Gone in 15 Minutes
That’s how long it took a massive wildfire to destroy the North Texas town of Ringgold on New Year’s Day. But for the residents who lost everything—and the brave volunteers who risked their lives—putting the disaster behind them will take a bit longer.
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THE DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY had predicted disaster. The statewide situation report filed on January 1, 2006, tallied up 32 fires from the preceding day, but the worst was yet to come: “The next 24 hour operational period is predicted to be the most intense to date. Strong southwest and west winds combined with extremely low RH [relative humidity] and record above average temperatures will produce extreme fire danger over much of the state. … The use of rotary wing aircraft during these high wind conditions will be limited and restricted and in some situations impossible.”
That grim forecast meant trouble for the tiny town of Ringgold, a community of one hundred people just south of the Oklahoma border, in Montague County. Its volunteer fire department was used to dealing with small fires that could be extinguished with its three old trucks. For larger blazes, Ringgold could rely on help from three nearby cities—Henrietta to the west, Bowie to the south, and Nocona to the east. Worst case, it could request air support from the Texas Forest Service, but if perilous winds grounded the aircraft, local firemen would be doomed to fight on the front lines alone.
The first report about the blaze that would become known as the Ringgold Fire arrived at 2:28 p.m. on New Year’s Day. The dispatcher in Montague, the county seat nine miles south of Nocona, rang out: “Montague to Ringgold fire department. Attention Ringgold fire department. I have a fire ten miles outside of Henrietta going towards Lone Star Hereford Ranch.”
At the time, Billy Henley, the 52-year-old chief of Nocona’s rural volunteer fire department, had just finished lunch with his wife and was flipping through the bowl games on TV in his Levi’s and a T-shirt. Henley had become interested in firefighting when he was a student at the local high school. One Friday night he had been making the drag when he saw the trucks peel out of their station. He tailed them down the highway to a fire in Montague, where the shorthanded crew must have seen a glint in his eye. “If you don’t mind getting dirty,” one fireman had said, “we could use a hand.”
Henley had told his wife that he hoped his pager wouldn’t go off—not that day, not with those winds. When the alert came, he didn’t have to verbalize his dread. He just looked at her and raised his eyebrows.
Because the Nocona department had newer trucks and a younger staff than most of the surrounding communities, it usually responded immediately to any fire in northwest Montague County. As Ringgold’s crew assembled at the fire station, Henley jumped into his Dodge pickup and drove out ahead of his men to see what kind of mess they were getting into. Seven miles before he got to the fire, the smoke was so thick that he called his wife and told her, half-jokingly, “If we get this thing stopped before it gets to Nocona, it’ll be a miracle.”
When Henley arrived on the west side of Ringgold, he spotted a strip of green wheat near the railroad tracks that acted as a fireguard against sparks from the trains’ metal wheels. Presumably, the shield would slow down the oncoming flames and allow his men to get the blaze under control. After three trucks arrived—two from Nocona and one from Montague—and parked on the east side of the tracks, two firemen decided to climb up on the tracks to get a better look at the fire. Looking out onto the horizon, they estimated that the flames were a mile away. They headed back to the truck. When they turned around again, the fire was right on top of them.
Forty feet tall. That was the size of the blaze that pushed over the railroad tracks like an ocean wave. When the fire hit the tracks, it cleared one hundred yards of bare ground. Henley had been expecting a bad fire, but this was unlike anything he had seen in his 33 years as a firefighter. The Montague truck burst through a barbed-wire fence to escape, and one of the Nocona trucks raced down the road. Henley took off in his pickup and desperately attempted to make radio contact with the other Nocona truck, which had been overtaken by a flash of flame.
When Henley caught his breath and accounted for all his men, he radioed the police dispatcher. “Montague?” he asked.
“Go ahead,” the dispatcher responded.
“Montague,” Henley repeated, “put out an all-page for all available departments in Montague County coming this way.” His voice began to shake. “Ringgold is in danger.”
