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 singledigit 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: changes—for their future Explain the circumstances of survival—in the wildlandthe victims and survivors at urban interface. the time of their entrapment by essentially grassland Derive wildland-urban wildfires. interface “lessons learned” insights from these grassland Use the victims’ and fires. survivors’ stories as a 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 longterm 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 fivemonth 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; 2. January 1, 2006; 3. January 12, 2006; 4. March 12, 2006; 5. April 6, 2006; and 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 casualties. From November 2005 through April of 2006, wildfires claim the lives of 25 people—including four firefighters. In addition, during each of these outbreak events, a multitude of individual wildfires scorch from tens of thousands to more than one million acres of prairie— including torching towns and wildland-urban interface areas—across both states. At least 655 structures are destroyed. Combined damages are estimated near $150 million in economic loss.

‘Perfect’ Grassland Firestorm
On March 12, 2006, the combined conditions of drought, sustained strong winds, and cured grass in the Texas Panhandle produce what has been—ironically— described as “the perfect” grassland firestorm. In one 24hour period, two fires in one complex burn close to one million acres as they scorch 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 Date

Major Wildfires

Acreage Burned

Economic Damages

Structures Destroyed

Reported Deaths

Reported Injuries

Dec. 27, 2005

52

60,823

$19 million $25 million $600 thousand $96 million $3 million $290 thousand

341

4

28

Jan. 1, 2006

43

303,570

115

2

19

Jan. 12, 2006

16

39,173

48

0

0

March 12,, 2006

27

1,102,044

102

12

11

April 6, 2006

26

119,846

42

0

2

April 15, 2006

10

23,135

7

0

3

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

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, Increasing population, Climate and weather conditions, and Changing land use patterns.
More People at Risk From Wildfire
During the past two decades, the Texas Panhandle area has experienced dramatic land use changes—moving from cultivated acreage to grasslands. This transition has increased available fuel for fires. At the same time, some Panhandle areas have also experienced population growth—placing more and more people and property at risk from wildfire.

The geographic position of Texas exposes this area to entrenched drought conditions and seasonally strong winds. During periods of “very high” to “extreme” fire danger, the sheer expansive size of Texas stretches the deployment of firefighting resources to the breaking point. In analyzing weather records from the past 100 years, the Texas Forest Service recognizes three separate 25- to 30year drought periods (From Texas Wildfire Protection Plan, 2009, Texas Forest Service). The previous drought cycle occurred from the late 1950s to the late 1970s. The most recent drought period began again in 1996. So far, it has produced several record-breaking fire seasons.

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 aluminum cylinder heads on one resident’s car.

The Associated Press Photo

Home Site – Cross Plains Texas resident Roger Hinkle examines 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 40feet 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 milesper-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 largesized 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
Just as the agency had done in January, the National Weather Service Storm Protection Center issues an “Extremely Critical Fire Danger” warning for March 8, 10, 11, and 12.

On Sunday March 12, 2006, the East Amarillo Complex (Borger Fire and I-40 Fire) burns more than 800,000 acres in a single day.

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 Arthur Dominquez

Kathy Ryan Roberto Chavira

James McMorries

Gerardo Villareal

Merdaro Garcia Jr.

Four people—Susan and Lawrence Schumacher, Alexis Skenay’ah Burroughs, and Lachelle DeWeese—die in a multi-car collision when wildfire smoke obscures I-40.

Volunteer Firefighter Clint Dewayne Rice dies in this water tender rollover accident while responding to a 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 firerelated incidents during the historic 2005-2006 TexasOklahoma 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. Investigators report that this threemonth 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.

Volunteer Firefighter Clint Dewayne Rice, 28, dies when he is thrown in this tractor-trailer water tender rollover accident while responding to a large grass fire near Hamilton, Texas.

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

31

Firefighter Rice Served in Iraq 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.

Above: Approaching the curve in the road where volunteer firefighter Clint Dewayne Rice’s fatal accident occurred. Below: Diagram of the fatal

rollover accident from the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office. Firefighter Fatality Investigation report.

