Lightning struck the Jackson Hereford Ranch on April 10, 2011. Twenty-one days and more than 2,000 scorched acres later, the fires finally went out.
By Erin Eskew Worrell
From the Jackson Hereford Ranch headquarters near Strawn, west of Fort Worth, Robert Joe and Dena Jackson's view of the landscape is vastly different today than it was in 1891 when Robert Joe's great grandparents, Jerry Robert and Iona Lynch Jackson, settled 160 acres on the banks of Ironi Creek.
The effect of time on the rugged country of Stephens County hasn't been
the only factor that has changed the scenery. The effects of a massive wildfire that burned nearly a third of the now 8,200-acre ranch are evident from the bluffs. The Jackson Family Limited Partnership, consisting of Robert Joe and Dena Jackson, Smokey and Shirley Eppler, Tye Jackson, Jacob Jackson and Shelby Jackson, proved to be a resilient force in the face of an epic wildfire season for Texas.
In what some authorities have declared the worst single-year drought in Texas history, 2011 saw more than 90 percent of the state in severe, extreme or exceptional drought status. Garry Barney, a regional fire coordinator with the Texas Forest Service, recently renamed the Texas A&M Forest Service, says, "During the 2011 fire season we were fighting fires in conditions that we'd never seen before. We had extremely drought stricken areas providing an enormous amount of fuel, nearly zero humidity and gusting winds that went on for days."
These ideal meteorological conditions converged with the potential to fuel a massive wildfire and put the Jacksons on high alert. As it turns out, the pasture where lightning struck on April 10, 2011, was thick with cedar. The Jacksons had been cutting fence posts from the cedar and using a tree shear on a skid steer, but had not been able to burn the brush piles leading up to the fire because of the exact situation they now faced: the danger of an uncontrollable fire.
"By the next afternoon the fire broke out in that section, and it just had an enormous amount of fuel. In the first few days it burned toward the southern edge of our place and onto the neighbor's, but it came back on us and we knew it would be tough to put out," says Robert Joe.
Even though the ranch had the necessary equipment to successfully fight
fires in less severe weather conditions, the dozer, grader and tank truck full of water were no match for a swift moving fire in such rough terrain.
In fact, they put the dozer to work immediately but had to cease efforts or risk losing it because there was no backup available. Meanwhile, intense fires were taking over the exclusive residential area of Possum Kingdom Lake just northeast of the ranch, thus keeping all of the normal firefighting resources and personnel busy and unable to assist at the ranch.
Robert Joe says, "The fire on our place eventually ran into the Hohertz fire that was burning in Palo Pinto County, and by the time it was all said and done it caught up with the fire over at Possum Kingdom."
The daily grind
The local volunteer fire department was the first to respond and stayed as the fire raged on for 3 weeks. The county precincts were there early on with water trucks and motor graders, but when it became evident the fire would burn excessively the Forest Service was able to shift its otherwise diverted and thin resources and send assistance.
But the fire raged on, and with conditions primed for a marathon firefight the U.S. Forest Service was called in to aid the control efforts, pulling in equipment and manpower from coast to coast. Crews came from as far away as Yellowstone and the Teton Mountain region of Wyoming, as well as the Grand Canyon, and even from the southeast region of the country.
Still, the fire continued to gain momentum and the Forest Service staff was permitted to work only a 12-hour shift. "If they started at 6 in the morning that meant they were done by 6 that evening, regardless of the fire conditions," says Robert Joe.
With those factors in place, the bulk of the overnight watch shift and firefighting efforts were left to the family, friends, neighbors and the endless stream of volunteer fire departments that showed up from across the region.
Texas Department of Transportation machinery was brought in to help the never-ending battle, while oil production companies in the area furnished water in tanker trucks so the fire trucks didn't have to leave the ranch.
"At one point we had helicopters called in by the Forest Service, but they couldn't dip into our tanks because the water levels were too low. After that we didn't see them on our place much because they were mainly using them to protect structures and homes over at the Possum Kingdom fire," says Robert Joe.
There was no way to predict how long it would burn, and with fires blazing simultaneously in several parts of the state, the incident commanders from the Texas Forest Service and the U.S. Forest Service changed every few days. "Just when we'd get someone acclimated to the layout of the ranch, the roadways and the local resources, they'd leave and we'd have to start all over again with someone new," says Dena.