YOU COULD SAY 2004’s blessing became 2006’s curse. Although 2004 was the area’s fifth-wettest year on record, bringing Ringgold’s gorgeous fields of little bluestem, Indian grass, and switchgrass to waist-high level, last year ended as the driest period in fifty years. After the summer, it just quit raining, and by the holidays, the fields of grass were nice and thick and long, with the consistency of papier-mâché.
The Texas Forest Service command center in Granbury, which coordinates fire response for two thirds of the state, including Ringgold, usually hosts six employees in a metal building near the city’s municipal airport. But a rash of fires throughout the holiday season had caused the service to bring in the cavalry. On December 27 the town of Cross Plains had suffered a massive fire: Two women were killed, and 7,600 acres and 116 homes were lost. Two days later, 220 experts descended on Granbury. Since many of the fires had been started by people who were being careless, billboards went up stating, “Danger: Outdoor Burn Bans in Effect.” The only recourse beyond that was prayers for rain. In these conditions, some would have settled for humidity.
The National Weather Service issues a “red flag warning” when relative humidity dips below 30 percent and sustained winds reach 20 miles per hour; on New Year’s Day, the humidity had dropped into the single digits, and winds were hitting 50 miles per hour. “The conditions are lined up for the perfect storm,” Keith Wooster, a Georgia fire-behavior analyst working at Granbury’s command center, told his colleagues. “I predict that if we get those strong winds, we will see a fire at the rate of four hundred or five hundred feet per minute.
All it needed was a spark. As the wind whipped across the plains, it broke the crossbar braces on a utility pole that stood along a county road west of Ringgold. Once the beam began to swivel, the unstable wires arced, gushing sparks onto the baked grass below. Within seconds, the scorched kindling began pushing the growing flames eastward, directly toward town.
AT 3:00, AFTER RETREATING FROM the railroad tracks, Henley radioed in to the station in Montague, using his ID number: “31-11, Montague.”
“31-11, go ahead,” the dispatcher responded.
“Montague, advise all responding units. We’re going to try to make a stand on Hanson Road. Hanson Road, on the west side of Ringgold.” He hoped the reinforcements would be enough.
Like so many rural fire departments, Ringgold barely scraped by. Between the county’s annual gift of $100 (about the amount it takes to roll one of the trucks out the door) and salad suppers bringing in $500 three or four times a year, the volunteers tried to maintain their $4,000 annual budget. Their fire-retardant gloves, hoods, and jackets were hand-me-downs from nearby towns. Two of their three trucks—a red 1970 pumper truck with a 2,000-gallon tank and a yellow 1976 Dodge with a 325-gallon tank—were on loan from the Forest Service, but they were always breaking down. That day, for example, the Dodge was out of service.
The leader of the volunteers was Jesse Christopher, a 54-year-old electrician who worked thirty miles away, in Wichita Falls. Christopher moved to Ringgold in 1995, about the time waning interest forced the fire department to shut down. After signing up some volunteers, he got it going again. For his initiative, he was named chief.
The other men had joined, as one of them put it, “to keep from getting burned up,” and they reflected the demographics of the town. One of the youngest, Darrell Fuller Jr., was a 44-year-old former construction worker who had had to work odd jobs ever since his back had gone out, in 1999. Larry Fenoglio, a sweet-tempered 52-year-old rancher, was designated department treasurer. The department’s president, Jack Simpson, was a 56-year-old entrepreneur who used to raise show cattle. Today he and his teenage son, Chance, spend a lot of time in the area thickets gathering broomweed, foxtail millet, and artemisia, which they dry, paint, and ship to craft stores around the world. Rick Alexander, a 62-year-old carpenter, was Fuller’s father-in-law. Except for a young recruit who had recently signed on, the remaining five were all over age sixty, raising cattle and living out their retirement.