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 trailer exceeded the maximum gross weight listed on the data plate by at least 6,450 pounds. The existing baffles in the cargo tank were inadequate to control water movement and subsequent weight shifts. The tires on the tractor-trailer combination had inconsistent inflation pressures, some of which were dangerously low. The Texas Department of Public Safety report cited “defective or no trailer brakes.”

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 trucktractor 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, Within 24 hours after any use or repair, and Prior to being placed in service or used for emergency purposes.

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 38paid 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 Fire Department. Even though Wednesday, March 1 is Horton’s day off with the Chickasha Fire 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 one-ton brush rig, the chief of the Acme Fire Department reroutes Horton and Crabb to nearby Farwell.

The Associated Press Photo

Operator tries to plow mineral soil line with tractor and disc to stop the approaching Empire Fire. This is the grass fire that overruns firefighters Destry Horton and Larry Crabb.

The Associated Press Photo

One of the 38 homes that the Empire Fire burns on March 1, 2006.

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

A Hero Lost
A previous “Storm Stories” segment on the Weather Channel entitled “Blown from Her Arms” featured firefighter Destry Horton. The Oklahoma firefighter had saved a baby when a tornado ripped the child from its mother’s arms. The segment highlighted Horton as an “heroic” firefighter.

In driving the vehicle, Horton has removed his helmet, gloves, and jacket. While he is wearing his flame-retardant personal protective equipment “bunker pants”, he is not wearing firefighter boots. Rather, he has on nylon hiking boots and a t-shirt. Crabb is wearing his full “bunker” firefighter gear as well as fire boots, helmet, and Nomex hood. However, he is 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 engulf Horton’s face and upper torso. Crabb sees

Photos from the Empire Fire Entrapment Report of the Accident Review Team show Horton and Crabb’s burned fire vehicle.

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

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

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” (AAR) of the Empire Fire. Include all agencies and departments involved in the incident. 2. Order and assign trained wildland firefighter personnel (supervisory and managerial) to advise, train, and guide rural fire departments. 3. Provide technical assistance for all rural fire departments. Address the Incident Command System (ICS), fire behavior, weather, communications, tactics, standards for survival, understanding and establishing “LCES” (Lookouts, Communication, Escape Routes, and Safety Zones), personal protective equipment (PPE), etc. 4. Establish basic communication and organization protocols between fire departments and counties that will be followed during any wildland fire incident and will serve as standard 43

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

operating procedures. Ensure roles and responsibilities and chains of command are clearly identified with one person in charge. Establish clear procedures for unified command. 5. Enhance standard operating procedures for rural fire departments involved in wildland fire suppression. Procedures for mutual aid responses should be clearly identified. Address cooperative management between Long-Term Recommendations 1. Identify and empower an organization to train and guide the wildland fire suppression activities of rural fire departments, including a structure and support for their common communications. The Oklahoma Forestry Services is the organization best suited to fulfill this role. For example, this organization already has fire protection responsibilities in the extreme eastern portion of the state. 2. Implement after action reviews of large and complex incidents as standard operating procedures. In addition, conduct end-of-season reviews. Involve all agencies and departments. 3. Ensure that the following are clearly identified in cooperative agreements and action plans for fire departments and other agencies (both State and Federal) that work together in wildland fire

departments, unified command, communications, information sharing, roles and responsibilities. In addition, improve acquisition and utilization of weather information, expected fire behavior, briefings, lookouts, escape routes, safety zones, and personal protective equipment. 6. Order a Fire Prevention Team to raise awareness of fire danger in high potential counties. suppression: sound planning, organizational structures, communication protocols, roles and responsibilities, chains of command, and mutual aid procedures. 4. Develop and implement a wildland fire training academy for the State of Oklahoma. Ensure that training materials, times, frequencies, and methods meet the needs of all involved, especially the rural fire departments. 5. Develop and implement a Firewise Program for enhanced community protection and safer environments for wildland firefighters in the wildland-urban interface. 6. Develop Community Wildfire Protection Plans that incorporate hazard mitigation, fire prevention, and emergency response (structure, command, etc.).

