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