Because it was a holiday, most of the men were home when they got the call to meet Henley at Hanson Road. Fuller hopped into the driver’s seat of the red pumper truck with Alexander and two other men who happened to be around for the holidays and headed through a pasture just east of the targeted area. Simpson and his son took Ringgold’s newest truck, a 1991 white Chevy with a three-hundred-gallon tank, and Christopher met up with Henley and settled into Henley’s pickup to discuss strategy.
Hanson Road seemed like a perfect spot to block the fire’s path. The street was situated about half a mile east of the railroad tracks where the firemen had just been overtaken, but it was still due west of the city’s center. Henley figured that they could stake out the area where three houses lined the road before the fire swept into a more populated section of town. A fireman told one resident, truck driver Bruce McDonald, to evacuate with his wife and two sons. “Take what you can and get out,” he said. “You have about five minutes.” The wind was blowing so hard McDonald could barely keep his eyes open. With a garden hose, he wet the grass around his house, then packed his family in their car while he got in his pickup. But McDonald didn’t have any insurance for the house, so when he was sure that his wife and sons were speeding away, he spun around and headed back into the fire to try to save what he could.
In the next house, Johnny Reynolds, a USDA county executive director, had been making his New Year’s Day cabbage and black-eyed peas for good luck when he heard the Ringgold fire trucks leave the station. “Bad day for a fire,” he’d thought to himself. When he went outside and saw the smoke over the patch of bluestem and mesquite behind his house, he and his wife got their garden hoses and began to water their roof. Two trucks arrived at Reynolds’s house and got ready to start their attack. “We’re here to save your house,” a fireman told him. Reynolds started a four-wheeler and told his wife to get ready to run.
In the third house, Jackie Mitchell, his wife, and her brother had been spraying the crape myrtles that laced the outside of his house when a truck from Nocona pulled up. “You need to get out of here,” one fireman told him. “That water hose isn’t going to do a bit of good.” After Mitchell and his wife gathered all the photos they could, his brother-in-law yelled, “You need to get out of here now!” and took off.
As each second passed, it became clearer to the firemen that the flames showed no sign of flagging and that any intention to stay behind and save the houses was suicidal. When Mitchell headed outside, he saw the firemen in their trucks barreling down the road, running for their lives. No one could have prepared him for what was coming over the road. Normally, a fire has one “head,” which is the hottest part. But if it gets into low dips or drainage areas such as ditches, the wind becomes compacted, blowing oxygen at the flames and coaxing them upward, drawing up a column like a burning tornado. By the time the fire hit Hanson Road, the head had split into three 40-foot-tall vortices that roared up to the road like swirling orange Christmas trees.
“We need to go,” Mitchell yelled. His wife grabbed her favorite gray cat, and the couple jumped in her Isuzu, at which point she began screaming. The fire had already come around to the garage and was blasting in toward the truck. Realizing that they were safer inside the house, they ran back in, shut the doors, and paced from window to window in silence, watching the fire squeeze in on them as the bright orange flames churned in mesmerizing patterns on all sides.
WITHIN MINUTES after the smoke had cleared north of Hanson Road, firefighters said, an explosion appeared to be rolling through town. The wind picked up speed, feeding the fire with even more oxygen, and the brush and thirty-foot-tall post oak trees burst into gargantuan flames. Henley and Christopher drove from house to house on the main streets, honking the horn and yelling, warning people to get out, but by the time they’d get to a house, it was already going up in flames.
Those who hadn’t been able to escape the inferno suffered tremendous burns. Johnny Reynolds’s wife made it down Hanson Road on the four-wheeler, but he jumped on a fire truck as it drove off, laying lengthwise along the vehicle. But the truck was slow, and as the smoke thickened, the engine began to sputter. Reynolds yelled, “Go! Go! Go!” as he felt the flames swallow him up. During the two seconds in which the fire seared him all over, he thought to himself: “Hold on and burn or fall off and die.” By the time they drove out of the smoke, the skin on his arms hadn’t just blistered; it had disintegrated. And the strong, singed-hair smell of his own burned flesh emanated from him like steam.
