Online Extra

Texas Wildfires

May 12, 2011

How three ranchers weathered the Texas firestorms.

By Lesley Martin for America’s Horse Daily

Justin Cormack rides Peps On A Safari (by Little Safari Badger) as he and the crew brand calves. The calves were soon being shipped to go to new grasslands. Photo courtesy of the Cormack family.

Since January 2011, wildfires across Texas have burned hundreds of homes, torched more than a million acres, killed two firefighters and devastated many ranches. Ranchers have lost horses, cattle, fences and equipment, and are now scrambling to find grasslands, hay and water for what has survived. And in a drought-stricken land, everybody’s lookin’.

“Everybody’s either on fire or too dry,” says Justin Cormack, a Texas A&M University medical student who came home to Strawn, Texas, when his family ranch was hit by the fires in April. For 11 days, fire lit the Cormacks’ 11,500-acre ranch and burned up fences, electric water wells and 30 hunting camps they leased out. When Justin and his brother, Jake, rounded up their 300-some cattle, they counted 32 dead and 13 more who had to either be destroyed or sold.

But then they had to care for the livestock that lived.

“We rely on electric wells for water on the ranch, and with those burned up, cattle all over the place were running out of water,” Justin says. “When I was down there helping, I found cows who hadn’t drank in a week.”

Fortunately for the Cormack family, Weatherford College of Weatherford, Texas, donated a couple of 9,000-gallon truckloads of water. The family also found new grasslands to lease south of Dallas.

“We’re lucky; everybody’s looking for a lease. I know a lot of people are hurting,” Justin says.

With the spring wildfires in the Southwest and the recent tornado and storm damage in the Southeast, there are thousands of people in need of assistance, including AQHA members and their horses. Find out Where You Can Help.

Another rancher shipping his cattle out is American Quarter Horse Hall of Famer Buster Welch, who rode cutting legends like Peppy San Badger, Dry Doc and Mr San Peppy. Now, after other April wildfires, the 83-year old cowboy and his crew are swiftly rounding up cattle to ship from his Rotan, Texas, ranch to Kansas and Oklahoma ranches for grass.

“We’ve been in-saddle by daylight, riding like the wind,” says Buster, who has already shipped off approximately 12 truckloads of his cows and calves. “We’ve been gathering cattle off neighbors’ land and everywhere else, and shipping to grass as fast as we can find grass.” Of his 400-plus herd, Buster still has 85 heifers he needs to place.

Fortunately, all of Buster’s cattle and horses survived the wildfires. Before the fire hit, Buster and his crew opened gates and cut fences so that the cattle could escape. They then released his three broodmares and one colt on a 70-acre unseeded wheat field but kept his 15 saddle horses near his house, which was protected by fire guards and the local fire department.

When the fire came, Buster says it “was an extreme fire, never been one like it.” The fire lasted five days, changed direction four times, and scorched 95 percent of Buster’s 23,000-acre ranch. Ironically, Buster’s livestock found safety in the wind shifts by moving onto land that was already charred, and none were killed.

“What we need is rain,” says Buster, whose ranch has not had a drop of rain since September of last year. “If it won’t ever rain again, we won’t be any drier than we are right now.”

Even the winter weather was unseasonably warm and dry, which sparked a wildfire in the Amarillo area in February. Steve Detten, a firefighter for more than 20 years, remembers the wildfires of February 27 around his home in Panhandle, Texas.

“That was literally fighting it off yourself, fighting it off of houses … trying to make sure you didn’t run over somebody, and trying to make sure you didn’t get caught in the fire,” Steve says. “It was probably the most dynamic and fast-moving fire in my whole career.”

The fire was coupled with 80 mph winds, spreading it quickly across the flatlands. It was late afternoon when Steve, while fighting a fire a few miles from his house, got a text from his wife, Tonya, saying that she and their 18-year old son, Phillip, were evacuating. Their seven Quarter Horses were set loose on 500 acres.

When Steve and the firefighting crew made it to his homestead, the barn, grain trucks, bunkhouse and 219 round bales of hay were already burning. They extinguished what they could, but reinforcements came later, “in the nick of time,” as the burning bunkhouse was getting so close to the house it was breaking the back bedroom windows.

“It was about 2 in the morning when we finally got enough of the fires extinguished to feel safe enough to turn our back on the fire and go to bed,” Steve says. They were safe, but went to bed not knowing where their horses were. “All along, we were hoping that a neighbor was going to call and say, ‘Hey, your horses are over here, they’re fine, we’ll keep them ‘til you get here,’ ” Steve continues. He never got that call.

The next morning, he and Tonya woke at daylight and set out to find their horses. They found them; they survived the fire, but what was left could barely be called a horse. The horses’ ears, tails and fur had all burned off, their eyelids had melted to their eyeballs, and they could barely breathe from the smoke inhalation. The fire was 5 miles wide, and they hadn’t been able to outrun it.

“Just to see them that way … just broke your heart,” says Steve, an AQHA life member. “You know, everybody that keeps horses for the love of horses knows the bond you have with your horses. These were my friends.” Steve shot the horses when he found them.

Several AQHA affiliates and members have set up places where you can send financial assistance or find out how and where you can help directly. Spread the word and get in action – Help Out Where You Can.

“We came back to the house and wondered, what next, ya know?” Steve continues. “We lost all the horses, we don’t have any grass, we don’t have any stock pens, we don’t have any fences. OK, I feel like I’m out of the ranching business. … But that’s not my nature, either.”

A strong Christian, Steve found comfort in his faith. A couple of weeks after the destruction, he was sitting in church when he says he became amazingly calm, “and then I realized, we’re gonna be just fine. We’re gonna make it.”

After the service, Steve went home to discover two horses his fellow firefighters bought with money collected after the fire. A few weeks later, he and his brother found grasslands to lease in New Mexico, and he’s back in the ranching business.

“So we’re in the cow-calf business now,” Steve says. “We have 93 mama cows that are gonna calve in the fall, and we’re never going to be bored again a day in our life.”

There are still thousands in need of assistance, including many AQHA members and their horses. The Texas wildfires coincided with tornados that ravaged the south, which can be read about in “A Snapshot of Disaster.” To find out where you can send financial assistance or how to help directly, check out “Where You Can Help.”

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