture’s armadillo are also found on Webb’s ranch, evidence of
gate. It takes less than a minute to get to the wide-ranging impacts of the I-40 grass fire.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 97
They drive a little farther.
In the thick, blinding smoke, the vehicle stalls yet again.

the gate and less than a minute to open it, but as they turn around to head back to the
house, the wind-driven grass fire is already on top of them.
The flames cut them off in the middle of a tinder-dry pasture. L.H. tells his son to “hold
on.” He says that they’re going to have to try to drive through the flames.
With no visibility, L.H. steers the pickup through the fire, but—inside the blinding smoke
and heat—ends up getting stuck on a sandy embankment. Fearing that they could
rollover—and worrying about their dog in the back—L.H. shifts the vehicle into four-
wheel-drive and manages to safely throttle it off the embankment. They are still
surrounded by fire.
The pickup dies.
L.H. tells Lucas to start praying.
Even though Lucas has turned off
the air conditioning to keep the
smoke from entering, the thick
outside smoke is now filling the
cab. To breathe, Lucas must cover
his mouth and nose with a
bandanna. The heat from the fire
is making the windshield hot to
touch.
L.H. manages to get the truck
restarted.
Photo Courtesy L.H. Webb
They drive a short distance and
Trees burned on L.H. Webb’s ranch. the pick up stalls-out again.
“What’s wrong?” Lucas asks.
“I don’t know, son,” his father says. “Keep praying.”
L.H. is now fearing for his son’s life. He regrets his decision to allow Lucas to stay behind
and help.
He finally gets the pickup restarted. They drive a little farther. Still inside the heat and
the thick, blinding smoke, the vehicle stalls yet again.
On his cellular phone, L.H. calls his friend, Doak Elledge, who is at their house helping
the firefighters. L.H. asks him to send one of the fire trucks to come rescue them. But
the firefighters have already left to save the nearby bunkhouse.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 98
Friend Elledge tells L.H. that he is on
his way in his own vehicle. Rancher L.H. Webb’s
Because you can’t see any farther I-40 Fire
than your outstretched hand in front Lessons Learned
of your face, L.H. has to try to direct
the sound of his friend’s vehicle to
them. When the friend arrives beside With the benefit of hindsight, if L.H. Webb could
them and they jump out of the pickup, go back to that March 12, 2006 Sunday morning
smoke is rising from the vehicle’s once again—would he do anything differently?
hood. Their truck has caught fire.
Yes, he says, one thing:
As their friend drives them toward
their home, L.H. is hoping that it will L.H. now explains that he would not—and, in
still be there. retrospect, should not—have driven out to try to
free his cattle when the fire was approaching.
Certain Their Home Did Not Survive
For two long hours, Nama and her sick “By doing that,” he explains, “I ended up putting
young daughters sit in their vehicle my son’s life and my life in jeopardy. I would not
wondering what is happening to L.H. do that again.”
and Lucas. From their vantage point,
they can’t see flames, but they are In fact, L.H. says that once they put themselves at
surrounded by smoke. It is risk by driving out to open the gate for his cattle
everywhere. to escape, he discovered that these fire-spooked
animals had already broken through their fencing.
Nama is certain that their home did But, by then, it was too late. He and his son’s
not survive. She talks to other people truck stalled out and caught fire. Luckily—as
who had driven out of the I-40 Fire’s explained in the adjacent “survivor” account—
sudden attack. Still terrified, they tell L.H. was able to summon help. Their truck was
her about having to escape by driving destroyed, but they were rescued.
right through the flames.

After what seems like an eternity, L.H. also regrets that this fire didn’t give them
Nama finally gets a call from Lucas. more forewarning that would have provided
enough time for him to move more of his cattle to
“Dad says you can come home now.” safety.

When Nama and the girls arrive back


home, it is still there. All around them, men are dousing flaming trees and fence posts
with the garden hoses.

They spend the rest of the night pouring buckets of water on anything that is
smoldering. Their work is just beginning. For the next few weeks, they must round up all
of their fire-scattered cattle—caring for their wounds and burying the dead. They lose
179 head of their yearling cattle. [Editor’s Note: For more information, see “Rancher
Balks at Killing His Fire-Injured Cattle” on page 84.]

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 99
“The lesson that this fire taught me is that the trees, grass,
fences, vehicles, equipment, cattle, and houses are just ‘stuff’
that can be rebuilt and replaced. I would not risk my life or my
family’s life to save ‘stuff’ again.”
L.H. Webb

The I-40 Fire also burns more than 15 miles of the Webb’s perimeter fencing and
approximately 30 miles of interior fencing on the family’s ranch. It takes them several
days to retrieve their stray cattle and months to replace and repair their fencing.

But L.H., Nama, Lucas, Charlie Irene, and Millie Shiner—and their home and their dog—
all survive.

It is a March 12 that they will never forget.

[Editor’s Note: This article is based on information gathered from an interview


by Sandra Rideout-Hanzak.]

Photo Courtesy L.H. Webb


Six of the 179 perished cattle who do not survive the I-40 Fire
when it sweeps through L.H. Webb’s Texas Panhandle ranch.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 100
VIII Key Overall Lessons Learned
from the 2005-2006 Texas-Oklahoma Wildfires

Top Photo – By Mark Goeller,


Oklahoma Forestry Services. Middle
Photo – Where the I-40 Fire crosses
its namesake interstate highway;
photo by Henry Bargas/Amarillo
Globe-News. Bottom Photo – by
Robin O’Shaughnessy/ Amarillo
Globe-News.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 101
“It makes you sick. We thought we were done, and then you
look over there, and here we go again.”
Volunteer Firefighter Sallie Adcock, on trying to suppress
the March 2006 East Amarillo Complex Fires.

Michael Lemmons/Amarillo Globe News


The East Amarillo Complex burns across the Texas Panhandle.

Editor’s Note: Many of the observations and findings in this section are based on on-site
visits and comprehensive analysis and communications with the Federal, State, and local
fire services and others in Oklahoma and Texas.

1. Lessons Learned from Firefighter Fatalities and Injuries


When serious injuries or fatalities occur on wildland fires, a widespread appeal often
prevails to: “Go back to basics.”

Certainly, there is much to be said for this simple edict. For, far too often, firefighters
tend to drift away from the basic fire suppression principles that have been instilled
since day one of their training cycle—as well as highlighted by the focus of their annual
fire “refresher” Standards for Survival training.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 102
The periodic return to “basics” for the firefighter usually means reviewing:

The Ten Standard Fire Orders; The consistent use of personal


protective equipment; and
The 18 Watchout Situations;
The importance of such fireline
LCES (Lookouts, Communication, health issues as proper hydration,
Escape Routes, and Safety Zones); physical fitness, and appropriate
work/rest protocols.
The precursors of extreme fire
behavior;

We need to learn everything that we can from the lessons of the 2005-2006 Oklahoma-
Texas fire seasons.

