The scars from a devastating wildfire 11 years ago are almost undetectable, but with former Fire Chief Bob Harrell serving as a tour guide, a scorched path of destruction quickly comes into focus.
A vacant lot here. A charred metal fence there. In Harrell’s mind, the fire still remains vivid.
“That’s where the house was that the lady died,” said Harrell, referring to 67-year-old Maddie Wilson, one of two who perished in the inferno. “That’s the mayor’s house across the street, which remained untouched.”
Such was the random nature of the Dec. 27, 2005, fire, which grew from an ember in a bar ditch to a raging inferno in a matter of minutes. At first the wind-swept grass fire was moving away from town, but a wind shift sent the flames racing toward Cross Plains, a small town about 130 miles southwest of Fort Worth.
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It went right through the middle of town. It would burn one [building] and leave one.
Cross Plains Fire Chief Ricky Carouth
“It went right through the middle of town,” said Ricky Carouth, the current Cross Plains fire chief, who would lose two homes in the fire. “It would burn one [building] and leave one.”
By the time it ended, the wildfire — fueled by 30-mph winds — would scorch almost 8,000 acres and destroy 85 homes, 25 mobile homes, six hotel units and the First United Methodist Church, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. The downtown business district and the school buildings were spared.
A Star-Telegram account from Dec. 29, 2005, detailed the fire’s deadly speed — “so fast that cattle lay blackened and dead on fence lines.”
While the fire left the town of about 1,000 devastated, its aftermath served as an eye-opener for the Forest Service and forced the agency to rethink how it dealt with such fast-moving grass fires.
“We asked ourselves after the ’06 fire season — with Cross Plains being the first shot of that season — what was going on,” said Mark Stanford, the forest service’s fire chief. “It was horrific. These fires were like forces of nature.”
‘They don’t occur that often’
Working with the National Weather Service, the Forest Service helped identify a weather phenomena called the Southern Plains Wildfire Outbreak — where all of the ingredients come together for catastrophic fire.
The Forest Service compares it to those days when the conditions are just right for a large-scale tornado outbreak.
We may be talking fire sometime in January if we go back to warmer weather.
National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Huckaby
“They don’t occur that often,” Stanford said. “In 2011, it occurred nine times, while it occurred 10 times total in the three previous fire seasons.”
Dan Huckaby, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth, said it takes a unique set of circumstances for these extreme wildfires to occur.
“In a nutshell, you need a day where it’s very dry,” Huckaby said. “Even if it’s dry, it doesn’t seem too explosive as when we get that extreme heat. And we’ve got to have winds. On many of these days, you have sustained winds of 30 mph with gusts as high as 50 mph.”
Forecasters are worried the fire threat could return across Texas later this winter. The Climate Prediction Center’s three-month outlook is calling for warmer, drier weather through March — perfect ingredients for a fire season.
“It looks like we’ll be above normal for fire and available fuel,” Huckaby said. “We may be talking fire sometime in January if we go back to warmer weather.”
Now that all of North Texas has experienced a hard freeze, the cured grasses can quickly catch fire even a day or two after a decent rain. And there’s plenty of fuel out there following the last year-and-a-half of wet weather.
“When I look out there, it kind of reminds me of what it looked like back in ’05,” said Harrell, the retired Cross Plains fire chief, looking out on a pasture on the northwest side of town that was scorched 11 years ago.
‘A newfound respect’
But unlike 2005, if the perfect storm for such a fire develops today, the Forest Service stages equipment to assist rural departments like Cross Plains to fight those fires. And it has helped fire departments add more equipment through its grant programs.
Since the fire occurred, Cross Plains has built up the new fire department. Through Forest Service grants and programs — from the Forest Resource Protection Division — Cross Plains received more than $453,000 in equipment and other assistance.
But Carouth still has to worry if enough will show up to fight a fire.
“When two of you roll out of the station in one truck, you hope somebody is coming behind you,” Carouth said. “But sometimes you don’t know. I worry if we’re going to get to the point someday where we don’t have anyone to answer the call.”
Cross Plains has 14 volunteer firefighters and 21 personnel total.
When you go through something like that, it makes you leery. It gives you a newfound respect for what a fire can do.
Debbie Gosnell, city administrator
“It’s mostly us old codgers in our 50s and 60s,” Carouth said. “There are about six to eight of us who usually drop what they’re doing and answer the call. We need the younger generation to step up. But we aren’t alone. It’s like this everywhere.”
Even though it’s been more than a decade, many residents in town still have frayed nerves.
“As soon as they smell smoke they start calling city hall,” said Cross Plains city administrator Debbie Gosnell. “When you go through something like that, it makes you leery. It gives you a newfound respect for what a fire can do.”
‘We’re actually doing OK’
But Gosnell and Mayor Bob Kirkham agree that the fire actually improved some parts of town where vacant structures burned.
“The families have moved off and left and relatives are in places like New York or Chicago,” Kirkham said. “The houses fall down and they think the lot’s worth $500,000. That’s not happening in Cross Plains.”
The city tears down about 15 vacant structures a year and paves some streets annually.
“If you wait until you can afford to do it, you’re not going to do it,” Gosnell said. “I see that as one of the things we do differently. A lot of small towns don’t have programs where they do something every year.”
$453,000 amount in Texas A&M Forest Service grants and equipment received by the Cross Plains Volunteer Fire Department.
After the fire, there was some population loss in the town, which sits at the intersection of Texas 36 and 206, southeast of Abilene and northwest of Brownwood. In the 2000 census, the town had a population of 1,068, but it dropped to 982 in the 2010 census.
Known as the hometown of writer Robert E. Howard, who created the fantasy hero Conan the Barbarian, Cross Plains has a museum in his honor.
Gosnell said Cross Plains has fared better than some of its neighbors.
“We’re actually doing OK for a small town,” Gosnell said. “We have eight or nine restaurants. We still have a grocery store and haven’t lost any of our businesses. With all of the houses we lost in the fire, our comeback has been pretty amazing.”