“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 change a thing—that these kinds of things just happen in our line of work,” Wistrand marvels. “This kind of thinking scares me. These folks are still going to rehab for their injuries and yet they say that they would not change a thing if they had to do it again.” These firefighters went on to tell Wistrand that they are trained to protect life and property and thus are willing to put themselves at risk in order to accomplish these goals. However, Wistrand points out that no structures or lives were at risk in any of these fires that burned firefighters. “Grass fields and brush were the only things being protected,” he confirms. Wistrand believes that most of these rural departments’ fire training focuses on structure and hazardous materials with minimal emphasis placed on wildland fire training. Thus, this wildland fire veteran asks, “If more than 50 percent of your fire calls are wildland fire, shouldn’t more than 50 percent of your training be in wildland fire suppression?”
*For more observations from Wistrand’s study, see section VIII Key Overall Lessons Learned, page 101.]

Following his review, Wistrand made six important recommendations for fire departments, especially rural departments: 1. Teach the dangers of having unburned fuel between the firefighter and the fire’s edge. Teach that the majority of firefighter fatalities are vehicle accidents and heart attacks; and that vehicle accidents are preventable. Teach, preach, and promote the idea of “Attack from the Black” when not using anchor and flanking tactics. Teach the importance of up-to-date fire weather information. Assign someone the responsibility to keep firefighters aware of what is going on. Teach the importance of good communications between the driver and the person on the outside of the apparatus. Teach that no acre of vegetation (or any house for that matter) is worth anyone in our business getting injured or dying for.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

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

James McMorries with his wife, Tanis.

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 any state or national entity. He had experience as a truck driver and held a commercial drivers license issued by the State of Texas. In addition, Howardwick Volunteer Fire Department Assistant Chief Burney said that McMorries received inhouse training and testing on his ability to operate the apparatus.

James McMorries Loved Helping People
“James was the type of person who did everything he could. He could fix anything. He just loved helping people, that’s what he loved,” McMorries’ step-daughter Megan Bowes tells Susan Nicol Kyle with Firehouse.Com News. “That’s why he enjoyed working for the fire company—because he was helping others.” In an interview with The Associated Press, Bowes explains, “Yeah, we worried, but you just don’t think it’s going to happen to you. And you can’t tell him he can’t do something. He’s just a stubborn cowboy.” For four weeks, McMorries remains unconscious on life support in the intensive care unit at Amarillo’s Northwest Texas Hospital. During this time, his extensive injuries cause two massive strokes. On April 9—29 days after the rollover accident on the East Amarillo Complex—McMorries’ family asks that he be removed from life support. He passes away.

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

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

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
“Alcohol is the single largest human condition factor that adversely affects driving performance leading to fatal accidents. Alcohol acts on the central nervous system, the body’s command center. This slows the motor response of the brain, greatly decreasing perception, information processing, and reflexes. Risk taking, however, is increased. Alcohol also impairs vision by acting on the optic nerve in the process of sending images to the brain. This can lead to unsafe false distance estimates, slower recovery time from glare, increased duration of eye fixations, reduced peripheral vision, and tunnel vision. Studies have shown that even low alcohol levels (significantly lower than state Driving Under the Influence [DUI] levels) cause significantly reduced information processing in the brain and deteriorating driving skills. Alcohol of any amount is too much to safely operate a motor vehicle.” Mark T. Bailey, Certified Traffic Accident Reconstructionist On the surface, this “lessons learned” sounds straightforward and simple: Alcohol consumption can NEVER be permitted or accepted and has absolutely NO place in the wildland fire work environment. And yet, Fire Chief Robinson’s tragic fatal accident was not the first time that a wildland firefighter died due to alcohol consumption while on duty. After a recent firefighter fatality in New Jersey—an intoxicated firefighter who was off-duty and responded to a search for a drowning victim and died—the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends: All fire departments have written policies and procedures to enforce a zero-tolerance policy prohibiting alcohol use by firefighters who may be called upon to act on behalf of the department. 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. 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.
Newkirk

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, winddriven 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 sootcovered 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 winddriven 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 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.

Gainesville

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

“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 home. Firefighters find his burned body. An autopsy reveals that Tommy died of heart attack.

Bulverde

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. 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

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 windwhipped 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 Ken runs back into the house to help Kathy with Bill. 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-yearold out into Kathy’s pickup. “We was moving right along,” Ken assures.

“There’s no logic as to how I got out.”