One firefighter dies and another police investigation reports that


is seriously injured on a grass fire he was intoxicated. There is no
near Duncan, Okla., when they principle more basic than the
conduct a frontal assault on the prohibition of drugs and alcohol
fire with extensive unburned while firefighting.
grass fuel between them and the
fire. The critically injured The two volunteer firefighter
firefighter, wearing bunker fatalities in Texas in 2005-2006
pants, a T-shirt, and nylon hiking occur when water tenders with
boots, is so badly burned that unbaffled tanks roll over. In both
both his arms are amputated cases, the firefighters—not
during the three weeks of wearing seat belts—are ejected
hospitalization before his death. from their vehicles. Once again,
the most basic of safety
Another firefighter, a volunteer principles is violated: “Wear your
chief, falls off a tanker vehicle seatbelt.”
and is run over and killed at the
site of a prescribed burn. The

More recently, the U.S. Fire Administration reported that the first wildland fire fatality in
2009 in this country occurs on Jan. 3, 2009 on an Oklahoma grass fire.

On a smoke-shrouded road, one volunteer firefighter crashes his vehicle into another
volunteer’s moving firefighter vehicle. Neither driver is wearing a seat belt. The two
drivers are father and son. The father perishes in the collision; the son survives.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 103
Volunteer Firefighter Lessons Learned Summary
from the 2005-2006 Oklahoma-Texas Fires Seasons

Follow the “Basics”: No alcohol, On all incidents, provide


fasten seatbelts. thorough briefings for all
firefighters.
Always attack from the black.
Train for more critical burning
Encourage the application of conditions.
physical fitness standards.
Ensure multi-department radio
Have the necessary personal communications.
protective equipment—and
wear it. When modifying surplus trucks
to serve as water tenders, make
Use appropriate anchor points certain that all regulations and
and flanking tactics. standards are met; and provide
for the baffling of tanks to
Follow Incident Command
prevent dangerous load shifts.
System principles—as in one
Incident Commander per Provide for fail-safe
incident. communications between
vehicle driver and firefighters
On all incidents, provide for
using vehicle’s hoses.
consistent check-in and
reporting procedures for arriving
firefighters.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 104
First Line of Defense:
Volunteer Fire Departments
With their vast rural lands, in many areas of Texas and Oklahoma, the local volunteer fire
department represents the first line of defense for suppressing wildland fires. In Texas, 81
percent of the local fire departments operate on a volunteer basis.

Specific Lessons Learned


from a Review of Seven Seriously Burned Firefighters
in Texas During the 2005-2006 Fire Season 1

Haines Index and Wind

The constant in these burn incidents was the Haines Index—the rating of
weather stability and possibility of extreme fire behavior. This rating runs
incrementally from 2 to 6, with 6 being the most unstable and most likely for
fire blow-ups to occur. The other weather factor, which is identifiable, is the
wind speed. Although at least two of these fatal incidents occurred on days
with wind speeds less than 10 mph, wind certainly added to the dangers in
the firefighting efforts.

Unburned Fuel Between the Firefighter and Main Fire

In all seven of the burn injuries but two, there was unburned fuel between
the firefighter and the main fire. Unburned fuel burning at a rapid rate
caused the firefighter injuries. In all of these incidents, the firefighters stated
that they had never seen fires spread so fast. The wind conditions, humidity,

1
This study and report by Hunter Wistrand for the Texas Forest Service reviewed five Texas wildland fire
rd
incidents in which seven firefighters received 3 degree burns while trying to suppress grass fires.
Wistrand works part time as an operations chief for the Texas Forest Service and also serves as a private
contractor/teacher for fire training courses. He is a former U.S. Forest Service Type 1 and Type 2 incident
management team member.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 105
and fuel moistures were all aligned to create fast-spreading fires on all of
these incidents. And yet, the firefighters involved did not recognize and
appropriately respond to these extreme conditions.

Personal Protective Equipment

Four of the seven serious burn incidents occurred when firefighters were
riding on the outside of engines. All four were wearing either wildland
firefighter protective clothing or bunker gear. The burns were sustained both
where the protective clothing was in contact with the skin and the heat
penetrated the cloth, or where the skin was not covered (such as wrist,
hands, face, and ears).

Communication Between Engine Driver and Firefighters on Engine

On these incidents in which seven serious burn incidents occurred when


firefighters were riding on the outside of engines, three of these firefighters
did not have communications with the driver of the apparatus. Follow-up
reviews indicated that direct communications might have helped avoid these
firefighter burn injuries. Direct communications—by some means—should
always be provided between the driver and the firefighters on the outside of
the apparatus.

Volunteer
firefighters in
Roberts
County in the
Texas
Panhandle on
March 14,
2006.

Photo by Michael Schumacher/Amarillo Globe-News

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 106
The Texas Forest Service is mandated by the Texas legislature to
protect the entire state—its forests, woodlands, and citizens—
from wildfire. Also, in the state’s emergency management plan,
the Texas Forest Service is responsible for suppressing all fires
that exceed local capacity.

The Texas Wildfire Protection Plan


The Texas Wildfire Protection Plan (TWPP) concept was initiated following the difficult
1996 fire season (Texas Forest Service 2009). By 1998, the agency had instituted the
initial stages of the plan. Through the pursuing years, it has been further tested and
refined.

In 1999, the Texas Wildfire Protection Plan was funded as a pilot project by the 77 th
Texas Legislature at $4 million per year. Today, the plan provides a proactive
interagency wildfire response model that emphasizes:
The prevention and reduction of Local fire department capacity-
risk to hazardous conditions; building;
Using predictive services and the Rapid initial attack of wildland
pre-positioning of resources fires; and
based on fire risk;
Unified operations with local,
State, and Federal partners.

Texas volunteer
firefighters from
the Wheeler
Volunteer Fire
Department after
returning from the
19,000-acre
Magic City Fire in
April 2009.

Photo by Bob Mutch

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 107
The Texas Wildfire Protection Plan is built around the following principles (Texas Forest
Service 2009):
Most wildfires in Texas are Coordinated and prompt
preventable, with more than 90 response will reduce fire sizes
percent started by people. and losses.
Expected fire behavior can be Smaller fire sizes from
predicted based on weather, coordinated responses can lower
fuels, and other factors. suppression costs.
Proven methods to protect
homes and property need to be
implemented before fires start.

Supporting the Texas Wildfire Protection Plan


Local fire departments in Texas provide the primary initial attack forces for fires in the
state’s rural and wildland-urban interface communities. These volunteer fire
departments initial attack more than 90 percent of the fires that occur in these rural
Texas areas.
The Texas Forest Service is committed to training, equipping, and assisting these
volunteer fire departments and other cooperators in support of the Texas Wildfire
Protection Plan.

Photo by Michael Lemmons/Amarillo Globe-News


The Gruver Volunteer Fire Department volunteers were among the rural Texas Panhandle fire departments
who helped suppression efforts on the March 12, 2006 wildfire that burned into Skellytown.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 108
“There is scant reason for modern housing and suburbs to
burn: the built landscape has become less combustible,
and can yet become more so. We know how to keep roofs
from burning, how to protect exterior walls from heat and
flame, how to design yards that shield against fire rather
than propagate it, how to protect people.

Last-minute flights in cars over crowded, smoke-obscured


roads don’t do that. Nor does erecting windbreaks of red
cedar, ready to saturate a downwind house with ember
showers. Nor does permitting combustible roofing. Nor
does allowing one hazard to sit next to another, so that fire
can jump from one to another without regard to
landscaping in between.

