Friday started out looking like a slow news day. Then the countryside went up in flames.
I had gone home to rest for a while after battling a sinus infection all week. After lunch I felt better, so I headed back to the office. I live south of Glen Rose just over the Bosque County line and on the high ridge between State Highway 144 and FM 203. As I drove over the cattle guard and prepared to turn north on SH 144, however, I saw it.
Huge clouds of smoke appeared behind the smallest hill of the Seven Knobs. I drove towards them and called my colleague, Linda Rowe, at the office to see what she'd heard on the scanner we keep tuned to the sheriff's dispatcher frequency.
The fire department had already dispatched trucks and equipment to County Road 2007, the road along the Bosque-Somervell county line, she told me.
I turned onto CR 2007 and spotted several county trucks at the XTO Energy site. At that point the fire was still in Bosque County, but it was racing fast, driven by high winds and lots of dry fuel from the winter. A herd of bison grazed behind a tall game fence, seemingly oblivious to the approaching danger.
To the north, more gray smoke billowed. Another fire. The people who live along CR 2007 and FM 202 were caught between the two.
County Commissioner John Curtis, whose precinct includes the southeastern corner of Somervell County where the fires burned, was on the scene to dispatch the latest word about the two separate fires to the county's emergency command, which was set up at the Somervell County Sheriff’s Office. County Judge Mike Ford had declared a local emergency. He and both Justices of the Peace, other county commissioners, Glen Rose Mayor Pro Tem Johnny Martin, City Superintendent Ronald Bruce and others clustered there to plan and prepare for the multi-pronged response to the blaze.
Curtis invited me to accompany him down the road. I hopped into his Jeep Wrangler and we headed east on CR 2007.
We could see flames to the right of the road. They were traveling fast over the dry grass. We went past them and Curtis got on his cell phone to call the EOC. By the time we turned around, the flames had leapt across the road.
“The fire’s now in Somervell County,” Curtis told the EOC. Smoke blacked out the sun.
“I’m no hero,” he told me. “We’re not going back through that again.”
That was just fine with me.
We traveled the other direction and went over to FM 202 to take a look at the smaller fire that had consumed the cedar and cactus around a home. A Forest Service helicopter was dipping water out of a stock tank across the street and dropping it from the air. Plumes of white smoke rose like when you pour a bucket of water on a campfire.
I had covered the gas line explosion last year and remembered the incredible roar of that fire. The wildfires, though, were fed by cedar full of resin. They crackled and popped and hissed when the flames hit them.
We drove through The Oaks development. Officials decided it should be evacuated. The usually pristine homes and manicured yards looked eerie veiled in smoke. Residents who didn’t know how long they would have to stay away were hooking up trailers and loading up their horses and whatever belongings they could throw in their vehicles quickly. Some clearly were upset.
A teenage girl stood in her driveway, weeping and talking on her cell phone, trying to find some way to get her horse, Molly, out of harm's way.
Other residents fretted over their cars and what to take and what to leave behind. Split-second decisions had to be made and the stress and heartbreak of it all showed on their faces.
So much uncertainty remained Friday night: where the fires would go, what would be in their paths, what the next morning would bring and what residents would find when or if they could return to their homes.
As the sun rose, at least one prayer had been answered. The wind had died down a bit and the immense clouds of smoke were gone. But the threat of fire remains high this weekend with so much dry fuel lying in the woods and near homes. And as Friday’s events showed, fire poses the worst kind of danger. It's unpredictable…and often untamable.