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