We know all this—know how to encode such knowledge


into law and custom—yet we have allowed the woody
patch to sprout and tenaciously propagate without taking
remedial measures.”

Stephen J. Pyne,
Wildland fire historian and Arizona State University
professor. From his 2009 essay “Patch Burning” written after
touring The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve
in Oklahoma. This essay is available on the Wildland Fire
Lessons Learned Center’s “Advances in Fire Practice” Web
site at:
http://www.wildfirelessons.net/uploads/patch_burn2.pdf

2. Lessons Learned from the Civilian Victims and Survivors


Today, the wildland-urban interface problem is surely a global one. Alexander and
others (2007) have clearly documented the severity of this problem around the world.
From Australia to China, to Greece and Portugal, many countries—including the United
States—share this devastating problem of human settlement within fire-prone
wildlands.

In Oklahoma and Texas, as in most locations in the United States, wildland fires are
inevitable. It is therefore essential to plan for them and take the appropriate fire-safe
actions.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 109
Two Important Principles for Wildland-Urban Residents to Consider
Two basic universal principles provide an important guide to people who live within
these wildland-urban interface areas:
1. When fires occur during very 2. In most cases, if homeowners
high to extreme fire danger take the appropriate pre-fire
conditions, the fire services will precautions to develop
be overwhelmed by the sheer survivable space, homes can
numbers of fires and high fire survive without the presence of
intensities—preventing a the fire services.
response to all fires.

Why Haven’t Homeowners Protected Their Homes and Themselves?


Why is it that so many homeowners have not assumed their wildland fire protection
responsibility? Several surveys of California and Nevada area homeowner attitudes have
been aggregated by Smith and Rebori (2001) into 15 reasons why homeowners do not
prepare defensible space:
Lack of awareness Lack of knowledge
Denial Aesthetics
Fatalism Unnaturalness
Futility Disposal of slash
Irresponsibility Discomfort
Inability Illegality
Lack of incentives Lack of ownership
Insurance

The above 15 attitudes—and rationalizations—regarding not adequately preparing for


the advent of wildfire can be distilled into the “Five Levels of Apathy” (Rogers and
Smalley 2005):
1. “It will never happen.” 4. “If it does happen to me, it won’t
be that bad.”
2. “It’s not going to happen here.”
5. “If it does happen to me and it is
3. “It won’t happen to me or my
bad…well, that’s why I have
family.”
insurance.”

There are too many interface survival success stories by now to ignore the important
lessons embodied in advance fire protection preparations. There’s no question that the
past mantra of “It will never happen to me” must become:

“Unless I prepare myself and my property to be fire-safe well in advance of


the next fire season—it can and will happen to me.”

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 110
Remembering the Victims’ Stories
We need to remember the victims of the Oklahoma and Texas wildfires identified in this
report. Kelly Tiger, Sr., trying to save his home from burning at the last possible
moment; a 68-year old woman, Elena Morrison, hoping to save her home near
Gainesville, Texas with a garden hose; two elderly women—Maddie Fay Wilson and
Maudie L. Sheppard—entrapped in their homes within the city limits of Cross Plains,
Texas; grandmother Kathy Ryan, trying and failing to rescue disabled 84-year-old Bill
Pfeffer in the Texas Panhandle . . .
Because fire preparations were too late and attempts for survival futile under the
prevailing circumstances, none of these people had the opportunity to survive.

Important 2005-2006 Oklahoma-Texas


Fire Victims’ and Survivors’ Lessons Learned
1. Prepare Survivable Space – Well Before Fires Arrive
Survivable space is the modification of landscape design, fuels, and building
materials that make a home ignition caused by wildfire unlikely—even without
direct firefighter intervention. The main focus here should be the home ignition
zone, which refers to the home itself and the surrounding 30 to 100 feet where
natural and human-made fuels must be managed to reduce a fire’s intensity.
2. Use Fire-Resistant Shelter Belts
Do not use flammable vegetation like volatile juniper or cedar trees that can
produce home-threatening ember showers. Rather, plant low-flammable
broadleaf or deciduous trees. Use succulent plants, low ground covers, flower
beds, vegetable gardens, and irrigated lawns as landscaping choices that will
reduce fire spread and intensity.
3. Emphasize Fire Prevention
Records show that more than 90 percent of wildfires that occur in Oklahoma and
Texas are started by people, not lightning. Effective fire prevention programs
should therefore target the common causes of wildfires (such as arcing power
lines in high winds, debris burning, cigarettes, and catalytic converters). As the
fire season escalates in intensity, so, too, should prevention efforts. People must
understand that it is no longer business as usual.
4. Prepare Community and Family Fire Protection Plans
The Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) 2 has been nationally mandated
for communities throughout the United States. Usually developed on a county-
by-county basis, this plan is intended to strengthen a community’s resilience to
widlfires.

2
From: A Handbook for Developing Community Wildfire Protection Plans In Accordance with Title I of The
Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003, 2004; Tempe, Ariz.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 111
Reasons for preparing a Community Wildfire Protection Plan
Provide for community- water supplies, and other
based decision making. at-risk Federal lands.
Encourage communities Provide a mechanism to
and their local seek grants for further
governments to implementation of the
determine the plan.
boundaries of the Promote systematic
wildland-urban interface information gathering to
that surrounds their address the goals of the
communities. Community Wildfire
Identify ways to reduce Protection Plan.
wildfire risk to
communities, municipal
Community Wildfire Protection Plan Goals
Improve fire prevention Recommend measures to
and suppression. reduce structural
Reduce hazardous forest ignitability in the
fuels. Community Wildfire
Restore forest health. Protection Plan area.
Promote community Encourage economic
involvement. development in the
community.
The Family Wildfire Protection Plan – Guiding WUI Families
The Family Wildfire Protection Plan (FWPP) is intended to guide a wildland-urban
interface family in all aspects of the survival strategy: “Prepare, Go Early, or Stay
and Defend”.
In doing so, the Family Wildfire Protection Plan includes such elements as the
steps:
You are going to take to prepare your home against wildfires,
You are going to take to ensure that you can relocate early and safely
(including a backup plan if you cannot evacuate),
You are going to take to defend your home if you choose to stay,
That your family members will follow if they are not at home when
wildfire strikes, and
That will be taken to inform family and close friends about your wildfire
plans.
*Editor’s Note: See Appendix for additional information about the Family Wildfire
Protection Plan.]

