Wildfire burns over 11,700 acres,
several structures Friday
by Sherrie Williams and Kevin Hamilton
It was a perfect storm waiting to happen Friday. With much of the northern and western part of Texas in serious drought conditions with tinder-dry grass and brush from months of no precipitation and low humidity, combined with winds that gusted to 65 mph, all that was needed was a spark to create a nightmare.
That spark came at 9:40 a.m., when Iowa Park Fire Department was called to assist Electra Fire Department with a fire in the median on US 287 one mile east of the six-mile cutoff.
By the end of the day, 14 homes plus several outbuildings, oil equipment, power lines and animals were lost. The combined efforts of firemen and volunteers from several communities, plus the services of the Texas Forest Service prevented catastrophic devastation to more than the 11,700 acres burned, including Iowa Park itself.
According to Wichita County Deputy Melvin Joyner, four homes were lost on Old Electra Road, eight homes on FM 367 West plus numerous outbuildings (estimated loss $2,830,495); and two homes on FM 1206 in addition to several outbuildings (estimated $116,500).
The total doesn’t include oilfield equipment or power poles and lines lost. Also, several head of livestock, pets, and wildlife were destroyed or injured.
Most importantly, there was no loss of life and no major injuries, with just a few minor smoke inhalation cases reported. More than 100 families were evacuated by emergency personnel along FM 367, FM 1206 and Old Electra Road.
The Iowa Park fire was but one of several across North Texas, the Panhandle, Permian Basin and Davis Mountain areas this past week. Closer to Iowa Park on Friday, fires raged along Missile Road in Wichita Falls and rural areas east of the city. In nearby Graham and Possum Kingdom Lake, one of the largest wildfires plaguing the state had more than doubled in size, threatening more than 600 homes and forcing the evacuation of Strawn. As of Wednesday, the 150,000-acre Wildcat fire north of San Angelo was still burning. And crews from several states – utilizing C-130 aircraft capable of carrying specialized firefighting equipment, were helping to contain the 200,000-acre Rockhouse fire near Fort Davis. In all, 10 new fires had been reported by the Forest Service since Monday.
IOWA PARK FIRE
The initial fire at US 287 near the six-mile cutoff was contained before it crossed the railroad tracks running along the southbound lanes by Iowa Park and Electra firemen, plus heavy equipment from Wichita County Precinct 3 and 4, and a dozer and motor grader from Iowa Park. With high winds blowing southeastward, officials predicted that any fire progressing beyond the tracks into the heavy, dry vegetation would present a formidable situation.
At 12:56, that dreaded call came in to local dispatch.
The fire had rekindled, crossed the railroad tracks, and entered into the wooded, brushy terrain.
The distance from US 287 and six-mile cutoff to FM 367 where homes were lost is just over 7.5 miles from north to south, and 5.5 miles from west to east.
It took the fire less than an hour to reach that destination.
With Iowa Park and Electra fighting the rekindle at US 287, Electra was diverted back to their city to fight a structure fire.
According to Iowa Park Fire Chief Randy Fulbright, firemen realized the blaze was traveling faster than they could in the rough terrain, so they pulled out of the initial location and began to make their way to FM 367 in hopes of getting in front of the fire.
Fulbright said that, when the fire first started, it moved quickly south, but a shift in winds redirected it more in a southeastward direction, threatening Iowa Park itself.
As the firefighters were about to turn onto Harmony Road to go south, they received a call of a structure fire in Iowa Park (1:46). Some of the equipment was diverted to the mobile home fire on West Lafayette, with officials realizing a blazing inferno inside of town during the high winds would threaten several nearby structures.
When they arrived, retired Wichita Falls firefighter Mark Wicks had entered the home. According to an Iowa Park police officer on the scene, Wicks crawled into the smoke-filled structure on his belly and found the source of the fire.
In the meantine, city crews arrived with a VacTron truck – a piece of equipment used to clear sewer lines with high-pressure water. They began putting the fire out with that equipment. Other city employees, including City Manager Mike Price and Police Chief Robert Johnson, were at the scene helping to pull fire hose when the firetruck arrived.
At the same time, Fulbright and other firefighters were continuing toward FM 367 to meet the fire head-on.
“We had to get in front of the fire to try and stop it,” he said.
Other fire departments began to arrive, in addition to several local and area citizens with heavy equipment. One of the most welcome were tank trucks from Park Tank Truck and Energy filled with water.
At 1:51, less than hour after the call at six-mile cutoff, the fire had made its way more than eight miles to FM 367.
The inferno soon jumped FM 367 and Weetu Road, and within minutes made its way past Old Electra Road.
Just after 4 p.m., the Texas Forest Service arrived with two dozers, two fire engines, four support vehicles and 22 men and women. The task force, stationed in Childress, is made up of firefighters from five states including Texas, Arizona, Montana, Utah and Idaho.
After assessing the situation, the Forest Service devised a plan that included blading fire breaks east of Old Electra Road, plus administering “back-burning” fires to keep the momentum of the blaze from continuing toward Iowa Park.
Other volunteer fire departments were on hand battling the blaze, including Spur, Paducah, Matador, Electra, Kamay, Punkin Center, Harold, Wichita West and Burkburnett. Punkin Center Fire Department lost a vehicle in the fire. Many trucks from local departments were also damaged.