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 a slope and attempt to cut off the fire at 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. Flores Hernandez is missing.
Dozer operator Leonardo Flores Hernandez’s body is found in the ravine 25 feet away from his dozer.

Photos Courtesy Texas Forest Service

Where civilian Leonardo Flores Hernandez perishes fighting the Montell Fire while operating his dozer.

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 mid20 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

Photo by Tony Gutierrez/The Associated Press

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, 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 fencing 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.
Texas Panhandle Rancher L.H. Webb

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

[Editor’s Note: For more information on L.H. Webb and his family’s fire experience, see page 95.]

Across the Texas Panhandle area, it takes weeks—even months in some cases—to totally rebuild all of the destroyed fencing. Everywhere, neighbors help to care for wandering cattle until they are placed back on their home ranches. 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 down, right down. Killed it. We could go ahead and put the fire out. That was about dark.” On Being a Volunteer Firefighter While Lott was stationed on the edge of Lefors, trying to save the town, was he worried about his own home being in jeopardy? The longtime rural volunteer firefighter says of course he was concerned about his home and his wife, a former rural volunteer firefighter herself. “If you’re not, you’re not human,” he confides. “But I’ve learned in my years of experience that you have to get your priorities lined up. I knew my wife could take care of herself and of the house. If that fire got there, she’s had enough experience, had enough training, she knew what she needed to do.” Even so, Lott says, as he was coordinating the water trucks during his own high-risk contribution to trying to keep the wind-driven wildfire from entering Lefors, he worried about his loved ones. “I worried about my people and my friends. My son lives right next door, I was worried about him and his family, too. But you have to put your priorities in

Lessons Learned and Benefits of the I-40 Fire Experience
Lefors volunteer firefighter Floyd Lott, a former chief of the department, believes much was gained from their assignments on the I-40 Fire. “We’re a lot more experienced this time. We’ve updated our equipment. And we’re in a lot better shape personnel wise,” he confirms. “We finally figured out that we need to do some training for how to respond and operate in this kind of a (large wildfire) situation.” Lott says that one of the prime I-40 Fire lessons was that his department needed to be able to haul more water. “Water is our most precious commodity up here,” he says. Today, his department is prepared to respond to fires with more than 15,000 gallons of water. It now has access to two 6,000-gallon tankers, one 2,000-gallon tanker, and a 1,200-gallon brush vehicle. (Prior to March 12, 2006, their capacity was 6,000 gallons. At the time, Lott says, they thought that would be fine.) Adding to Lefor’s current water suppression capability, Lott’s department now also has a water tanker available through Gray County. “All of us up here in this country are now compatible. We can transfer water from one truck to another,” Lott explains. “We can transfer off the brush truck onto another truck. I’m not sure that that was so before these fires.” “And we’ve gotten where we’re closer-knit people; we’re closer together. We may not like each other. But that’s alright. When it gets down to where we’re needed, everybody falls in there and gets after it.”

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, 15year-old Lucas, stop to turn off one of their 10,000-acre ranch’s windmills that has been torn up by these powerful gusts. Lucas smells smoke.

His father reminds him that, out here in this rural Texas Panhandle country, smoke can easily come from a fire that is many, many miles away.

As the I-40 Fire approaches, L.H. Webb (above) and his 15-year-old son stay behind to try to protect their home and animals. At one point, the Texas Panhandle rancher thinks that he and his son are surely going to die.

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 the pick-up—with their border collie in the back—and race out to open that pasture’s gate. It takes less than a minute to get to

Photo Courtesy L.H. Webb

Perished prairie chicken (a threatened species) on L.H. Webb ranch. The burned bodies of a porcupine and an armadillo are also found on Webb’s ranch, evidence of 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 fourwheel-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

Trees burned on L.H. Webb’s ranch.

They drive a short distance and 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. Because you can’t see any farther than your outstretched hand in front of your face, L.H. has to try to direct the sound of his friend’s vehicle to them. When the friend arrives beside them and they jump out of the pickup, smoke is rising from the vehicle’s hood. Their truck has caught fire. As their friend drives them toward their home, L.H. is hoping that it will still be there. Certain Their Home Did Not Survive For two long hours, Nama and her sick young daughters sit in their vehicle wondering what is happening to L.H. and Lucas. From their vantage point, they can’t see flames, but they are surrounded by smoke. It is everywhere. Nama is certain that their home did not survive. She talks to other people who had driven out of the I-40 Fire’s sudden attack. Still terrified, they tell her about having to escape by driving right through the flames. After what seems like an eternity, Nama finally gets a call from Lucas. “Dad says you can come home now.”