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 112
5. Develop Call Lists For more information on how to produce a fire-
for Emergencies resistant property (for landscapes and homes) see the
Both the Community user-friendly Web site sponsored by the National Fire
Wildfire Protection Plan Protection Association at www.firewise.org .
and the Family Wildfire
Protection Plan need to contain emergency call lists that contain numbers for the
obvious emergency services in the area, but also specific numbers for people
requiring special attention and assistance to evacuate promptly—such as people
who are infirm or elderly. A calling protocol needs to be established that ensures
such individuals are assisted in an appropriate way in a timely manner.
6. Prepare in Advance for Evacuation – Go Early
On that day a wildfire threatens, interface residents need to actively go through
a checklist to ensure a timely departure:
Keep updated on the latest fire Turn off the main gas supply to
conditions. the house and any propane gas
Move livestock/locate and cylinders.
secure pets. Lock home, garage, and storage
Load an emergency kit that buildings securely before
includes drinking water, food, departing.
and medications into the car. Let someone know where you
Pack personal items such as are going and how you will get
changes of clothing, cash and there.
credit cards, medications, cell Leave a note on door letting the
phones, food, and toys and fire department know where you
books for children. are and a contact phone
Remove any materials that could number.
easily burn from around the What is your trigger point to “go
house (including mats, outdoor early”? Careful planning here
furniture, and wood piles). can be life saving.
Ensure everyone in the family is If you are unable to evacuate,
wearing protective clothing— what is your backup plan?
long pants, long-sleeved shirts,
sturdy shoes.
Ensure all windows and doors
are closed. Take down curtains.
7. Conduct Simulations for Wildfire Response
Just as fire services and emergency responders practice fire simulation exercises
to ensure a higher degree of readiness for wildfire emergencies, it would be just
as valuable to include interface residents, ranchers, and others in such
simulations to practice their responses in concert with all emergency service
partners.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 113
For more specific information on how residents can prepare for the risk of wildfire, see
“Appendices XIII: The Australian Alternative for Interface Safety”.

8. Identify Community Safety Zones


As a component of a Community Wildfire Protection Plan, or a more localized plan,
consideration can be given to identifying and publicizing safety zones where people can
effectively take refuge from a wildfire in an emergency. Once the effort is made to locate such
zones, it is amazing how many actually exist: large parking lots, green belts, golf courses, parks,
irrigated pastures and meadows, reservoirs and other large bodies of water, and gravel pits.
Such zones that provide an escape from the heat of wildfires have been used on an impromptu
basis in the past, but the sharing of such knowledge with a wide audience in advance can be an
important pre-planned component of a community’s protection strategy.

9. Develop Highway Warning Systems for Poor Visibility


The fast-spreading Texas Panhandle East Amarillo Complex Fires started almost simultaneously
in the late morning of March 12, 2006. Two fires east of Amarillo, apparently ignited by arcing
power lines in the high winds, caused the rapid onset of extreme rates of fire spread and the
sudden loss of visibility on smoke-shrouded Interstate Highway 40. Without any warning, a nine
car pile-up occurred, resulting in the deaths of four people. These horrendous fire related
fatalities on a major interstate highway beg the question: With today’s available technology,
can there be an automatic warning system using electronic signs activated by a hazardous
lowering of visibility due to smoke or blowing sand? Can a solar-powered optical sensor
activate warning signs to motorists to “Drive Slowly—Low Visibility Ahead”? Highway warning
signs are used in many states, but the rapidity with which smoke from the I-40 Fire led to a
deadly nine car accident implies that cautionary warnings need to be transferred to motorists
instantaneously.

5. Better Protect Power Poles


from Burning in Grass Fires
Estimates that more than 1,000 power poles had to
be replaced following the 2006 East Amarillo
Complex Fires accentuate the need to better
protect wooden power poles in the fire-prone
environment in places like the Texas Panhandle
grasslands. In Mongolia, where grassland fires are
frequent and wide-ranging, special precautions
have been taken to protect wooden power poles
from burning. The wooden power poles are
mounted on a short concrete base, practically
Photo by Betsy Blaney/Associated Press eliminating the vulnerability of wooden poles to
One of the thousands of utility poles—this one located grassland fires.
outside McLean, Texas—that were burned and had to be
replaced after the 2006 East Amarillo Complex Fires.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 114
3. Lessons Learned: What the 2005-2006 Texas-Oklahoma Wildfires
Taught the Fire Weather Forecasters
During the morning hours of January 1st, 2006, the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in
Norman, Okla. issues a “fire weather outlook” for “Extremely Critical Fire Weather” across eastern New
Mexico, the southern two-thirds of Oklahoma, and a large portion of northwest and north central Texas.
This “outlook” includes strong wording:
“A POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS SITUATION WITH EXTREME FIRE DANGER IS
EXPECTED THIS AFTERNOON AND TONIGHT ACROSS A LARGE PORTION OF
OK...NORTH/NORTHWEST TX...AND FAR EASTERN NM.”

The subsequent widespread and damaging wind-driven wildfires on that New Year’s Day are associated
with the passage of a mid-latitude cyclone. In other words, this event—as well as with the other five
historic Texas-Oklahoma 2005-2006 wildfire outbreaks—is similar to hazardous meteorological
phenomenon such as tornadoes.
Despite this “fire weather outlook” issued the morning of Jan. 1, prior to this high-impact event,
numerical weather prediction models provided poor guidance for several meteorological fields critical to
predicting such fire weather behavior. For instance, output from the National Centers for Environmental
Prediction's Global Forecast System—especially the North American Mesoscale model—underestimated
sustained wind speeds and overestimated relative humidity. These models also failed to predict the
frontal passage that adversely affected firefighting operations at the major wildfire burn sites.
As we all know, fire weather forecast information communicated to fire planners and their personnel—
prior to and during wildfire events—can dramatically influence decision-making processes at the fire
scene. Thus, such critical information can be vitally important in maintaining the safety of fire crews.
Therefore, in the aftermath of these 2005-2006 forecasting shortcomings, fire weather forecasters
realized that they needed to improve on model guidance. National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration/National Weather Service forecasters got busy learning everything that they could from
what transpired during those devastating and
fatal 2005-2006 fires.
Today, these weather forecast scientists are
hopeful that their additional (ongoing) research
and documentation of the unprecedented
2005-06 fire weather events across the
Southern Plains—combined with an educational
initiative to train local volunteer fire
departments on the use and availability of
National Weather Service fire weather products
and services—will now be implemented by local
forecast offices to improve collaboration and
services.
These scientists are striving to ensure that
operational meteorologists are aware of the DRY SLOT – A deep, mid-level cyclone and pronounced “dry
telltale weather conditions related to slot”—a zone of dry air stretching across eastern New Mexico
potential devastating wildfire activity in the into the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles—are evident in this
water vapor satellite image taken during the morning hours of
Southern Plains area, thereby improving Jan. 1, 2006. Consequently, very dry air and strong winds aloft
operational fire weather forecast and warning were easily mixed to the surface—enhancing the fire weather
capabilities prior to similar future events. threat.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 115
New Weather-Based Decision Support System
Now Provides Oklahoma Wildland Fire Managers
More Lead Time for Wildfire Preparedness
“The ‘OK-FIRE’ Web site is by far the most informative and user-
friendly fire danger/forecast that I’ve seen: great instructions
and very thorough. OK-FIRE is the premiere Web-based fire
information system in the United States.”
Chris Hise, Preserve Director
Four Canyon Preserve, Leedey, Oklahoma
The Nature Conservancy

As discussed on the previous page, a key meteorological shortcoming during the


Oklahoma-Texas 2005-2006 fire season proved to be the failure for advanced extreme
fire condition warnings to provide the fire suppression services—as well as public—
more lead time for appropriate wildfire preparedness.

In the aftermath of this severe and fatal wildfire season, a joint effort between
Oklahoma State University, the University of Oklahoma, and Oklahoma Mesonet
(Oklahoma’s automated weather station network—see sidebar on following page), now
provides a much improved weather-based decision-support system for Oklahoma fire
managers.

