Early spring in northwest Oklahoma is notorious for powerful winds, and March 6, 2017 was no exception. By mid-afternoon gusts had risen to a pounding 50-70 miles per hour. Dormant grasses were like tinder for a carelessly tossed cigarette, a thoughtless trash fire or a match tossed out on a county road by some jerk seeking to settle a grudge.
All of us at my ranch in Harper County watched the horizon line anxiously for that dreaded pillar of smoke. Wildfires the previous spring had decimated ranches across northwest Oklahoma and southwest Kansas, and we feared a repeat performance—a fire with the potential to be even more costly and deadly than those of 2016.
As late afternoon approached with no smoke on the horizon I thought we’d gotten lucky. Grasses in many pastures across the region were still thick and tall due to the previous summer’s beneficial rains. I drove to a hilltop for another look around the broad horizon of our southern plains homeland, hoping against all odds that the skies remained clear.
This time, however, there was telltale smoke to the west. A neighbor said it was a fire burning near Laverne. Within minutes more plumes were billowing up towards the southwest, close enough to our ranch to cause alarm.
The homes of family friends were in the fire’s path, so I grabbed my camera and headed out to help those I could. First stop was to retrieve a lost dog wandering the road directly in the path of the flames. When I reached the house of a friend of my son and daughter-in-law, I found a car in the driveway and a pair of barking dogs. But several minutes of bell ringing, door pounding and shouting failed to rouse anyone inside.
By this time the fire, fueled by 60 and 70 miles per hour winds, was spreading and unstoppable, an absolute hell on earth. Worse, the 40 feet tall flames were only minutes away from where I stood.
I called my daughter-in-law Jessie while making plans to rescue the dogs. She said the woman living in the house was eight months pregnant and confined to bed. Jesse said the woman’s boyfriend, a volunteer firefighter, also had been calling frantically but to no avail. He could see that the flames were exploding among the surrounding eastern red cedars, trees that provide volatile fuel for wildfires.
My daughter in law was in her car and headed over to check on her pregnant friend. By the time she arrived the woman was finally awake and facing immediate danger. Jessie pointed out that the fire was only minutes away and that if she wanted to save her life, she had to evacuate immediately. The woman had just enough time to grab her purse, her young son and load the dogs.
As I backed around to leave the skies were a swirling, hellish mixture of smoke, ash and roaring orange flames. In the confusion Jessie and I had forgotten to call my son Coli and his employee Sam and inform them that we’d managed to save the woman before the flames engulfed her home. The men were in our six by six Army surplus fire-fighting rig, and they too were coming to check on the pregnant woman, even though fire was about to overtake their vehicle. After they arrived, Coli and Sam said they had less than a minute to search the house before the flames surrounded them. Later, they both admitted that if she’d been at home and if it had taken extra precious seconds to load her into the truck, all three most likely would have died.
As it was, Coli and Sam escaped that searing inferno with only seconds to spare. Meteorologists estimated that at its peak the flames were racing across the countryside at nearly a mile a minute and burning with an intensity that approached 3,000 degrees F.
That’s a deadly combination, deadly enough to result in eight fatalities. One, a truck driver, jack-knifed on the highway and quickly died of smoke inhalation. Another died of a heart attack attempting to save her home.
Some 650 structures burned in the fire, along with farm equipment and vehicles. In Oklahoma, an estimated 3,000 cattle and 6,000 hogs were victims of the fire, either killed outright or maimed and blinded, their agony ended by a merciful bullet. In Clark County Kansas alone as many as 5,000 mature cows perished, not counting any early spring calves.
Miles of fences burned for the second year in a row, and I’ve yet to see figures on losses of horses, sheep and chickens. A million or more acres were blackened in Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas and Texas, devastating wildlife populations and destroying the dreams of ranchers who’ve spent generations breeding up their herds.
It will take years to recover, and some may not recover at all. Those of us at the Selman Ranch were lucky—the flames missed us this time. The horror stories were numerous, but so were the stories of neighbors helping neighbors and the courage of men and women who faced death to save their friends and neighbors as the flames swept down.
Out here we live at the mercy of the weather and depend upon our own resources to survive. Our volunteer fire fighters provide a service that’s risky and at times life-threatening. And their do it because they believe they can make a difference, and should if they can. People like this is why I live where I do, and why even in the face of fire, drought, blizzard and flood, I wouldn’t trade my place for anywhere else in the world.