“It does not get easier”: Texas ranchers lose cattle and land in historic wildfires

Cattle stand in the burn scar from the Smokehouse Creek fire on March 3 in Hemphill County. (Justin Rex For The Texas Tribune, Justin Rex For The Texas Tribune)

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LUBBOCK — There are burned spots on Jay O’Brien’s ranch outside Stinnett that predate the Smokehouse Creek fire.

Over the last several months, small fires — ones that weren’t pushed by strong winds or grew out of control — scarred his pastures about 60 miles northeast of Amarillo.

“It does not get easier,” O’Brien said. “I’m an old man, I don’t remember growing up with the big wildfires. A wildfire of this magnitude has not happened before.”

As wildfires engulfed the Texas Panhandle in late February and early March, the world watched through social media. Videos showing cattle fleeing the apocalyptic scene were shared online, all while ranchers in the region worked to free their livestock and give them a fighting chance.

The fire quickly made global news. While it was much worse than past wildfires, flames encroaching on pastures has become a familiar sight for ranchers.

“What people read about are just the big ones,” O’Brien said. “It’s emotionally and financially challenging.”

[Texas firefighters closer to extinguishing Panhandle wildfires]

O’Brien is one of many ranchers in the Texas Panhandle who lost thousands of acres in ranch land and cattle. His devastation, grief, and frustration echo others The Texas Tribune has spoken with since the wildfires broke out.

The wildfires disrupted life across small towns in part of the Panhandle known as Cattle Country. Texas is home to about 11 million head of cattle, and more than 85% of the state’s cattle population is located in the Panhandle, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture.

In many of these towns, the cattle outnumber the people.

​​While the grassy hills are good for livestock, it also makes the land a tinderbox that could go up any moment. Since 2006, five of the largest wildfires in Texas history have burned nearly 2.7 million acres in the Panhandle, according to data from Texas A&M Forest Service.

A dead cow lays in a pasture burned by the Smokehouse Creek fire Sunday, March. 3, 2024, in Roberts County, Texas.

A dead cow lays in a pasture burned by the Smokehouse Creek fire on March 3 in Roberts County. Credit: Justin Rex for The Texas Tribune

State lawmakers are investigating the cause of the most recent fires. The bulk of the damage was from the Smokehouse Creek fire, which burned more than 1 million acres in the region. Texas A&M Forest Service said its investigators determined that power lines caused the fire, but didn’t detail how. Utility company Xcel Energy said it appeared that its equipment was involved in igniting that fire, but denied it was negligent in maintaining power lines.

The full extent of the damage is still unknown. Early estimates show more than 7,000 head of cattle died. The final number directly related to the fires could reach 10,000. The true total may not be known for months, as ranchers consider euthanizing cattle with severe injuries such as burnt hooves and udders. Ranchers are also being advised to watch for respiratory issues in their cattle.

“We’ll actually end up having to put a lot of cattle down just because they won’t be able to make it, even though they survived,” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller told CBS News.

When these situations happen, ranchers bury the dead cattle and treat the injured in a way that’s best for the animal. It’s a gut-wrenching decision for ranchers, O’Brien said.

“We do the best we can,” O’Brien said. “We’ve all had pets where we had to make a decision on what’s best for them. It’s hard to find a cowboy or rancher who doesn’t care for their animals.”

The fires also broke out during calving season, a very vulnerable time on pastures.

“Unfortunately, many of the livestock that were killed are either cows with their calves, or pregnant cows,” said Arthur Uhl, president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.

Relief efforts in the region are ongoing. The U.S. Small Business Administration has set up disaster loan outreach centers in Canadian and Borger for people affected by any of the wildfires that hit the Panhandle. The State Agriculture Relief Fund, administered by the state office, also received more than $800,000 in donations for farmers and ranchers devastated by the fires. Areas to donate livestock supply have been established throughout the Panhandle.

Ranchers face steep costs associated with the fires. Flames tore through miles and miles of fencing. Grass that ranchers were thankful to see grow last year after a drought is now charred. Sandy soil caused wind erosion, cutting through any healthy vegetation that was left in the aftermath. Monty Dozier, Texas A&M AgriLife’s director for disaster assessment and recovery, said there’s less grazing potential in the area.

“We can see some seedlings trying to spring back up, but it’ll take awhile,” Dozier said.

Dozier said the drive from Miami to Stinnett — about 63 miles apart — shows fence posts that, despite still standing, were badly burned at the bottom.

Days after the fire initially started, Roberts County Judge Mitchell Locke told the Tribune that downed fences only added to the confusion when it came to estimating livestock losses.

A part of Currie Smith’s fence burned by the Smokehouse Creek fire Sunday, March. 3, 2024, in Hemphill County, Texas.

A part of a fence burned by the Smokehouse Creek fire March 3 in Hemphill County. Credit: Justin Rex for The Texas Tribune

“Because the fences are gone, the cattle might be 10 miles away from where they originally were, or they might be dead,” said Locke, who also ranches in the county.

Ranchers across the country have responded to the calls for food and water for remaining livestock by driving trucks full of supplies to the Panhandle. People in neighboring counties are offering to care for orphaned calves. Funds are being raised for the Canadian Future Farmers of America, a student club, to build a new barn after losing theirs.

With how bad the damage is though, the area will need ongoing support and monetary donations.

“This is a real tragedy,” Uhl said. “It will take years, not weeks, not months. Years.”

For O’Brien, the next step is managing what’s left. He said he’s blessed that while hurtful, the 60,000 lost acres and cattle is not as bad as others. Some of his cattle were able to escape the fire. He’s moved much of his livestock off the ranch, in hopes of letting the land recover.

Disclosure: Texas A&M AgriLife and Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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