Over a three-day period, more than 50 volunteer firemen initially worked a solid 41.5 hours, then an additional 12 hours Monday mopping up hot spots. Some took short breaks sleeping in the fire department bays. The fire was determined 100-percent contained just after noon on Monday.
One lone fireman from Pampa drove directly to Iowa Park after learning of the fire. He arrived late Friday evening and stayed until Sunday afternoon fighting alongside other firefighters from this area.
Displaced families were initially gathered at the former Wal-Mart parking lot in Iowa Park. A shelter was set up at Hirschi High School in Wichita Falls. According to reports, those displaced locally either went to the homes of family or friends, or made arrangements at nearby hotels.
Early Saturday morning, emergency personnel allowed people back into the affected areas.
Retired Wichita Falls fireman Jim Stevens spent 20 years in service battling an assortment of fires, and often finding himself empathizing with victims of fire.
Friday afternoon, for the first time, Stevens became a potential victim himself when forced to evacuate his home on FM 367 West.
Standing alongside the road at the 367-368 split, where emergency personnel had set up their command post, Stevens and his neighbors watched as the fire storm advanced to and beyond their homes. “I felt helpless. Just helpless,” said Stevens. “For years, I was the one sympathizing with victims, and seeing the look of despair on their faces. And here I was, seeing that fire come over the hill, and the black smoke, and I just thought man, I just lost my house.”
With emergency personnel not allowing residents back into the area, Stevens and his son Jeremiah eventually drove in the back way, from FM 2384. Along the way, he phoned neighbors to tell them if their structures were ok or not.
Across the road from his place, a house and mobile home sat untouched, but a fence along the mobile home was burning, and soon collapsed against it. The two raced across the road, grabbing a garden hose to hopefully extinguish the fire, but only a trickle of water came out. Stevens dialed 911, but the blaze engulfed the structure before they could arrive. “Considering how busy they were, they arrived pretty quick,” he noted. “But it was just too late.”
When they were evacuated, Stevens said he took three things out of his house ... a box full of old photos, a hat his dad (renowned artist/sculptor Jack Stevens) gave him in 1980, and his guns, most of those given to him by his grandfather. “I forgot my money roll,” he laughed.
Once away from the house, Stevens said he regretted not gathering up various sculptures and paintings made by Jack, including portraits of his grandsons. “Those are just priceless,” he said. “You can replace the sculptures, because dad has the casts. But the paintings can’t be replaced.”
On Sunday, when the families were allowed to return, Jim, owner of Rafter J Barbecue, pulled all his beef from the fridge and cooked up a meal for the neighbors. “It was an incredible feeling, seeing that our house was spared,” he said. “Everyone is ok, no one was hurt. This was the least I could do.”
OLD ELECTRA ROAD
Burned out buildings dotted Old Electra Road after the fire. On Monday, Malcom Calaway was sifting through the remains of his mother Shirley’s property. The mobile home was completely destroyed, the metal piping that braced the garage and storage area curved from the heat. Alongside several vehicles burned by the blaze, a neighborhood stray Labrador, Buddy, sifted through the debris.
“She was totally devastated,” said Calaway of his mother. “In addition to her place, she lost a restored Buick, a 2001 Dodge truck and a van. She is fine, and has a little insurance. We are planning to clean this mess up, and build her another place.”
Calaway said that Buddy, one of several strays dumped along Old Electra Road, returned to find that his favorite two toys were untouched. His next door neighbor, Monte Kerr, evacuated another six stray dogs before the fire consumed his place. “He works for Cryovac and travels all around the world, and had several momentos I’m sure he would have liked to have saved,” said Calaway. “But he’s ok, and so are those dogs.”
HELP WHEN CAN
Iowa Park police officers, Texas DPS troopers, Wichita County Sheriff Department deputies and an IPCISD officer assisted in evacuating residents during the blaze.
Three Iowa Park police dispatchers manned the phone system during the emergency, and Iowa Park City Hall staff answered non-emergency calls.
Red Cross and the Salvation Army arrived to help provide food and water to firemen.
Several local businesses and residents arrived at the local fire station with food and drinks. Kathy’s Bakery and Deli opened her meeting room for first responders to rest and eat.
On Saturday, Faith Baptist Church men’s group prepared a barbecue meal and delivered it to the police station to feed first responders.
It was well-received by a number of county deputies and firefighters, in addition to Texas Forest Service personnel, as their day ended just after 5 p.m. The Iowa Park Evening Lions Club opened up their building to more than 60 personnel for the meal.
After the Forest Service personnel left to fight another blaze in West Texas Saturday evening, local firefighters were called to extinguish a barn fire on FM 367.
The lone fireman from Pampa was provided a room at Park Place Inn free of charge by owners Ruth and Gene James. The next day, he made his way to the Possum Kingdom fire.
Many local firefighters took vacation and personal time to fight the blaze, and some closed businesses to assist.
School officials on Friday determined buses couldn’t run routes in the affected areas. Administrators Steve Moody and Jonathan Clubb consulted with Randy Alsup, deciding the 40-45 students riding Bus #8 and #10 would have to remain at school. Parents were contacted, and arrangements made to pick the students up at their respective campuses. Between 3:45 and 3:50, only one Kidwell student and 10 high school students remained on campus. “They did an outstanding job on each campus,” said Clubb.