With such frequent turnover, the incoming incident commander often relied on the family to fill them in on what to expect based on what they'd seen in the preceding days of the fire and their knowledge of the conditions of the pastures on the ranch. Dena says, "We just can't say enough good things about our local volunteer fire department; they stayed with us the whole time doing everything they possibly could."
"We were scattered in all directions," she remembers. "We had someone out all night, nearly every night. Sometimes they slept in the dozers or trucks waiting for the wind to shift or the fire to come out of a canyon. At times they fought all night and into the morning, stopping only long enough for a quick meal and a short nap at noon.
"I stayed here at the house preparing food, feeding the cattle and moving them while everyone else fought on the fire line. There was no break and we couldn't make plans because everything changed on a daily basis. We just had to take things day by day, sometimes hour
by hour, but none of us left or evacuated," Dena says.
"By the time it was over, we'd cut 30 to 40 miles of fire line with the dozers, but only about half of a mile helped any. The wind had the fire jumping those fire lines as fast as we could cut them," says Robert Joe.
"In some places our country is just too rough with canyons and limestone bluffs to get equipment in or out. When it got in there we just had to wait for it to come back out." The Jacksons say sometimes that took all day or night while other times it was only a matter of hours, just depending on what Mother Nature had in store.
Focus on the feasible
When the time came to physically load up a trailer and move things, Dena knew they had to prioritize. Five generations of the Jackson family have spent their lives selecting genetics for both the purebred and commercial herds, so it is no surprise they felt compelled to load the herd bulls first and then the semen tanks. After that was done, the photographs and heirlooms filled up the remaining space.
"It would have been hard to see our home, furniture and clothing go up in flames, but all of that can be replaced," she says.
The fire came within a half mile from headquarters and about a third of a mile from Robert Joe and Dena's house, saved only by the huge amount of dirt moved by dozer operators and a set of cultivated fields, some that were awaiting spring planting and others with wheat that hadn't grown due to lack of moisture.
Dena says, "We were loading trailers when a sheriff deputy arrived with a 20-minute warning to leave before the fire reached us. Then the wind changed directions and we were spared. Even though we'd spent a few days pushing fireguards on dozers, we knew it was risky because of dry hay we had on the ground up near the house, so I went ahead and moved the registered bulls and some of the registered replacement heifers."
Thanks to the generosity of neighboring ranchers, the Jacksons evacuated them to the green bermudagrass horse paddocks of Strawn Valley Ranch, driving through the fire as it burned on both sides of the highway.
"We had a few wheat fields that weren't in great shape because of the drought, but they were just good enough to provide a bit of food and safety for the cows that we called up from the south side of the ranch."
In the midst of moving a set of cows in the prime of calving season, the fire was moving at a fast pace, and being chased by fierce winds it jumped the highway. "One section (640 acres) burned up in a matter of minutes, but we were ahead of it and got them through the gate with just about 150 to 200 yards to spare," says Robert Joe.
The ranch has raised Hereford cattle since 1925 and Dena says "unlike the movies where you see cattle scatter and bust through fences in a panic, these Herefords followed right behind the feed truck and never made a break for it." Nonetheless, their survival instinct was triggered and some of them left calves behind.
Damage and loss
"We lost most of the calf crop that year, and we'd already sold off some of our cows because of the drought, so our numbers were down a bit more than they had been historically. There was a slight setback with our replacement heifers that year, too, because we crowded them up more than we should have just trying to save the herd. But they all made it and we are getting back on track. With the condition of some of our pastures we're not in a hurry to grow our numbers right now, but we'll get there when the time is right."
Fencing proved to be the biggest financial loss for the Jacksons. They've replaced fences along the highways and some of the pasture fences, but they still lack about 5 miles of crossfencing.
"We lost 8 or 9 miles and a great deal of that was, of course, in the roughest, most limestone rich country on the entire ranch, so they ended up being the most expensive fences I've ever built," says Robert Joe.
