Wildfires Ravage Panhandle Ranches

Texas Cattlemen Assess Damages to Grass, Cattle After Wildfires

Jennifer Carrico
By  Jennifer Carrico , Senior Livestock Editor
A wildfire tore through Hale Cattle Company near Miami, Texas. Hale's father, Steve, was caught in the fire while hauling water to fight flames. He was unharmed. (Photo courtesy of Bradley Hale)

REDFIELD, Iowa (DTN) -- Texas ranchers are resilient and have dealt with wildfires in the past, but the most recent fires have hit harder than expected with more than 1.79 million acres burnt (as of March 7), already 7,000 cattle killed and the destruction of homes, barns, fences and other infrastructure.

"This happens more than it should. We were hit pretty hard in 2006. I thought that would be the only time I'd see fire damage like this in my lifetime and here we are 17 years later and it's worse," said Miami, Texas, rancher Bradley Hale.

When the fire started, it moved slowly, but by Feb. 27 afternoon, the wind picked up and shifted directions. Electricity was lost, which caused a problem with pumping water needed to fight the fire.

"Once the wind picked up, 8,000 acres were gone in no time," Hale said. "My son, Jett, was hauling more water with the pickup and water trailer. The trailer rolled and came unhooked thankfully. Then my dad was headed to help Jett and got caught up in the fire with his truck. He said the flames just rolled over him, it was completely dark and when it was past, he had no idea where he even was, but he was also unharmed." After several phone calls, the family was all safely reunited.

They had survived the largest of the fires in the Texas Panhandle last week -- the Smokehouse Creek fire, which grew to more than a million acres itself. At almost 1,700 square miles, the fire became the largest in Texas history.

Hale's family lost over 19,000 acres of grass of their own plus another 8,000 acres they lease.

On March 7, Texas A&M Forest Service investigators said the fire was ignited by power lines belonging to utility provider Xcel Energy. The same day, the company released a statement. "Based on currently available information, Xcel Energy acknowledges that its equipment appears to have been involved in an ignition of the Smokehouse Creek fire."


Nearby Miami rancher Ryan McCoy said his skills as a volunteer firefighter helped him prepare for the fire to hit his ranch. He had to focus on saving his own property this time.

"You can prepare physically for fires, we've dealt with them before, but this one was way bigger than expected and there's literally no way to prepare emotionally," said McCoy. "This is our livelihood. We've worked for the cattle and our ranches our whole lives. To see it gone so fast is so hard."

The fire started Feb. 26 going from the southwest to the northeast and stayed about a mile from the McCoys' ranch border. On Feb. 27, when the wind changed, the 80-mile-long fire started coming toward the McCoy ranch.

"We did prepare what we could on Tuesday. We used a tractor and plow to plow a 60-foot-wide fire break with hopes it wouldn't jump," he said. "Thankfully, we saved our homes and structures from the fires but we lost several sections of grass and many cattle from the fire, plus some who had to be euthanized."

The Hales were more fortunate on the cattle side. They calve cows in the fall and were able to move their cows to pens to protect them from the raging fire. "We generally know if there's a fire coming from the west, we need to pen the cows. When there's a high fire warning, more times than not it's a good idea to just get them in," he added.


Just to the north of Miami near Glazier, Texas, Missy Bonds' family ranch was devastated by the wildfire, taking both grass and cattle. This was the same area affected by the 2017 fire and they hadn't completely recovered from it.

"In 2017, we lost four stands of grass before one stayed and grew. The wind would blow the sand across the Plains and just cut off the grass at the ground. I'm afraid we will be looking at the same thing this year," Bonds said. "The country up here is pretty fragile right now and this fire won't help that."

While they didn't lose any structures in this fire, their cow herd had still not been completely rebuilt since 2017 when they lost 50% of their cows and 75% of the calf crop. While the numbers are still being assessed from the recent wildfire, she predicted they may have lost as much as 80% of the cows and 90% of the calves.

"I live in Fort Worth and my family and employees told me to just wait until it was safe to head to the ranch. They'd say, 'We don't want you to see this,'" she added. "I've cried so much because of the sadness but also because of the outpouring of help from friends and neighbors." She knows there are several tough days ahead for those in her home area.

McCoy said they expect more cows to be euthanized in the months to come due to burns and smoke damage. They have shipped some cattle to market to salvage some value instead of euthanizing.


The infrastructure is also an extreme loss with fences and water tanks to be repaired before cattle can be turned back out once grass starts growing again.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller told CBS News on March 7 he estimates 3,000 to 4,000 miles of fences were destroyed by the wildfires, costing $10,000 per mile to replace. He told CBS that 120 miles of powerlines were burned and seven grain and seed dealers were also destroyed. "That means no electricity, no water for the livestock," Miller said.

Bonds said they had replaced most of the fences after the 2017 fire and put in metal fencing and posts but it is yet to be determined how damaged that it could be and if it will need to be replaced again.

"Assessing the area could take months," she said. "We are just one person and we weren't even the biggest affected. Many lost their homes on top of losing grass and cattle. Despite that, we are just unsure of where to go from here. We are still in shock."

McCoy said they've watched their life's work gone in hours. The bad part is these people have lost collateral and assets. "How do you rebuild when you don't have anything?" he said. "Even if we can rebuild our herd, we are looking at seven to eight years of lost income before we can see a gain. It really is devastating."

Now, these ranchers must find feed and grass for the surviving cattle and let the land rest for at least 90 days in hopes of grass regrowth. Where the silt and sand shifted, Hale said mostly weeds will grow and that won't nourish the cattle.

"We can't have grass come fast enough, but even when it does, we can't just turn the cows out. We weaned the calves and sorted our cows. Some will get sent to a friend's place in Oklahoma, along with several smaller groups to pastures we've got south of Miami," he said. "Right now, this area looks like Mars. It will take time for it to recoup, replenish and regrow. For now, we are piecing the puzzle together to make it work. We are resilient."

See DTN story on how to treat cattle that are wildlife survivors at:


See DTN story about the wildfires at https://www.dtnpf.com/….

Jennifer Carrico can be reached at jennifer.carrico@dtn.com.

Follow her on X, formerly known as Twitter, @JennCattleGal.

Jennifer Carrico