As dozens of trucks began to arrive from nearby towns, the firemen who had barely escaped incineration were baffled about how to fight such a thing. After the fire had burned the grass on Hanson Road down to the roots, Jack and Chance Simpson had staked out an area and aimed their hoses at a house, but the water would shoot only ten feet before the wind blasted the rest back at them. It was making a pop-pop-popping sound the way a flag does on a windy day, raging against their thick fire suits, and sand and gravel whipped around them as they sprayed. After finally running out of water, they drove home to check on their property, where the fire truck broke down.
The other Ringgold fire crew was in even worse shape. Fuller and his team in the pumper truck had gotten caught in a flash in the coastal patch east of Hanson Road. They received burns to their faces, backs, and hands as the flames burst around the truck and into the cab through the open windows. Directly afterward, Henley got on the radio to report that the fire was jumping the main intersection in town, where U.S. 81 crosses U.S. 82. “Montague,” he said, “I need every ’dozer, police in the area—anything they can send us. This fire has jumped 81 and is headed east.”
“Has it jumped 81?” the dispatcher asked, to clarify.
“It has jumped 81,” Henley replied. Then the voice of an unidentified man watching the crossroads of town said, “It’s jumped 82 and going right downtown into Ringgold right now, houses and all.”
“Montague?” Henley asked, sounding exhausted.
“Go ahead,” the dispatcher replied.
“Contact the National Guard,” Henley said. “We need everything we can get up here.”
Those listening to the dispatch were stunned by the speed at which the events were taking place. A community dating to the late 1800’s that had been devastated by fires in 1913, 1939, and 1956 was in flames again. Firemen were forced to retreat from the front of the blaze to the sides, spraying helplessly. In a matter of fifteen minutes—from 3:20, when it hit Hanson Road, to 3:35, when it barreled into the center of town and passed the crossroads—70 percent of the town had caught on fire and begun burning to the ground.
THE FIREMEN’S DESPERATE PLEAS for help multiplied throughout the afternoon. Douglas Page, the fire marshal and chief in Bowie, was playing with his kids when he got the initial call on Ringgold’s fire at around 3:00. When he arrived at his fire station, he encountered chaos. Trucks were driving in from everywhere and attacking the fire from anywhere they could. Page prepared for the maiden voyage of his Hazmat trailer, which he’d obtained with a 2005 Homeland Security grant. Stocked with a TV for weather updates, two chairs, a laptop, a dry-erase board, and a radio dispatch, the trailer would be key on a day when Granbury would be flooded with calls.
“We’re going to try to set up a command post. Where would you like it?” Page radioed to Henley.
“Doug, I don’t know,” Henley responded. “I’m trying to work my way east to get to the head of the fire and see what we’ve got. Stand by just a minute.”
“With your permission,” Doug said, “I’ll go ahead and establish one here on 81 south of Ringgold.”
The main question everyone working on the fire seemed to want answered was when air support would arrive. During many wildfires, a pilot in a twin-engine single-wing aircraft flies over the burning area and helps decide the best aircraft needed for the job. But Ringgold wasn’t the only massive fire in Texas that day. The Granbury region was fighting eighteen major fires that were devouring the state’s resources: 231 people, eleven helicopters, six single-engine air tankers, and 24 bulldozers.
By the time Granbury got the report on the Ringgold fire, at 4:13, six other towns were in danger. Helitanker support was requested, but at 4:37 the last remaining tactical aircraft at the Mineral Wells airport had been grounded because a wildfire had spread over the runway. By 4:59 all the firefighters in the state would be suffering. With the winds swirling and darkness creeping in, all aircraft were grounded.
Conditions were becoming more dangerous by the hour. Firemen pray for nighttime, when the earth cools off, the winds die down, and humidity rises. That is, unless a front is coming through. In the case of Ringgold, that front was coming straight out of the west. The inferno was shooting fireballs ahead of itself that rolled over the town, and one man driving down the highway at 30 miles per hour said the fire was moving faster than he was.