Rancher L.H. Webb’s I-40 Fire Lessons Learned
With the benefit of hindsight, if L.H. Webb could go back to that March 12, 2006 Sunday morning once again—would he do anything differently? Yes, he says, one thing: L.H. now explains that he would not—and, in retrospect, should not—have driven out to try to free his cattle when the fire was approaching. “By doing that,” he explains, “I ended up putting my son’s life and my life in jeopardy. I would not do that again.” In fact, L.H. says that once they put themselves at risk by driving out to open the gate for his cattle to escape, he discovered that these fire-spooked animals had already broken through their fencing. But, by then, it was too late. He and his son’s truck stalled out and caught fire. Luckily—as explained in the adjacent “survivor” account— L.H. was able to summon help. Their truck was destroyed, but they were rescued. L.H. also regrets that this fire didn’t give them more forewarning that would have provided enough time for him to move more of his cattle to 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 18 Watchout Situations; LCES (Lookouts, Communication, Escape Routes, and Safety Zones); The precursors of extreme fire behavior; The consistent use of personal protective equipment; and The importance of such fireline health issues as proper hydration, physical fitness, and appropriate work/rest protocols.

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

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

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 risk to hazardous conditions; Using predictive services and the pre-positioning of resources based on fire risk; Local fire department capacitybuilding; Rapid initial attack of wildland fires; and 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 preventable, with more than 90 percent started by people. Expected fire behavior can be predicted based on weather, fuels, and other factors. 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. Coordinated and prompt response will reduce fire sizes and losses. Smaller fire sizes from coordinated responses can lower suppression costs.

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 high to extreme fire danger conditions, the fire services will be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of fires and high fire intensities—preventing a response to all fires. 2. In most cases, if homeowners take the appropriate pre-fire precautions to develop survivable space, homes can survive without the presence of the fire services.

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 Denial Fatalism Futility Irresponsibility Inability Lack of incentives Insurance Lack of knowledge Aesthetics Unnaturalness Disposal of slash Discomfort Illegality Lack of ownership

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.” 2. “It’s not going to happen here.” 3. “It won’t happen to me or my family.” 4. “If it does happen to me, it won’t be that bad.” 5. “If it does happen to me and it is bad…well, that’s why I have 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 countyby-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 water supplies, and other Provide for communityat-risk Federal lands. based decision making. Provide a mechanism to Encourage communities seek grants for further and their local implementation of the governments to plan. determine the boundaries of the Promote systematic wildland-urban interface information gathering to that surrounds their address the goals of the communities. Community Wildfire Protection Plan. Identify ways to reduce wildfire risk to communities, municipal Community Wildfire Protection Plan Goals Improve fire prevention and suppression. Reduce hazardous forest fuels. Restore forest health. Promote community involvement. Recommend measures to reduce structural ignitability in the Community Wildfire Protection Plan area. Encourage economic 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 firefor 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 conditions. Move livestock/locate and secure pets. Load an emergency kit that includes drinking water, food, and medications into the car. Pack personal items such as changes of clothing, cash and credit cards, medications, cell phones, food, and toys and books for children. Remove any materials that could easily burn from around the house (including mats, outdoor furniture, and wood piles). Ensure everyone in the family is wearing protective clothing— long pants, long-sleeved shirts, sturdy shoes. Ensure all windows and doors are closed. Take down curtains. Turn off the main gas supply to the house and any propane gas cylinders. Lock home, garage, and storage buildings securely before departing. Let someone know where you are going and how you will get there. Leave a note on door letting the fire department know where you are and a contact phone number. What is your trigger point to “go early”? Careful planning here can be life saving. If you are unable to evacuate, what is your backup plan?

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 eliminating the vulnerability of wooden poles to grassland fires.

