Gonzales County’s kindness to Panhandle fire victims greatly appreciated

Hemphill County Attorney, GHS grad, describes aftermath of Texas’ largest wildfire


Gonzales may be nine hours driving distance away from the Texas Panhandle, but the county’s residents will forever be in the hearts and on the minds of Panhandle residents for their generous donations of supplies and other necessary items, Hemphill County Attorney Kyle Miller said last week.

Miller, a graduate of Gonzales High School, has witnessed firsthand in Canadian the devastation caused by the Smokehouse Creek fire, which has consumed more than 1 million acres, destroyed some 500 buildings, killed scores of livestock and other animals and claimed several lives.

Miller’s sister and brother-in-law, Kelly and Ricky Lester, as well as his niece Loni Kay Yates, have spearheaded the relief efforts in Gonzales County. The Lesters, who own a Gonzales County ranch, not only donated goods but also the use of their truck and trailer, which has taken two truck loads of items such as water, vet supplies, fencing supplies, animal feed and even monetary donations.

“In short, I cannot tell you how overwhelmed with gratitude the people of Canadian are for the supplies and support that Gonzales County has gathered and transported up here,” Miller said. “I cannot thank Ricky, Kelly and Loni enough for what they have done for Hemphill County. We have already distributed most of the feed that arrived Sunday, and the fencing material will be put into use shortly. The feed and vet supplies are going out almost as fast as they come in. The water donations were a tremendous help.

“One cannot imagine the impact that a delivery such as this has on the morale of those on the receiving end. In the midst of what is certainly the worst moments in the lives of so many here, the thought that someone nine hours away cares enough to send supplies is humbling and gratifying. Sometimes living in the Panhandle feels like living at the end of the Earth. To know that so many people contributed to the relief effort here is overwhelming.”

Now called the largest wildfire in Texas history, it is believed the Smokehouse Creek fire began on Feb. 26 near Stinnett in Hutchinson County when a power line that was on a decaying Xcel Energy pole fell into a grassy area and ignited sparks, according to a report from a Texas A&M Forest Service investigator.

High winds helped spread the blaze until it burned 1,058,482 acres. It was reportedly 89 percent contained as of Tuesday, March 12. A second fire, the Windy Deuce, appeared to have started the same day as the Smokehouse Creek fire at an oil field in Moore County when a power line made contact with tree limbs, causing a spark that fell into the grass below. It was unclear which company owned that power line.

The Windy Deuce fire had burned 144,045 acres and was 94 percent contained as of March 12. A third fire, the Grape Vine Creek fire, burned 34,883 acres from its origin point in Gray County and was fully contained as of March 11.

Miller called the devastation in the Panhandle “incredible” and drew upon a historical reference to explain what he has seen.

“One is reminded of pictures from the Dresden bombing campaign in World War II,” Miller said. “So many animals were unable to avoid the flames, and the suffering endured by those animals is simply horrific. Many ranchers ran out of ammunition to put burned animals down. At least 40 families no longer have homes, and escaped with the clothes on their backs and little else.

“Imagine the illusion of security and safety that one normally feels in one’s home suddenly being shattered, the lifetime of stored memorabilia and comforts that people surround themselves with wiped out almost in an instant. It illustrates a very harsh truth: nothing in this world is meant to last, and nothing one has or owns cannot be taken away by forces beyond comprehension.”

Miller said many families are having to struggle not only with the grief of losing all of their belongings,  which have to and yet can’t all be replaced, as well as the realization they must find a new place to call home.

“The next few months are going to be incredibly difficult for these families,” Miller said. “We are so far from any major metropolitan area or major population center that rebuilding is a challenge. There are few builders up here, and fewer still who can make money building something 100 miles away from the nearest Home Depot. The housing situation will be an ongoing crisis here for some time.’

Miller noted there was more than enough available fuel for the fire due to a perfect storm of conditions: overgrown acreage and dry weather which increased the flammability of the Panhandle prairies.

“A lot of the issue had to do with a very good rainfall year for us two years ago, and having a drought summer this year,” Miller said. “Ranchers for years have benefitted from CRP land programs that require them to allow their acreage to grow wild, but this creates an almost unimaginable danger. It is an unappreciated danger, especially unappreciated by government officials in Austin or Washington who cannot find Canadian on a map. There was so much dry grass and sagebrush that fire had plenty of raw fuel.

“There are also environmental differences between the Texas Panhandle and Central Texas that exacerbate fire conditions. Having grown up in Gonzales, 70+mph winds aren’t really an issue down there. Certainly a 40-foot high wall of flame being pushed at the speed of the wind is rare in Central Texas, fortunately. One has no idea how fast fire can move in these conditions until one has experienced it, and that is not something I recommend to anyone. Suffice to say; when authorities give the order to evacuate, one should listen.”

The experience has been both horrific and humbling, Miller added.

“We saw firsthand how amazing our Lord is,” he said. “Despite over a million acres of land burned, over 40 homes lost, and thousands of livestock animals killed; the loss of human life was zero in Hemphill County. The outpouring of support from around the country has been amazing. The Texas A&M Agriculture and Extension agents from around the state have done incredible work, and I strongly suggest that Aggies be placed in charge of relief efforts any time a disaster strikes in the world. They truly responded above and beyond the call of duty.

“I am sure there will be forthcoming words of thanks from the leaders in our community. For myself, I cannot tell you how blessed I am to have the family that I have. I am so thankful to them for helping this community with relief supplies and prayer, and so thankful that my hometown thought enough of people nine hours away to send aid in a time like this. Again, thank you all so much. Words honestly cannot express what all of this means to the people in Hemphill County.”