Last 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. Before I lay down for a nap, I read about the devastation in Japan from the terrible earthquake and tsunami. I had visited Japan in the summer of 2009 to work on a book and see friends who live in Tokyo. Years earlier, I had been to Hiroshima and interviewed atomic bomb survivors and visited the former City Hall there that was left in its skeletal ruins as a reminder of the destruction that city suffered during World War II.
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, I saw it.
Wildfire. It's strange how a word that signifies heat can chill you to your bones. A disaster was brewing just beyond my front gate.
Huge clouds of smoke appeared to the east. Being a typical reporter, I drove towards the danger rather than away from it. I turned onto County Road 2007 and then again on CR 2004 and headed toward a cedar-covered hill where flames were leaping in the air.
Firetrucks sped by on the gravel road. I pulled over to take some photographs. The fire, driven by a strong southern wind, was spreading fast. Time to get out of there.
In my haste to get away from the fire, my car fishtailed on the loose gravel and I lost control. I crashed through a high game fence.
I managed to stop the car and got out to look at the damage. My front bumper took the brunt of the impact, knocking down a T-post. Other than a few scratches, though, that was it. I backed up and was able to drive the car out of the fence.
Not knowing whose property it was I had damaged, I called the Somervell County Sheriff's Office. The dispatcher didn't think I was within the county, so I called the Bosque County Sheriff's Office to report the hole in the fence. I sure didn't want any livestock to escape.
But I had a fire to cover and so I had to leave the scene after giving my phone number to the dispatcher.
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 toward us, burning up lots of dry grass and other 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 blazes.
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 Operations Center, which was set up at the Somervell County Sheriff’s Office to monitor the situation and mobilize the response.
He invited me to accompany him down the road to see where the fire was going. 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 snapped, crackled, popped and hissed. It smelled like a gigantic barbecue was underway.
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 emotion of it all showed on their faces.
In the end, the situation turned out as well as could be expected. No homes burned. Some firefighters suffered minor injuries, but no lives were lost — so far. The fires continue to burn.
On Monday I got to meet the woman whose fence I drove through. She thanked me for informing authorities so she could get the fence repaired before her livestock escaped. The bison I had seen belonged to her. She called to make sure I was all right and she did not want me to pay for the damage to her fence. Honesty and courtesy really pays off, doesn't it?
The fire brought out the good in a lot of people. I've never seen so many firetrucks and equipment from so many different towns respond to a fire. Many of the men and women battling the blazes were volunteers. Every minute there were acts of bravery that no one knows about.
These men and women deserve our thanks for all they do. Let's figure out as a community how we can express our gratitude for living in a place where people pull together — because disasters don't just happen on the other side of the world, they can happen here, too.