Apocalypse on the plains

The Great Plains of the central United States have seen fire play a role in its history for thousands of years. The vast grasslands emerge from winter with the blanket of fuel cured of moisture by the months of freezing and thawing. Before the country was settled, the only sources of ignition were lightning from a stray thunderstorm or perhaps an intentional set by local Native Americans. Tribes would often burn off areas with the knowledge that spring rains would bring a flush of new grass to the burn scar which would in turn attract and hold the huge herds of buffalo. With a deep understanding of topography and weather, the Indians could semi-control the burned area.

As settlers swelled westward, the landscape began to change. The herds of buffalo disappeared as railroads snaked across the plains to be replaced by millions of cattle. Native Americans were forced into the reservation system. Homesteads were established and with them came fences and corrals. Wagon trails became roads and soon the high plains were wild no more.

As the Southern Plains emerged from winter in 2017 wildfire managers in several states were faced with a feeling of dread. Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas had all experienced below normal winter precipitation and the previous summer storm showers had created lots of fuel on the ground, which was now very dry. Conditions were ripe and when combined with the ever present spring winds, the outlook was for extreme fire weather.

Several states took proactive measures and started pre-positioning firefighting assets. Colorado activated two of its state contracted Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) in January and moved much of its engine crews from the mountains onto the eastern plains. The Kansas Forest Service only has five personnel and one engine assigned to full time fire duty. That state depends on rural volunteer fire departments for wildland fire control. Oklahoma requested four SEATs from the federal On Call contract in addition to two Super Scooper CL-415s and numerous helicopters. In mid-February, the Texas Forest Service added four SEATs from the national On Call program. Two were positioned in Amarillo and two, of which I was one, reported to Abilene. Numerous agency personnel from east and south Texas were moved into the Panhandle region. Two weeks later, Texas added a heavy air tanker to Abilene, Tanker 02, a BAe-146 from Neptune Aviation.

On our first day of duty at Abilene, we were dispatched to a fire sixty miles to the east. When we arrived at the fire with our second load of retardant, I was number one for the drop while SEAT Tanker-866 was about one-half mile behind me. I identified the target and T-866’s instructions were to tag and extend my line. After making my drop and turning out, I suddenly heard the Air Attack command over the radio, “Tanker 866 abort abort.” Crews on the ground had spotted a drone that had actually flown between T-866 and me. If one of these highly popular units were to strike an air tanker there would definitely be metal bent and could possibly lead to a serious accident.

Before the BAe-146 heavy air tanker T-02 arrived, life was pretty laid back at the Abilene SEAT base. It was just us two pilots, our support truck drivers and a SEAT manager, or an SEMG as it is known. A SEMG serves as a liaison between the contractor and the government agency we are assigned to. They keep track of our paperwork and record our times when we are flying. Before T-02 arrived things started to ramp up. With a heavy air tanker present, we became Abilene Tanker Base and required an Air Base Manager, Mixmaster and a Ramp Manager. The Texas Forest Service also supplied a couple of people for logistical duties. With T-02 came an Aerial Supervision Module (ASM). This is a Beechcraft King Air that has both a lead plane pilot and an Air Attack on board. Our little laid back base had become a crowded beehive of activity.

We received dispatches on a regular basis during this period but they were usually either called in too late for us to launch go to the fire and return to Abilene, or it would be too windy. SEATs are grounded when sustained winds reach thirty knots or if there is a gust spread of more than fifteen knots. On a lot of days both of these standards were met. With winds this strong retardant becomes ineffective and it is almost impossible to place it where you want it.

Our morning briefing on March 1 was rather ominous in that the weather forecast showed an approaching strong cold front that would bring pre-passage record high temperatures, gusty winds and extremely low relative humidity. Red flag warnings were issued for the entire week and the event was to culminate on March 6 with the passage of the front that produced a 90° wind shift and no moisture. We watched anxiously all week as several small fires were reported to dispatch, but were caught by ground crews before there was a need for aircraft assistance.

By the time we arrived for work on the morning of March 6, the winds had already exceeded our limitations. Sustained winds over forty knots with gusts over fifty knots were common in the Abilene area, while farther north and nearer the front wind speeds were even higher. By early afternoon dispatch was reporting multiple new fire starts in the northern Panhandle. The acreage estimates for each fire grew at an alarming rate. Barriers, such as highways and railroads, were no defense against the 70 mph wind gusts. All firefighters could do was position in front of the fire and warn people to get out of the way. Multiple evacuation orders were issued and many communities looked like ghost towns as the flame front approached. The same conditions were occurring in Oklahoma and Kansas with the largest fire starting in western Oklahoma and crossing the state line into its neighbor to the north.

A couple hours after darkness fell, blazes were still raging but a new element was inserted into the battle. The frontal passage with its associated wind shift passed through and the fire monsters were now headed southeast instead of northeast. New evacuations orders had to be issued. By late the next afternoon, winds had subsided and firefighters began to get a handle on the fires. Acreage estimates had become wild guesses and no one would really know until the fire perimeter could be mapped by aircraft. Containment would be weeks away as hundreds of miles of fire lines had to be patrolled; much of it being in very remote areas. Hot spots where heavier fuels had been had to be located and cooled off.

As soon as it was safe, the survey of the devastation began. People were missing, homes were destroyed and untold ranching infrastructure, such as fencing and corrals, had been leveled. Overall, over one million acres burned in a two-day period with 585,000 of those acres in Texas. Most had been pasture that was now reduced to worthless black ashes. The missing people were found, four in Texas and two in Oklahoma, all perished by overwhelming flames while trying to herd livestock out of harm’s way. Thousands of livestock were killed in the blaze with many having to be put down days later due to severe burns or smoke inhalation.

It was a nationwide community of ranchers that reacted to the disaster. Millions of tons of hay for surviving livestock was donated with convoys of trucks hauling it in from hundreds and even more than a thousand miles away. Truckloads of fencing materials arrived daily. Fencing costs between $5,000-$10,000 per acre. Thousands of miles of it had been destroyed. The land would repair itself after the spring rains arrive and herds would be rebuilt from survivors. The governor declared a state of disaster making Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) funds available to ranchers affected by the fire. Federal funds would also pay for firefighting efforts as long as dangerous conditions existed.

Investigators determined most fires started that fateful day were ignited by power lines that were downed by high winds. Back at the tanker base, all we could do was sit back watching report after report wishing there was something we could do. We remained in Abilene for another month responding to the occasional dispatch until spring rains and the resulting green up signaled an end to the spring fire season on the Southern High Plains.

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