Known as “OK-FIRE”, this special program has a three-fold emphasis that provides:
1. An expanded suite of recent, 2. A dedicated Web site to act as
current, and forecast products the delivery mechanism
for fire weather, fire danger, and (http://okfire.mesonet.org).
smoke dispersion. 3. Regional training and customer
support for program users.

OK-FIRE now gives regularly updated 84-hour advance fire weather forecasts. Such
advance lead time can make a key difference in wildfire preparedness for fire services
and for wildland-urban interface residents.

Background
Approximately 2.5 million acres of wildland burn in Oklahoma every year. During severe
fire seasons, however, wildfires can consume many more acres, as was observed from
November 2005 through August 2006, when 2,300-plus wildfires burned almost 1.5
million acres.
To aid wildland fire managers in their activities, operational fire and smoke
management systems based on recent, current, and forecasted weather conditions are
critical. Use of such management systems can help save lives and structures.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 116
Therefore, the OK-FIRE
Web site now provides
major sections devoted
to weather, fire, smoke,
satellite, radar, air
quality, and burn site
maps and imagery.
Besides showing current
conditions, OK-FIRE
products also allow the
user to examine past
conditions over the last
five days, as well as view
forecast conditions
through the next 84
hours.
The Oklahoma Mesonet is a world-class network of environmental monitoring
OK-FIRE Program stations. The network was designed and implemented by scientists at the University
Predicts Severe April 9, of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University.
2009 Wildfire Outbreak (“Mesonet” is a combination of the words “mesoscale” and “network”. In
A recent example of the meteorology, "mesoscale" refers to weather events that range in size from one to
150 miles. Mesoscale events last from several minutes to several hours. Therefore,
predictive benefits of the mesoscale weather events are phenomena that might go undetected without
OK-FIRE program densely spaced weather observations. Thunderstorms, wind gusts, heatbursts, and
occurred prior to the drylines, are examples of mesoscale events. And, of course, a "network" is an
interconnected system. Thus, the Oklahoma Mesonet is a system designed to
severe April 9, 2009 measure the environment at the size and duration of mesoscale weather events.)
Oklahoma wildfire The Oklahoma Mesonet consists of more than 110 automated stations covering the
outbreak. (For more entire state of Oklahoma—with at least one Mesonet station in each of Oklahoma's
information on this 77 counties.
episode, see Chapter X At each site, the environment is measured by a set of instruments located on or
Epilogue.) near a 10-meter-tall tower. These measurements are packaged into "observations"
that are transmitted to a central facility every 5 minutes around-the-clock—every
According to Dr. J.D. 24 hours, year-round.
Carlson, fire The Oklahoma Climatological Survey at Oklahoma University receives these
meteorologist at observations, verifies the quality of the data, and provides the data to Mesonet
customers. It only takes 5 to 10 minutes from the time the measurements are
Oklahoma State acquired until they become available to the public.
University, the OK-FIRE
program predicted this “perfect storm” of fire danger (hot, windy, dry area located
between dry line and cold front), alerting fire managers—24 hours prior—that this
short-lived but very damaging fire episode was going to occur.
The OK-FIRE program was used throughout the onset of this extreme fire episode in
2009.
Carlson is the principal investigator of the OK-FIRE grant and serves as project director.
Dr. Terry Bidwell, a rangeland ecology and management specialist at Oklahoma State
University, serves as co-principal investigator.
Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 117
Lessons Learned:
4. The Importance of Prescribed Burning—and Other
Preventive Strategies
In a personal communication for this report with Dr. Terry Bidwell, Professor of Ecology
and Management at Oklahoma State University, he explained that burning any grass is a
short-term but valuable tool to prevent wildfire.
Bidwell points out that to have an impact on protection, prescribed burning should be
done annually (just before the normal wildfire season). Minimal fire had occurred across
the landscape in the Texas Panhandle before the 2006 East Amarillo Complex wildfires.
If areas around those various wildfire-impacted towns had been burned previous to
these fires, Bidwell believes that those areas would have most likely been better
protected. Therefore, he says, the key is to burn annually to lessen the fire risk
associated with these rural-situated towns.

Looking at Fire as a Management Tool


A January 2008 issue of the Urban Tulsa World newspaper also reported on the
advantages of using prescribed burning in Oklahoma to reduce the risk of wildfires:
“We encourage people to look at fire as a management tool,” said Clay Pope,
executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts. “That's
how nature originally kept things in check," he added. It's impossible to fully
prevent wildfires, he told the Urban Tulsa World, but he said prescribed burning
is the best way to minimize the damage they bring to property and lives. "We can
greatly reduce the chances of these wildfires happening with prescribed burning,"
he said. Pope has been an outspoken advocate for controlled burning as a land
management tool, and has successfully lobbied the state Legislature to pass laws
to encourage it by removing the criminal liability associated with it.”

Why Prescribed Burning, Alone, Won’t Solve the Problem


Many years ago, the eminent grassland ecologist and fire ecologist Henry Wright of
Texas Tech University expressed the view that no matter what you do to the short grass
prairie—burn it or don’t burn it, graze it or don’t graze it—you are always going to have
the very same, very continuous, and very flammable short grass fuel bed.
According to Wright, within the short grass prairie, we have a fuel type that cannot be
significantly altered in terms of lowering the fire hazard. Therefore, if we are to be
successful in reducing the impacts of wildfires in short grass prairie ecosystems, we are
going to have to also emphasize fire prevention, not solely fuel treatment. Because
more than 90 percent of the wildfires in Oklahoma and Texas are started by people, we
can make a difference through more aggressive fire prevention education and actions.

In summary, an active fire prevention program and implementing Firewise practices


around homes, combined with the strategic use of prescribed burns are all important
tools to be used collaboratively for protecting people’s lives and property.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 118
“There is not a single answer to solving the fire problem in
Oklahoma. One person will tout prescribed burning, while another
espouses the virtues of fire prevention, and someone else
champions giving more money to the fire departments for better
equipment.
In order to reduce the impacts of extreme fire seasons experienced
in Oklahoma, a multifaceted approach is needed that integrates
improved fire suppression capability, active land management,
law enforcement and fire prevention education.
Until these key elements are fully implemented across the state,
Oklahoma will continue to experience fire events such as those
that occurred during 2005-2006.”
Mark Goeller, Assistant Director
Oklahoma Forestry Services

IX Conclusion – Recommended Follow-Up Actions


How We Must Modify Our Future Behaviors
The wildland-urban interface issue is so complex that no single strategy, alone, will be
effective and produce positive results. There’s no question that it will take a multiplicity
of strategies to allow firefighters to be safe and to allow people to live more compatibly
within the fire-prone environments of Oklahoma and Texas.