Henley, Christopher, and Page needed a plan. Typically, they fought fires by going to the head. But that strategy equaled a death wish in the high winds. So they decided to deprive the flames of any fuel that lay ahead. Henley drove his pickup to a ranch about four miles east of the main intersection at Ringgold, and Christopher climbed onto the tailgate to light a back burn, a controlled blaze set ahead of a fire that freezes its progress with a fresh strip of ash. At 4:49 Henley radioed to his crew: “Jennings’s ranch house. West of it, we’ve got a forty-, fifty-acre coastal field that’s really short. We might have a chance on it there.” Using a three-foot-long torch attached to a propane tank, Christopher thought he’d be able to light a back burn, but before he could start, the fire jumped the road, forcing them eastward yet again.
Meanwhile, people in town were trying to save themselves after they realized they couldn’t save their homes. They drove through flare-ups to get on the road, cranking up the air-conditioning in their cars to filter the smoke pressing in on them. Larry Fenoglio’s mother, Mary Lou, saw a pine tree blow over her garage and light the roof’s shingles up as if they had been doused with gasoline. She didn’t even bother to go back for her purse as she ran to her car. She drove east past the cemetery and turned onto a farm road where neighbors were sitting in their trucks, talking on cell phones and trying to locate friends and family.
What the firemen needed more than anything was a rise in humidity to turn the grass’s flammability off like a switch. Grass, because it is so thin, responds almost instantly to humidity, which, as of 5:05, had dipped down to a devastating 3 percent.
Without moisture to help the wood resist fire, homes began burning up like kindling, creating intense temperatures. In most house fires, part of a wall or some furniture is left standing. During the Ringgold fire, the structures were reduced to their foundations, and even appliances, which are usually left intact during a fire, had melted down to puddles.
But perhaps destruction of the livestock was even more difficult to watch. Some pregnant cows were so heavy they couldn’t outrun the fire. Others got pinned against fencing. One woman caught a nightmarish glimpse of her neighbor’s six-year-old gelding, a horse that had been gentle enough that he could be ridden without a bridle or saddle. The horse was walking on his hind legs, his back completely overtaken by flames.
AS NEWS OF RINGGOLD’S obliteration sunk in, firefighters realized that Nocona, a town of 3,200 people, was the next target. Page had been instructing workers to fight the fire from the southern flank and push it northeast, scraping Nocona’s north end. But experience had taught him that fire goes where it wants to go, and dispatch after dispatch from Henley proved that the fire had a will to jump every back burn and road in its path. Halfway between Ringgold and Nocona, Henley was advancing to the head when three vortices lifted off the north side, stood up one hundred feet in the air, and slammed down on the ground, scattering fire for 150 yards.
And the news got worse. At 5:34 Page sent a dispatch: “Be advised, we’re getting a wind shift. The fire is now moving southeast toward Nocona.” The 37-year-old mayor of Nocona, Paul Gibbs, had prepared the local EMS to load buses with nursing home residents and hospital patients an hour earlier. Now, as he called for a mandatory evacuation of his town, sirens from city hall began ringing throughout the streets.
Fortunately, help was arriving from all directions. Nearly sixty fire departments were working the southern flank of the fire. Tanker drivers arrived unsolicited with their equipment and parked wherever they were needed. Ranchers pulled up to the Nocona Police Department with cattle trailers, offering to load livestock. Men with bulldozers called Henley repeatedly, begging for an assignment.
Page stationed them on the north side of Nocona to dig up every bit of fuel in the fire’s path. But how could the bulldozers work with enough speed and avoid the deadly tornadoes of fire? Just as the firefighters would get a handle on the beast from the side, it would whip around and blast right into them. Henley and Christopher watched as a fifty-foot-tall column bent over their pickup. The flash rushed past them for two seconds before it faded to a thick cloud of white smoke. Henley then sped down the road, trying to keep an eye on the painted yellow highway line that disappeared as the smoke thickened. For the second time in a matter of hours, the men had just barely escaped with their lives. But they wouldn’t have time to reflect on that for days.