"On top of that, at the time we needed to rebuild, t-post prices were the highest they've ever been. Some of the ranches around us are required to have insurance on their fences as part of their trust structure, but I've looked into it and it was just too cost-prohibitive on our older fences that burned. Plus, we just never imagined ever losing that much all at once."
Although hard to quantify, the emotional toll was far greater than any financial or physical loss suffered from the fire.
"Things just look so scorched and barren. We lost huge oak trees that have been on this ranch my entire life," Robert Joe says as he reflects on the aftermath of the fire. "It wiped out the cedar and we're grateful for that, but the tree patterns and how this country looks is something that I just couldn't ever have pictured in my mind. I saw things burn that I never thought would have. We have places on the ranch today covered in prickly pear that need to burn, but after what we went through, none of us are willing to light that kind of fire."
It only took 21 days to forever change the environment of the ranch and farmland that has grown and progressed with both time and stewardship over the past 120 years. Today, the Jackson family is still dealing with the outcome of the fire and doing their best to adapt to what they have now, unsure if it will ever be the way it once was.
"Where it rolled through the far east side of the ranch, we had places covered in cedar. It burned so hot there the roots of grasses burned, leaving the land barren and soil sterile to a point that there is nothing left. Other places with thick cedar happened to burn overnight and didn't get as hot, so they've done a little better since.
"In some places we've held off for a year before putting cattle back on them. This year we haven't used some pastures for a few months but will probably have to be off of them for another year giving the grass more time to recover.
"We have good grasses in some places, just not like they used to be. There is more ‘junk' now than ever before. Most of the burned areas have some annual grasses, but no perennials. And the grasshoppers are real bad this year so we'll have to see how that turns out. As for the brush, regrowth has been primarily oak and sumac with some willow baccharis."
Wildlife on the ranch took a big hit with many of the deer, turkey and other species leaving the ranch. "Most came back fairly quick, just not as many in the hard-burned areas. We had to back off of hunting in some places, and some of our hunters decided not to come back."
Just like the cattle operation, adjusting to the regrowth of wildlife habitat has been slow and different. "We've had a bumper crop of broomweed since the fire, but it's just not good for anything except protection for the fawns and young turkeys."
The fire also managed to uncover an issue of anaplasmosis carriers in the cow herd. A minute parasite, anaplasmosis is found in red blood cells of infected cattle, but can also exist in otherwise healthy cattle, which are classified as carriers.
An outbreak of the disease can occur under nutritional and environmental stress. According to Robert Joe, "Our cattle were already stressed from the drought, but with the fire and smoke inhalation on top of that we began to see a situation that needed treatment."
The Jacksons worked with their veterinarian to develop a plan of action to treat and eliminate it from the herd. "This spring, we had a calf born on a real windy day in a pasture that was burned pretty bad. The calf suffered corneal abrasions from ash that blew in his eyes. It was something we could easily treat, just not something we expected 2 years after the fire."
With optimistic reflection the Jacksons notice that many of the endless brush thickets were burned away, even uncovering Native American artifacts in some places.
"The Indians were on this country long before my family arrived," says Robert Joe. "We've seen some of their cooking pits in a few places, but with so much of the thickets burned off we see so many more of them now."
Dena adds, "You can really see the placement of them based on the topography of the landscape. That's something we never realized because they've been hidden by a hundred or more years of growth." Even today, rainfall washes the topsoil and ash away, uncovering arrowheads and points.
Extinguishing the flames
Despite every human effort to get ahead of the fire and contain it, it just wasn't enough. Relief finally came in the form of rain and extinguished the flames. "We got 2 inches and that's what finally put out the fire. It also washed so much debris and ash into the tanks you could bounce a rock off the top of the water. They are a bit off-color now, but otherwise okay."
Such extreme conditions may never occur again, but under normal conditions precautions can be taken to control the vegetation around buildings, park equipment in a place that lessens the chance for it to burn, and consider all options to act swiftly.
Dena says, "We keep our water trucks and cattle sprayer full during fire season, but this was a different situation. It was just too hot, dry and windy and the soil moisture was way too low. After going through this it is something we hope to never face again. You wouldn't wish this on anybody, but we hope others can learn from it."
"Resilience and Recovery" is from The Cattleman magazine's August 2013 issue.