In summary, to help achieve this fire-safe environment, the following elements need to
be fully integrated within a comprehensive wildland-urban interface initiative:

Fire prevention, Well-trained and well-equipped


Restoring healthy ecosystems, emergency response personnel,
and
Prescribed burning for hazard
reduction, FireWise practices
communicated and
Homeowner responsibility to implemented.
prepare defensible space ahead
of the fire season,

The best way to initiate this multifaceted wildland-urban interface strategy is through
development of a statewide comprehensive fire plan to better coordinate the
contribution of all partners. Such a statewide fire plan needs to be predicated upon a
sound and thorough database of fire incident numbers and fire causes.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 119
For example, a significant,
telling statistic came out of
the 2005-2006 fire season in An Improved Commitment
Texas—via this state’s to Safe Fire Suppression
comprehensive fire reporting Weather patterns that favor extreme fire behavior (strong
system. and shifting winds, dry conditions, instability) will remain a
threat to life and property across Oklahoma and Texas in the
Fire officials in Texas learned future. Speybroeck and others (2007) indicate that an
that of the 12,072 wildfires increasing observational skill and experience at recognizing
that occurred between dangerous fire weather scenarios based on climatic changes
December 1, 2005 and may offer significant “lead time” to anticipate future
March 17, 2006, 85 percent disasters.
of these fires occurred less
These authors explain that this knowledge, experience, and
than two miles from a
lead time can be applied to and benefit fire prevention
community. In other words, efforts, resource and logistics planning, and a heightened
the large majority of awareness for the general population to the existing link
wildfires for this period were between climate and local weather trends.
interface fires.
Even more importantly, in the future, the forecast for these
This revelation provides a types of episodes needs to motivate firefighters—in
clear focus on where Oklahoma and Texas and everywhere—to realize and
prevention, pre-suppression, understand that fire suppression can no longer remain
and suppression resources “business as usual.”
need to be concentrated— Rather, as this report underscores, all of our country’s
and also underscores the firefighters need to develop an improved commitment to
importance of having a the important basics of safe fire suppression tactics and
comprehensive statewide behavior.
fire occurrence database.

Heeding the Victims’


and Survivors’ Stories
We must never forget the victims and the survivors of the 2005-2006 fire season in
Texas and Oklahoma. Their stories—and the lessons learned that emerge from their
accounts—have been described in detail in this report. We owe it to these people to
learn their lessons well. We must now apply the meaning and context of these lessons
to better safeguard residents, firefighters, and the four-legged victims from all future
grassland fires.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 120
“The fire was leapfrogging over our guys. It was burning two and
three and four houses at a time. There was no way to catch up.”
Jerry Lojka, Fire Marshal, Midwest City, Oklahoma

X Epilogue – Update: Extreme Fires and More Fatalities


Continue in Oklahoma and Texas
As this report was being researched and written during 2009, drought-influenced grass
fires—exacerbated by extremely dry weather, windy conditions, and critically dry
fuels—once again burn across Oklahoma and Texas.
At the beginning of 2009, as the Wilderness Ridge Fire in central Texas burns 1,491 acres
of endangered species habitat, destroys 26 homes and 20 businesses, the Texas Forest
Service reports that parts of this hill country region—more than eight percent of the
state—are the driest region in the nation, and the driest they have been since 1918.
The 2005-2006 trend of increasing wildfire threats and extreme fire behavior conditions
in Oklahoma and Texas continues. In fact, in 2009, Texas Forest Service officials believe
that intense wildfires will ignite in geographic areas throughout the state that have not
traditionally experienced such fires in recent history.

Red Flag warning for high winds in most of central and west Texas on April 9, 2009, a day in which extremely
critical fire weather conditions will cause fire forecasters to warn that it will be “one of the most critical days
experienced since the fire seasons of 2005-2006”. Projected rates of spread in grass fuels is from 2 to 4 mph.
The morning of April 9, fire forecasters inform: “The priority today may be warning people to evacuate.”

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 121
For four days—from April 9-13, 2009—32 fires, representing 144,000 acres, burn across Texas.

The April 9, 2009, severe and extreme fire weather and fire behavior forecasts turn out
to be all too prophetic. A 28,000-acre fire complex, a 10,000-acre fire, and a 7,000-acre
fire are three of the largest fires that ignite on this historic fire day. Before the day is
over, four people will perish in Texas wildfires. In addition, the weather conditions and
winds that whip these fires will also cause tornadoes in nearby Arkansas that will kill five
people.

Texas Forest Service Regional Fire Coordinators


Prove Vital to 2009 Wildfire Suppression Efforts
During the 2009 wildfire outbreak, the Texas Forest Service’s regional fire
coordinators—stationed strategically throughout Texas—were able to successfully
respond to help coordinate suppression efforts on a variety of breaking fires that
threatened homes and people.
On April 7, 2009, Shawn Whitley, the Texas Forest Service Regional Fire Coordinator
stationed in Abilene, was contacted during the noon hour in Cross Plains about the need
for firefighting resources on the FM 880 Fire, located five miles north of Cross Plains.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 122
In 2009, grassfires, once again, evacuate residents in Oklahoma and Texas and destroy homes.
On April 9, in Oklahoma alone, 14 wildfires injure 62 people, destroy 160 homes, burn 117,000
acres, and result in $30 million in losses.

The fire had just ignited alongside a county road and was a threat to homes and
property. Using his cellular telephone—from a restaurant table where he was having
lunch—Whitley was able to serve as de facto dispatcher as he ordered a standby task
force of three dozers and four engines. He also dispatched a helicopter with bucket as
well as fixed-wing air attack.

By 1:45 p.m., he was at the scene of the fire, counseling and advising the incident
commander, chief of the Cross Plains Volunteer Fire Department. At 2 p.m., a helicopter
began making bucket drops on the fire’s northeast corner.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 123
Whitley and his Texas Forest Service
pick-up—fully-equipped with
computer, satellite communications,
Internet, fire net radio, and cell
phone—was able to fully support
several volunteer fire departments
and their varied suppression
requirements.

Later that day, the Steel Fire near


Clyde became the priority fire due
to structures threatened. Whitley
set up his base of support
operations at this fire’s incident
command post.

Thus, during the course of an active


wildfire afternoon, a single regional
fire coordinator, equipped with an Photo by Bob Mutch
array of communication technology,
Shawn Whitley, one of the regional fire coordinators
was able to respond to the needs of with the Texas Forest Service, during his lunch break
volunteer fire departments engaged at a restaurant, quickly responds to a notice of
in initial attack on one fire and breaking wildfires—that are threatening people and
extended attack on another fire— homes—by ordering dozers, engines, and air attack.
while simultaneously tracking the
progress of several other area
wildfires. This regional fire coordinator fulfilled multiple roles, from de facto incident
commander to advisor and mentor to incident commanders. He also served as
dispatcher and de facto operations section chief.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 124
XI References
Alexander, Martin E., Robert W. Mutch, and Kathleen M. Davis. 2007. Wildland fires:
dangers and survival. Pp. 286-335. In: Wilderness Medicine, Fifth Edition, Paul S.
Auerbach, Editor. Mosby-Elsevier, Publishers.

Carlson, J.D. and T. G. Bidwell (Oklahoma State University), S. Blackburn, R. Jabrzemski,


and J.M. Wolfinbarger 2009. OK-FIRE: A Weather-Based Decision Support System for
Wildland Fire Management in Oklahoma. Oklahoma Climatological Survey.

Empire Fire Entrapment 2006. Report of the Accident Review Team for the Empire Fire,
March 1, 2006. 18 pp.