Photo by Betsy Blaney/Associated Press

One of the thousands of utility poles—this one located 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 telltale weather conditions related to potential devastating wildfire activity in the Southern Plains area, thereby improving operational fire weather forecast and warning capabilities prior to similar future events.
DRY SLOT – A deep, mid-level cyclone and pronounced “dry slot”—a zone of dry air stretching across eastern New Mexico into the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles—are evident in this water vapor satellite image taken during the morning hours of Jan. 1, 2006. Consequently, very dry air and strong winds aloft were easily mixed to the surface—enhancing the fire weather 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 userfriendly 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. OK-FIRE Program Predicts Severe April 9, 2009 Wildfire Outbreak A recent example of the predictive benefits of the OK-FIRE program occurred prior to the severe April 9, 2009 Oklahoma wildfire outbreak. (For more information on this episode, see Chapter X Epilogue.)
The Oklahoma Mesonet is a world-class network of environmental monitoring stations. The network was designed and implemented by scientists at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University. (“Mesonet” is a combination of the words “mesoscale” and “network”. In 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, mesoscale weather events are phenomena that might go undetected without densely spaced weather observations. Thunderstorms, wind gusts, heatbursts, and drylines, are examples of mesoscale events. And, of course, a "network" is an interconnected system. Thus, the Oklahoma Mesonet is a system designed to measure the environment at the size and duration of mesoscale weather events.) The Oklahoma Mesonet consists of more than 110 automated stations covering the entire state of Oklahoma—with at least one Mesonet station in each of Oklahoma's 77 counties. At each site, the environment is measured by a set of instruments located on or 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 24 hours, year-round.

According to Dr. J.D. Carlson, fire The Oklahoma Climatological Survey at Oklahoma University receives these observations, verifies the quality of the data, and provides the data to Mesonet meteorologist at 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, Restoring healthy ecosystems, Prescribed burning for hazard reduction, Homeowner responsibility to prepare defensible space ahead of the fire season, Well-trained and well-equipped emergency response personnel, and FireWise practices communicated and implemented.

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 Texas—via this state’s comprehensive fire reporting system. Fire officials in Texas learned that of the 12,072 wildfires that occurred between December 1, 2005 and March 17, 2006, 85 percent of these fires occurred less than two miles from a community. In other words, the large majority of wildfires for this period were interface fires. This revelation provides a clear focus on where prevention, pre-suppression, and suppression resources need to be concentrated— and also underscores the importance of having a comprehensive statewide fire occurrence database.

An Improved Commitment to Safe Fire Suppression
Weather patterns that favor extreme fire behavior (strong and shifting winds, dry conditions, instability) will remain a threat to life and property across Oklahoma and Texas in the future. Speybroeck and others (2007) indicate that an increasing observational skill and experience at recognizing dangerous fire weather scenarios based on climatic changes may offer significant “lead time” to anticipate future disasters. These authors explain that this knowledge, experience, and lead time can be applied to and benefit fire prevention efforts, resource and logistics planning, and a heightened awareness for the general population to the existing link between climate and local weather trends. Even more importantly, in the future, the forecast for these types of episodes needs to motivate firefighters—in Oklahoma and Texas and everywhere—to realize and understand that fire suppression can no longer remain “business as usual.” Rather, as this report underscores, all of our country’s firefighters need to develop an improved commitment to the important basics of safe fire suppression tactics and behavior.

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 breaking wildfires—that are threatening people and in initial attack on one fire and homes—by ordering dozers, engines, and air attack. extended attack on another fire— 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, Communication Specialist, Oklahoma Forestry Services

Mark Goeller, Assistant Director, Oklahoma Forestry Services

John Burwell, State Forester, Oklahoma Forestry Services

Pat McDowell, Wildland Fire Prevention Specialist, Bureau of Indian Affairs-Oklahoma (left); and Rod Robertson, Fire Control Officer, Bureau of Indian Affairs-Oklahoma

Don Galloway, Planning and Policy Analyst II, Texas Forest Service

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

127

Shane Brown, Regional Fire Coordinator I, Texas Forest Service

Shawn Whitley, Regional Fire Coordinator I, Texas 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.

Paula Nasiatka

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 wildlandurban 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 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 fastspreading, 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, ablebodied 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 and fight fires.

A Painted Rocks Fire District firefighter (woman in red) leads 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

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful