This article is republished with permission from the Canadian (Texas) Record.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Author John R. Erickson needs no introduction to the readers of the Canadian (Texas) Record, where this article was first published. For the rest of us, Erickson is a one-time bartender, handyman, and cowboy who lives in Roberts County in the Texas Panhandle. He’s the author of more than 75 books, including the beloved children’s series “Hank the Cowdog.”
John Erickson still remembers the first wildfire he fought. Back in 1978, while working on a ranch in the Oklahoma Panhandle, he was among 10 other cowboys called on in the middle of the night to fight a lightning-struck fire, which they did by “shoveling dirt on smoldering cow chips” and beating out the flames with wet gunnysacks.
“As prairie fires go,” he wrote, in the first chapter of his new book, Bad Smoke, Good Smoke: A Texas Rancher’s View of Wildfire, which was released by Texas Tech University Press last summer, “it was pretty tame, and even had the feel of a social occasion.”
He recalls the cowboys swapping stories around the water can, and returning to their wives reeking of smoke and feeling heroic.
All the same, ranchers and cowboys tend to remember wildfires: the one in the summer of 1979 on the Parnell brothers’ ranch, the one in 1990 on the M-Cross Ranch in Roberts County, and the one in 1995 that jumped the Canadian River from Boone Pickens’ Mesa Vista Ranch onto two of his neighbors’ ranches, the Killebrew and Tandy.
Those prairie fires were nothing, it turned out, when compared to the fires of 2006 and 2017.
“This was a new and scary dimension of reality,” Erickson wrote. “Fires that were huge and driven by powerful winds; fires that burned hundreds of thousands of acres, destroyed homes, threatened entire towns, killed people and livestock, and continued burning for days.”
The fires of 2006 burned over a million acres in the Texas Panhandle, claimed 12 lives, killed 4,000 cattle, and destroyed 89 structures and 2,000 miles of fencing. The March 2017 Perryton fire burned 318,000 acres and was only one of many wildfires on March 6 that covered 1.2 million acres of land in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.
To Erickson, they were landmark events “that are etched onto the memory of an entire generation and will be passed down to the next. They made the old-time methods of fighting fire with shovels, wet gunnysacks, and ranch spray rigs a pathetic joke.”
“I had a ringside seat to both fires,” he wrote.
John and Kris Erickson were relatively unscathed by the 2006 fire, unless you count the friends and neighbors and ranchers and firefighters who were less fortunate. “To the south of us lay the death and destruction of the worst wildfire in Texas history,” he wrote. “We had survived, but the memory was not likely to fade.”
But 11 years later, on March 6, 2017, around 1:45 p.m., two small fires merged into one—later called the Dumas Complex Fire—near Amarillo. Less than an hour later, a distant cloud could be seen from Canadian’s Main Street as it appeared along the northwest horizon. Canadian VFD firefighters were quickly dispatched to provide mutual aid to Ochiltree County. A third fire was reported an hour later near Lefors in Gray County.
Those wildfires, which came on the heels of a devastating ice storm, and were propelled by 25-35 mph winds, gusting from 50 to 70 mph, were both destructive and deadly. Over the next six days, the Perryton fire, alone, claimed four lives, and burned 318,145 acres in Ochiltree, Hemphill, Roberts, and Lipscomb counties. In the northern Texas Panhandle, 975 miles of fences had to be replaced and repaired—an estimated $6.1 million in damage. Altogether, in the three states affected, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated cattle losses of 15,000 head, and more than $64 million in fencing destroyed.
The Erickson’s home, located in a deep, tree-lined canyon north of the Canadian River, was destroyed, as was 90% of the pastureland on their ranch.
Bad Smoke, Good Smoke is the somewhat cathartic result of their loss, and their survival. Erickson explains that it is his attempt to express what he saw during those two mega-fires, and how he felt about them. “I wasn’t riding a firetruck in the middle of the night. I wasn’t injured and did nothing heroic. I was merely close enough to smell the smoke and to be in some danger, and happened to be a professional wordsmith with the skills and discipline to record the events.”
Thank goodness he was, and thank goodness he did.
The book begins with a daily log of what Erickson did and saw during the five-day duration of the 2006 fire. In its aftermath, he realized that the land that had burned was in better condition than before the fires, and discovered a new appreciation for the land’s resilience. “Fire is just as much a part of God’s design as the rainfall that washes away the cinders,” he wrote. “Life moves on.”
Erickson even considered doing some controlled burns on his own ranch, but admitted, “I couldn’t bring myself to drop a match into a clump of grass.”
Following the 2017 fire that destroyed their home, Erickson—always a disciplined writer—again kept a daily log. He described the hurried evacuation, the rushed decision of what things to take, the harrowing drive up out of the Canadian River Valley, only to be met by a wall of dark smoke, causing them to backtrack and choose an alternate path to their town home in Perryton.
He described the sleepless night, following the grim news of the fire’s terrifying path. He described his son Mark’s call the next morning, his blunt words: “The house is gone.”
He details the silent 40-mile drive back to the ranch, to whatever was left: the blackened, twisted, broken, and smoldering cedar and ash trees that greeted them, the utility poles still burning, the heat-altered asphalt pavement.
Both the gift and curse of a writer is to remember “the accumulation of small details,” Erickson observed, which brings a story to life. The heart and guts of Bad Smoke, Good Smoke brings the fires of March 2017 to life.
One friend who read the book—whose rural home in Lipscomb County was a fence row away from the fire line—said he relived the experience in those pages of unyielding observation.
But eight months after the fire, we follow the author on a tour of his ranch, as he discovers two rainwater-filled ponds that had gone dry in the drought of 2011- 2014. On one drive, he finds new active springs, where the fire had destroyed invasive cedars or junipers that had sucked the soil dry.
“To say I was thrilled would be an understatement,” Erickson wrote. “Water is life! It brings subirrigated grasses, waterloving tress, birds, deer, frogs—and the animals that hunt them.”
“As we approached the Thanksgiving holidays,” he noted, “my assessment of things was mostly positive. Our cattle had survived. The fire had improved range conditions on the ranch and revived our springs. The pastures had enjoyed a good growing season and had received rest.”
“We had much to be thankful for.”
“The Canadian River Valley is in desperate need of fire,” Erickson writes in the last chapter of his book. “We’re going to have to come to terms with fire, one way or another. And I haven’t gotten there yet. But I can see that the fire improved this ranch in many ways. I had places that were solid cactus… That fire got rid of more cactus in about two hours than I could have done in a hundred years.”
Acknowledging the good that may have come from those catastrophic wildfires may be difficult, may be gut-wrenching, but it may also be the best thing that can be salvaged from tragedy.
Laurie Ezell-Brown is the editor and publisher of the Canadian Record, which her family has published since the late 1940s. She’s a past president of the Texas Press Association and a recipient of the Tom and Pat Gish Award, established by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues to recognize “courage, tenacity, and integrity in rural journalism.”
A Yonder Extra: You can see a bit of Erickson’s ranch and hear him read a chapter from one of his Hank the Cowdog books in this video.