Garvin, D. 2000. Learning in action. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Handmer, J. and A. Tibbets. 2005. Is staying at home the safest option during bushfires?
Historical evidence for an Australian approach. Environmental Hazards 6: 81-91.

Lindley, T. Todd, Jared L. Guyer, Gregory P. Murdoch, Seth R. Nagle, Kenneth J.


Schneider, and Gary D. Skwira. 2007. A meteorological composite of the 2005/06
wildfire outbreaks in the Southern Plains. 7 th AMS Fire and Forest Meteorology
Conference, October, 2007.

Mutch, Robert W. 2007. FACES: The story of the victims of southern California’s 2003
fire siege. Lessons Learned Center, Tucson AZ. 104 pp.

NIOSH 2007. A summary of a NIOSH fire fighter fatality investigation. August 7, 2007.
8 pp.

NFPA (National Fire Protection Association). Fall 2009. How to newsletter, pages 2-3.
http://www.firewise.org/usa/fw_guides.htm .

Oklahoma’s Native Vegetation Types. 2009. Natural Resource Ecology and Management,
Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service. Oklahoma State University. 13 pp.

Rogers, Michael J. and James C. Smalley. 2005. Protecting life and property from
wildfire. National Fire Protection Association, No. WILD05. Quincy, MA.

Schroeder, Mark J., and Co-authors. 1964. Synoptic weather types associated with
critical fire weather. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific
Southwest Forest and Range Experiment Station, Berkeley, CA.

Smith, E. and M. Rebori. 2001. Factors affecting property owner decisions about
defensible space, p. 404-408. In: Forestry extension assisting forest owner, farmer,
and stakeholder decision-making. Proceedings of the International Union of Forestry
Research Organizations Symposium. October 29-November 2. Lorne, Australia.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 125
State Fire Marshal's Office. 2005. Firefighter Fatality Investigation. Investigation Number
06-139-11. Firefighter Clint Dewayne Rice. Carlton Volunteer Fire Department. Texas
Department of Insurance Austin, Texas

Texas Forest Service 2009. Texas wildfire protection plan. 18 pp.

U.S. Drought Monitor, cited 2005 and 2006. Online archives at:
http://drought.uni,edu/dm/archive.html

U. S. Fire Administration. 2007. Firefighter fatalities in the United States in 2006. 104 pp.

Van Speybroeck, Kurt, M., A. R. Patrick, and M. C. Oaks. 2007. Climate variability and the
Texas fire weather season of 2005-2006: an historic perspective of a statewide
disaster. 19th Conf. on Climatology Variability and Change. San Antonio, TX., Amer.
Meteor. Soc., 87th Annual Meeting. [Available online at:
http://ams.confex.com/ams/87ANNUAL/techprogram/paper_116674.htm]

Weick, Karl E. and Sutcliffe, Kathleen M. 2001. Managing the unexpected. Jossey-Bass, a
Wiley Co., 200 pp.
Wright, Henry A. and Bailey, Arthur W. 1982. Fire Ecology, United States and Southern
Canada. John Wiley and Sons.

Photo by Henry Bargas/Amarillo Globe-News


The I-40 Fire, part of the East Amarillo Complex, on the night of Sunday, March 12, 2006—when
more than 800,000 acres burn in the Texas Panhandle and these grass fires claim 12 lives.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 126
XII Acknowledgements
The following individuals were especially helpful in organizing and participating in the
informational site visits to Oklahoma and Texas.

These people went out of their way to make significant information available regarding
the 2005-2006 Oklahoma and Texas fire seasons.

Michelle Finch-Walker, Mark Goeller, John Burwell,


Communication Specialist, Assistant Director, State Forester,
Oklahoma Forestry Services Oklahoma Forestry Services Oklahoma Forestry Services

Pat McDowell, Wildland Fire Prevention


Specialist, Bureau of Indian Affairs-Oklahoma
(left); and Rod Robertson, Fire Control Officer, Don Galloway, Planning and Policy Analyst II, Texas
Bureau of Indian Affairs-Oklahoma Forest Service

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 127
Shane Brown, Regional Fire Coordinator I, Texas Shawn Whitley, Regional Fire Coordinator I,
Texas Forest Service
Forest Service

The authors thank Sandra Rideout-Hanzak, Assistant Professor,


Department of Natural Resources Management at Texas Tech
University, for her assistance with preparing this report—
especially for providing documentation from the East Amarillo
Complex Fire survivor accounts. Sandra and Tina Oswald are
compiling a book of East Amarillo Complex survivor stories. These
oral history interviews are compelling accounts of the bravery,
heroism, and selfless nature of the people of the Texas
Panhandle. Their stories describe how survivors worked together
to help one another in this time of need. The emotions come
through as ranchers discuss the furious nature of the fire and the
worry about home and family. Also discussed is the loss of Sandra Rideout-Hanzak
livestock and the medical problems for those animals injured in
the fire. Even when faced with the destruction, these people all spoke of the desire to stay, to
begin again, and to rebuild.

The authors commend Paula Nasiatka, former Manager of the


Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, for supporting and
encouraging the concept embodied in FACES: The Story of the
Victims of Southern California’s 2003 Fire Siege report (2007)—as
well as this companion Oklahoma-Texas account—to honor the
civilian victims of wildfires in the same way that we honor fallen
firefighters. Paula recognized from the outset that there are lessons
to be learned from civilian casualties to help keep future wildland-
urban interface residents out of harm’s way—just as we always
glean lessons learned from firefighter accidents. She carefully
guided projects like this one to ensure that the six critical tasks of a
learning organization are contributing to the end result of modifying
people’s behavior to practice the new lessons that we discover by
Paula Nasiatka examining events such as the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma
wildfires.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 128
XIII Appendices
‘Prepare, Go Early, or Stay and Defend’ – An Australian
Alternative for the Safety of Wildland-Urban Interface Residents
In recent years, it has become obvious that we need to consider other approaches to
better provide for the safety of this country’s wildland-urban interface residents—as
well as the firefighters responsible for protecting these people who have built their
homes and live in this interface.

One important element of the Texas Wildfire Protection Plan is that proven methods be
used to protect homes and property before the fire season begins. The 2009 Fall
“Firewise Newsletter” (NFPA 2009) highlights the importance of such early preparation
by citing the Australian concept of “Prepare, Go Early, Stay and Defend” (P/GE/SD) (see
excerpt on next page).

In the fall of 2006, the Painted Rocks Fire District in western Montana adopted this
Australian interface strategy, partly predicated on the lessons learned from the 2003
southern California Fire Siege (Mutch 2007). On October 26, 2003, 13 California civilians
received little to no evacuation warning that the fast spreading Cedar Fire was an
imminent threat to their neighborhoods (Mutch 2007). These 13 people burned to
death—most while attempting to escape—as they had no time to take proper
precautions. Two people died that same morning as a result of the nearby, also fast-
spreading, Paradise Fire.
Officials in this western Montana Fire District decided that it was far better to prepare
defensible property far in advance of a fire outbreak—and then go early or stay and
defend property against ember fires depending on the desire and inclination of the
residents (Mutch 2007). *Editor’s Note: Bob Mutch, coauthor of this report, owns
property and a residence in the Painted Rocks Fire District.]

