Rancher survives close call in blaze

Pampa, Texas, rancher L. H. Webb paused from the grisly task of dragging dead cattle into a pile on his burned out Gray County ranch to talk about the aftermath of what some have described as a 1,000-year wildfire.

“Our grass is gone, our cattle are gone and our fences are gone,” Webb said. “But we're alive and we have our home, thanks to the volunteer fire fighters. They saved it and they are heroes. We feel blessed.”

It was a close call for Webb and his son, who stayed behind to get as many cattle as possible out of harm's way. “We found ourselves surrounded by fire,” Webb says. “We had to drive through it and heat was so intense it got up under the truck and caught it on fire. But we got out.”

He said being caught in the fire “was the worst part, especially with my son with me.”

Webb said all 11,000 acres of his rangeland burned in the wildfire that raced across much of the Texas Panhandle beginning March 12 and burning well into March 15 in some areas.

The combination of prolonged drought, winds gusting up to 50 miles per hour and a spark of unknown origin culminated in the loss of nearly 1 million acres of rangeland in nearly a dozen counties in the Texas Panhandle.

Eleven people perished in the fires. Countless homes and outbuildings were destroyed along with hundreds of miles of fencing. And the body count for cattle and other livestock continues to mount. Estimates range from 10,000 to 25,000. That last estimate is for “animal units” and may include cows and unborn calves.

Webb and others devastated by the fire now face the daunting task of starting over. The first chore is the onerous one he was performing the day he talked with Farm Press, finding and disposing of carcasses.

“So far, we know we've lost 103 animals,” Webb said. “But we can't account for 50.”

He had just found a number of carcasses, 20 or more, and was dragging them into a pile where they could be moved with a front-end loader to a burial site.

“These were all in a line. It was a hot, fast fire and they couldn't outrun it,” he said. “Some made it back to the pens.” Even some of those that made it out of the fire did not recover. Webb had to destroy some. “We're trying to nurse as many as we can back to health,” he says.

With no forage left, Webb took some 500 steers to the feedlot.

He expects no summer grazing this year. “But we'll start over,” he said. “We'll do a little at a time and we can overcome this. A lot of folks aren't as fortunate. Many lost their entire herd and all their grass. This will wipe some of them out.”

Webb said replacing fences will be one of the first chores. He anticipates spending as much as $6,000 per mile to restore fencing. “I had about 100 miles of fence, including cross fences,” he said. “We follow a rotational grazing program and used a lot of fencing.”

Webb said most of his cedar posts burned and a lot of the wire is brittle from the heat. “I'm not certain how much we can use. I think we've lost from 85 percent to 90 percent of our fences.”

Webb prefers not to take government money. “But I hope the suppliers we've dealt with for years will cut us some deals on fencing material,” he said. “If we could get it at cost we could save a lot.”

He said fencing costs have gone up along with other ranching and farming expenses. “Steel is higher, freight rates are up and fuel costs have risen.”

Webb may be bruised but remains unbowed. “We feel blessed,” he said. “Eleven people died and a lot lost their homes. We're alive and we have our house.”

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