Texas Panhandle Fires

Ranchers and farmers everywhere are honored with the responsibility for their land and livestock, and it’s put on their shoulders and deep in their hearts to put the well-being of their animals first.

However, due to recent events, that’s been a hard task for many to achieve.  On Monday, March 6th, wildfires devastated the heartland of America. Fueled by high winds, low humidity, and warm temperatures, the blazes claimed around 480,000 acres specifically in the Texas panhandle, and over one million acres across Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado combined.  The devastation was so crippling that Texas Governor Greg Abbot sent state resources to the panhandle area for assistance in the firefighting efforts.  Where the truest form tragedy struck was in the lives lost. Four people were killed in the Texas fires, with seven total fatalities across all the affected states.

The blazes were also extremely detrimental to livestock of the area.  Weeks later, exact numbers of loss have yet to be determined, but expected counts are in the several thousands, and over 5,000 head of cattle have been displaced.  Ranchers are in immediate need of hay and feed supplies for their animals, while smoke inhalation and burns are an ongoing concern.  Additionally, problems are being found in the miles of fence lost.  Ranchers are struggling to know what their next step is. If parts of their herds have survived, and they’re healthy enough to be sold, it’s one of their few options right now, but it’s a bleak option, and one that leaves them without their livelihood.  While cattle were the most effected animal in these fires, horses were also among those lost.  Several reports were made of horse displacement, although numbers have not been specified.

As families grieved and hearts wept, people from near and far began to fill a void as best they could.  The Working Ranch Cowboy’s Association (WRCA) is one organization that has stepped up in a big way for relief efforts.   When the WRCA was developed, it formed the Working Ranch Cowboy’s Foundation (WRCF) to provide support for working ranch cowboys when needed.  The foundation was split into two divisions, one for scholarships, and one for crisis funds; the crisis portion being used for incidents such as wildfires.  Through this foundation, the WRCA brought in donations and identified families in need, both for short and long term purposes.

They not only handled monetary donations, but also facilitated donations for hay, feed, and medicine, and were actively involved with the drop points for these items.  WRCA’s operation’s manager, Leman Wall, says that the biggest hardship for ranchers at this point, varies a great degree.  “Our foundation manager has been out in the field visiting with victims, and their needs may be anywhere from just one mile of fence burned to 150 miles of fence burned”, he says.  To put things in perspective, it’s estimated that one mile of fence costs $10,000.  Wall says, staggering numbers like these are something that need to be taken into consideration as time goes on.  “The amount of support has been amazing, it’s been enormous and unimaginable and we are thankful, but we still need more, that’s the reality”, he adds.  Those affected by the fires will need help for months and even years to come, which may be tough to fathom, but is easy to see when you think about the capacity of damage done.  “Fire season technically has not even started yet”, Wall says, “It’s scary, but this could happen any place, anytime, to anybody, so it’s important to remember these people in need now”.

Both individuals and organizations of different kinds were actively seen donating to wildfire relief supply points through various news sources and ways of social media. The organization of checkpoints for feed, hay, medicine, and fencing supplies into the affected areas has been immaculate.  Katherine Jeffcoat of Pampa, TX, volunteered at the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension managed supply point in Gray County.

Present while large quantities of feed and supplies arrived, Jeffcoat says the work of many allows for the ranchers to focus more on the long-term decisions that they’ll have to start making.  “Some are facing selling their cattle early because they have no forage.   Some have lost entire herds.   Some will be nursing orphans because their heifer’s burned udders cannot…lives may never be the same and many are just now understanding their new reality”, she says.  Jeffcoat adds that although she understands the volunteers cannot replace what’s been lost, their hope is that victims will feel the compassion being put forth.

John and Melanie Lowrance of Lowrance Horses in Bowie, TX were a fine example of the public’s generosity shown for fire victims.  While the Lowrance’s business is typically in selling top-notch cutting, reining, rope, barrel, or ranch horses, the couple felt a need to help in a different way.  Having witnessed several stallion auctions be extremely effective for other causes, they donated their stallion, “Hired Gun”, and put the word out about an auction they were going to organize for wildfire relief efforts.  “…I figured we might get a dozen or so other stallions donated.  We ended up with over 100…”, says Melanie Lowrance.  Everything from nice ranch-bred stallions to barrel horses and high-end cutting stallion’s breeding services were available for purchase on the four-day Facebook auction.  The efforts were well received as they brought in over $125,000.  Winning bidders of the breedings donated their money directly to the WRCF Wildfire Relief Fund.  The Lowrance’s generosity to help came out of empathy and understanding for those experiencing great tragedy.  “Even though we don’t raise cattle, we still understand…We are all attached to these animals- horses or cows- they’re our livelihood but we do this because we love it…I just hope that we can help these people get back on their feet…”, Lowrance says.

Similarly, businesswomen Holly Baker, Shelby Javernick, and Amber Sanders, all teamed up to design, print, and sell t-shirts for wildfire relief efforts.  “All three of us come from ranching families and the disaster really hit home”, says Baker, who originally pitched the fundraising idea to her friends. Selling over 3,200 shirts for $40,000, the ladies say that the response has been even greater than their initial expectations.  “Time and time again, ranchers and the communities that support them, rise up to help when someone is in need…we are grateful to be a vessel for the community to show their generosity and kind hearts”, adds Javernick.   Both the stallion auction and t-shirt sales are a few instances of the public stepping in to help.  Other events such as Facebook auctions for handmade saddles, chaps, and gear, as well as a benefit ranch rodeo in Shamrock, TX, were all organized to benefit wildfire victims.

Out of the ashes, the smoke, the pure devastation, and the loss, arose a group of people like few have ever seen, as the agricultural community came together in a time of great need.  What was left for many was very little, but a flicker of hope was found as people everywhere banded together to help.  “Wind and fire are no match for the knowledge of what it means to be a rancher or farmer.  The land can be tough, but their spirit is tougher”, says Jeffcoat.    And one thing is certain, it’s that resilient spirit which will allow them to bounce back, whether it takes days, months, or even years.

Photo credit: Trent Cadra, Texas Farm Bureau and Katherine Jeffcoat