All of these people perished in the fires of the 2003 Fire Siege in southern California. Thirteen lost their
lives in the middle of the night when they received
no evacuation warning.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 129
Recent fire events in Australia have highlighted an approach not widely known or
employed here in the States, called Prepare/Go Early/or Stay & Defend (PGESD).

Though contrary viewpoints often arise when this approach is discussed, its merits are
worthy of discussion and of implementation. PGESD is widely used throughout Australia
and many European nations.

Where evacuation is concerned, the premise is to go early—very early, well before the
fire in question can put those evacuating at risk. The larger focus is on education, from
understanding fire behavior and the physical and psychological impact of being “in” a
fire when it passes by, as well as the actions you must take and the equipment you
should have in the event that you choose to stay and defend your home.

PGESD also focuses on reinforcing the actions individuals must take to appropriately
prepare their property in advance of a wildfire. This advance preparation is critical for
people who choose to stay and defend.

For decades, the U.S. has adopted an approach of fire suppression that includes
controlled evacuations overseen by law enforcement officers. Often, the communication
concerning evacuation can come at a time when it’s no longer safe to go—as the deaths
during the 2003 wildfires in southern California help to demonstrate.

The growing number of homes within the wildland-urban interface, coupled with the
limited resources available to wildland firefighters, suggest that we need to explore new
solutions that will make the process safer for all involved when a wildfire threatens lives
and property.

While PGESD places greater responsibility with homeowners, it also offers broader
choices. By learning more about this approach, we can arm ourselves with further
options, with each community better able to determine the best approach for its
residents.

From The Fall 2009 “Firewise Newsletter”

State law in Montana specifies that people cannot be forced to evacuate their homes
when a fire occurs (Montana Code Annotated: 10-3-104 [2], 10-3-406). Instead, they
sign a waiver releasing local authorities of any responsibility should serious problems
arise. Despite such a law, U.S. fire services and law enforcement personnel prefer to
remove people from the fire area (in the belief that this is the safest action and,
therefore, the lowest liability to fire managers) to get them out of the way of emergency
responders. In some cases, the removal of people can be detrimental to structure
survival and public safety.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 130
Back Story:
How and Why These Montana Residents Adopt the
‘Prepare: Go Early or Stay and Defend’
Interface Protection Policy
When the August 2000 Razor Fire threatens homes in Montana, many neighbors in the
West Fork of the Bitterroot River area refuse to be evacuated by the Sheriff’s
Department.
These people band together to protect their neighborhood, creating survivable space,
installing sprinkler systems, fighting fire, and providing local intelligence to incoming fire
services. Such an integration of this neighborhood force with the fire services is
recognized as an effective strategy in protecting homes and property.
Even though high-intensity crown fires and spot fires across fire lines were occurring, no
lives, homes, or structures were lost in this area.
During this 2000 fire season, this West Fork of the Bitterroot River area did not have an
authorized “Fire Protection District”. One year later, these residents who had been
threatened by the previous year’s wildfires approved the formation of the Painted Rocks
Fire District—based on a force of volunteer firefighters.

Today, when wildfire threatens homes in Montana’s Painted Rocks Fire District, able-
bodied residents who prepared their homes are encouraged to shelter inside these
homes when the fire front passes through—and then emerge to protect their property.
The district also intends to identify community safety zones, or refuges, (such as
irrigated meadows, gravel pit,
reservoir) and make them
known to residents or others to
use as a back-up in an
emergency.
The volunteer firefighters of the
Painted Rocks Fire District work
with their community’s residents
to achieve “Firewise” standards
and show residents how to
defend their homes. Through
voluntary inspections and spring
wildland fire training courses,
local residents can create islands
of safety for their homes and
families and be prepared to stay A Painted Rocks Fire District firefighter (woman in red) leads
and fight fires. residents through a sand table exercise.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 131
“If you lived in tornado country, you might intend to evacuate, but you
better also have a tornado shelter and plan what to do if a tornado
visits. Anything less would be irresponsible and foolish. Planning for
wildfire is no different; ultimately, your
safety is your responsibility.”

Alan Tresemer, Battalion Chief


Montana’s Painted Rocks Fire District

Upon completing the spring two-day P/GE/SD training in 2008, residents received a
photo identification card that certifies the training and allows card holders passage
through law enforcement roadblocks—enabling these people to return to their homes
when fires occur.

If Not Staying – Go Early


Those people who choose not to stay are encouraged to go early. Leaving late has
resulted in more deaths than any other cause during major wildland fires in the U.S. and
Australia (Mutch 2007, Handmer and Tibbets 2005). When residents wait too long to
evacuate approaching wildfire, panic, poor visibility, and road hazards create accidents
that leave people stranded with no protection from smoke, heat, and fire.

By taking responsibility for the protection of their own homes, residents free-up
important firefighting resources to attack the fire, and roads are more available for
emergency vehicle ingress and egress.

In addition, firefighters are more likely to enter properties where owners have shown
their investment in their own protection. In addition, these properties are safer for
firefighters to enter and fight fire. In the Painted Rocks District, however, the goal is for
homeowners to make their properties safe enough that intense fire suppression for the
defense of their homes is not required.

This Policy Also Has Detractors


This strategy, however, is not embraced by all. To some—including people within the
ranks of the fire services—“Prepare, Go Early, Stay and Defend” is not recommended.

Montana’s Painted Rocks Fire District’s Battalion Chief Alan Tresemer disagrees. “Year
after year, people are killed during wildland fires because they are not prepared and
make last-moment deadly decisions,” he says. “People die during late evacuation, or
sometimes it is because they do not believe that they will ever face such challenges. Our
program in Painted Rocks strives to teach our community about the dangers and the
simple but effective steps that they can take to protect their lives and property.”

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 132
XIV About the Authors

Bob Mutch retired from a 38-year career in wildland


fire research and management with the U.S. Forest
Service in 1994. In the mid-1950s, he worked as a
Forest Service smokejumper in Missoula, Mont. Bob
later served 11 years as a Fire Behavior Analyst on a
national Type 1 Fire Management Team. He holds a
B.A. degree in biology and English from Albion
College in Michigan and a Master of Science in Fire
Management (M.S.F.) degree from the University of
Montana. In 2007, in acknowledgement of his
ongoing accomplishments in the national and
international wildland fire arenas, Bob was awarded
an Honorary Doctoral Degree in Forestry from the
University of Montana. In 1994, he began serving as a
fire management consultant for the United Nations
and the World Bank with assignments in Brazil,
Bulgaria, Ethiopia, India, Italy, and Mongolia.

Paul Keller works as the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned


Center’s technical writer-editor. After graduating with
honors from the University of Oregon with a B.S. in
Journalism, Keller spent 12 years as newspaper reporter,
editor, and publisher. He served four seasons on the Zigzag
Hotshot Crew—when the late Paul Gleason was
superintendent. A former U.S. Forest Service wilderness
ranger and silviculture technician, Keller has worked as
Forest Service writer-editor at the District, Forest,
Regional, and National levels. Keller’s essays and articles
are featured in national and regional publications,
including The Oregonian newspaper.

Lives Lost – Lessons Learned from the 2005-2006 Texas and Oklahoma Wildfires 133