MAYBE PAGE WAS RIGHT that the fire had a will of its own. The men could attack it with every department north of Fort Worth, but ultimately the fire would call off the fight when it was good and ready. Not that its perseverance wouldn’t be tested. Henley and Christopher were barricading Nocona with ditches of dirt when they got the message from Page at around 7:15 that night: “The wind has switched to the north.” With the same capriciousness that had caused the flames to dash madly from the offending utility pole all the way to Nocona, annihilating anything they craved, the fire decided to roll over and sleep.
At 7:23 Page radioed Henley to get the position of the southern flank. “Don’t know for sure on the southern flank yet,” Henley responded. “It’s going to be close to the edge of Nocona, if not in the city of Nocona.”
The Granbury crew watched their laptops as the humidity numbers began to rise. From the Gainesville weather station, at 8: 25 the temperature was 68 degrees, humidity had climbed to 21 percent, and the wind had dropped to 10 miles per hour. The unburned grass began to absorb the moisture like a sponge. Without wind, the firefighters finally had a chance to make advances.
At 8:41 Page radioed Henley again: “Billy, how is everything up near Lake Nocona?”
“Right now we think we have the forward progress of this fire stopped,” Henley said. “I think we’re in good shape right now. We just need to go mop it up.”
“Received. So right now we don’t need to worry about an evacuation?”
“Negative. We do not.”
Henley stayed on the twenty-mile-long fire through the night, so he didn’t see the devastation in Ringgold until morning. What he saw was sickening. The city looked like some apocalyptic nightmare: Telephone poles were burned up, trees were tipping over, and only brick chimneys remained where houses had once stood. The air stank like a wet dog. At least three hundred cattle and ten horses had either died right away or were wandering the black pastures with no ears or tails. It was as if someone had shaved the earth and glued down soot. People wandered around town in awe as ash fell like snowflakes around them.
The long, narrow streak of devastation, observable from the helicopters above, demonstrated how violently the wind had blown through. As neighbors pointed out to one another, some houses were unaffected while others nearby were cremated, as if the fire had selected its casualties. The school and the church had been saved, but the old grocery and the boarded-up FINA station were destroyed. A perfectly preserved blue post office box remained in front of a crumpled pile of aluminum sheets where the post office had once stood. Amazingly, the Mitchells on Hanson Road were spared, the roaring fire passing over their house, while others, like Johnny Reynolds and Darrell Fuller Jr., found themselves in the hospital with burns covering their bodies.
Support and aid poured in. Governor Rick Perry declared a disaster area. FEMA promised assistance. The county’s volunteer fire departments garnered $100,000 within the first two months of fund-raising in 2006, and new recruits were signing up for Ringgold’s—and other towns’—units. For those who lost everything, however, the assistance was little consolation. Only a handful of people in town had homeowners’ insurance, and displaced residents moved in with relatives or stayed indefinitely in hotels in surrounding towns. That no one died was nothing short of miraculous.
Forty-one thousand acres of Montague County burned that day—200,000 acres statewide—with hot spots flaring up through January 4. Jesse Christopher took naps at the fire station every few hours through Wednesday, and when he finally collapsed into his La-Z-Boy at home, he jumped up in panic throughout the night, dreaming of fire. Billy Henley stayed in contact with him until the end. Friends told Henley what a good job he had done. They reassured him that there was nothing he could have done differently to have prevented the destruction. Henley could only shake his head and hope that the people of Ringgold felt the same way.
The Department of Public Safety’s situation report on January 2 read as follows: “Since December 26th, there have been 139 fires burning … For the same period, there have been 278 homes lost . . . Today, January 2nd, is predicted to be less intense than the last 24-hour period. However, beginning tomorrow, Tuesday, January 3rd, conditions will replicate the past intense period of high winds, low humidity, and above average temperatures.”
Meteorologists predicted no substantial rain for four months.