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After the Fire

“Texas People, Texas Places” book excerpt: Help pours in for West Texas community facing calamity

I was hesitant to write about the fire that swept through Fort Davis the evening of April 9, 2011 destroying 24 homes, because I was not even there when it hit. My wife and I were returning from a trip to New Mexico that Saturday, and we were stopped at a roadblock in Balmorhea. A state trooper told us that we could not go to Fort Davis because the town had been evacuated and was in flames. We spent Saturday night in a motel in Balmorhea, not knowing whether we would have a house to go home to or not.

I decided in the motel that the best way to deal with the situation was to assume that our house had burned down and we had lost everything. If that proved not to be true, I reasoned, I would be elated, and if it were at least I would be prepared for it. We had our suitcases from our trip in the car with several changes of clothing, our computer, a coffeepot, and a bottle of wine, and that, I thought, would be enough to make a fresh start on. My wife, on the other hand, thought my attitude was nonsense. She was sure our house was undamaged, she said, and she rolled over and went to sleep. I woke up every half hour, trying to remember who held our homeowner’s insurance policy, which I keep in a drawer in my desk, trying to figure out how I was going to pay our income tax if our checkbooks were burned up; and remembering family photographs and mementos that I was going to miss.

Curiously, the thing I thought that I would miss the most was a little three-inch-high lead figure of a black man smoking a cigar and wearing white trousers, a short green jacket, and a gray derby hat that my father brought me from a business trip to Richmond, Virginia, when I was four years old. I think he bought it at the magazine stand in the railroad station there. It is the only tangible object I have from my early childhood, and it has stood on my desk for many years. It turned out that my wife was right. Our house and our neighborhood survived the fire and my little lead man is still on my desk.

Two things about the fire are astonishing in retrospect. The first is that no lives were lost in Fort Davis, even though part of town was an inferno that night. The other is the way that people here have helped each other in the days since it struck. As one of my neighbors said, “We may fuss and fight with each other most of the time, but when the chips are down we all pull together.”

It started the night of the fire. In spite of the state troopers driving through town telling people to evacuate, some people chose to stay in town and fight the fire. They saved not only their own homes but their neighbors’. Bud and Adele Coffey live just off South Front Street, where several houses burned. Bud told me that he was not home when the order to evacuate came; he and his son Ross had driven down to Mano Prieto to turn a friend’s horses out of their pen in order to save them from the approaching flames. When they got back they found Adele packing the car. “We’re not leaving,” he told her. “We’ve got to stay here and keep our house from burning down.”

“We saw the fire hit Dolores Mountain,” Bud told me. “It came down the side of the mountain in about five minutes and hit the McMurrays’ old house. The butane tank there exploded, and the flames were headed across the vacant lot towards Kelly Fenstermaker’s house. We had our garden hose hooked up and were wetting down our house, and we got another hooked up and wet down that lot, and that saved Kelly’s house. The wind was blowing so hard the water was blowing back in our faces, and we had to get real close to the fire to do any good.” The Coffeys managed to wet down one more house before the power went out and their pump stopped working. They saved that house with wet gunnysacks. They were by no means the only ones trying to save other people’s houses that night.

That same night, Joe and Lanna Duncan opened their El Capitan Hotel in Van Horn free to all Fort Davis evacuees.

At their Limpia Hotel here in Fort Davis, the employees left and put a sign on the door that said, “Everything is open. Firemen, just find a place to rest.”

The Tuesday morning after the fire, ranchers and cowboys from three counties converged on Fort Davis to round up loose livestock. The Miller boys from Valentine, who had been here Saturday night fighting the fire, showed up. Jon Means came from Van Horn with three cowboys and a stock trailer. There were at least half a dozen other stock trailers in town that day, and twice that many pickups towing trailers with saddled horses. They worked their way up Highway 17, where all the fences had burned, sorting out cattle from at least five ranches and moving them to unburned pastures. Somewhere along the way they acquired a stray Shetland pony. Someone penned seven displaced Shetlands in a fenced yard in Fort Davis that evening.

Then there is the hay. The first truckload of round bales rolled in from Fort Stockton, ninety miles away, just a few days after the fire. They were sent by ranchers there who knew ranchers here. The trucks have kept coming, two or three a day, as word has spread through the ranching community that there are ranchers here without feed. They are now arriving from as far away as Oklahoma and Tucumcari, New Mexico. The trucking charges have been paid by ranchers and 4-H clubs all over the state. The bales are stacked up in Curtis Evans’s pasture south of town, and County Agent Logan Boswell is making them available to anyone whose pastures have burned.

For the past two weeks the standard greeting in Fort Davis has been, “Y’all all right? Your house all right?” Those who lost their homes are soldiering on and trying to smile. At Jerry and Jeanne Yarbrough’s place, which was a pile of rubble the day after the fire, the lot has been scraped clean. But their flagpole is still standing, and new American and Texas flags are flying from it. That is the West Texas way.

Excerpted from “Texas People, Texas Places: More Musings of the Rambling Boy,” TCU Press; [Original column: April 28, 2011]