I watched a lot of cowboy movies when I was a kid—many in black and white on a small-screen TV with questionable reception—and I was always relieved and thrilled when beleaguered ranchers, townsfolk, or the wagon train—down to their last bullet, drop of water and ray of hope—heard the bugle call of the U.S. Cavalry, the guns of the Texas Rangers or the whoops and hollers of cowboys from the neighboring ranch riding to the rescue.
It happened every Saturday afternoon as John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Tom Mix and their ilk rode in to save the day. West Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas—the Wild West—provided the backdrop for these weekly heroics.
The Wild West is settled now—mostly. Oh a ruffian might occasionally disturb the peaceful streets of Amarillo, Tulsa, and even Dodge City, and the Texas Rangers continue to patrol the state of Texas, and counterparts in other Southwestern states do the same, but more often in high-powered vehicles than on horseback. Folks out West are civilized and downright respectable, but they still need rescued on occasion.
Various law enforcement agencies do amazing jobs of keeping the peace, but even they can’t completely tame the West. Tornadoes, hurricanes, and one of the most feared calamities imaginable, wildfire, jeopardize life, property and peace of mind every year.
Most of us by now have seen photos or video of the Southern Plains wildfire that burned nearly 2 million acres of rangeland in early March. I’ve seen photos of cattle carcasses, and was appalled by the financial losses that represents, but I am moved even more by the emotional toll it took on the ranchers who tended those animals and who feel much more than the loss of property.
Final tally of animal loss is still uncertain, but the number will be in the thousands.
Thousands of miles of fences will need to be repaired. Grassland will need to recover. Cattle herds will have to be restocked.
Even worse, as many as seven persons lost their lives because of the fires, which burned across the Texas Panhandle, Western Oklahoma and Southern Kansas.
Human spirits will have to be lifted.
The process—healing—has begun. During a trip last week to the picturesque little town of Canadian, Texas, in the northeastern Panhandle, I saw green vegetation covering the scorched earth. Burned fence posts hang on old, blackened wire in front of new fencing. Hay bales remain in a field set aside as a drop point for donations—which arrived quickly from all over the country.
Human spirits are being lifted.
Before the glowing embers of the wildfire had cooled, ranchers across the region—devastated and disheartened beyond belief—looked up to see the Cavalry riding in, mounted up on semis, flatbeds, and pickups pulling trailers, all loaded with hay to keep rescued cattle fed until ranchers could make arrangements to sell or move their animals.
Others brought in fencing material, medical supplies, bottled water—and labor to help rebuild fences and facilities.
Anyone who knows farmers and ranchers voices no surprise at the response or at the rapidity with which is occurred. It’s in their DNA; it’s who they are. One rancher who responded to the need explained it succinctly: “Next time, it could be our ranch.”
Hemphill County Judge George Briant, who helped coordinate relief efforts around Canadian, said the depression apparent the day or two following the wildfire had begun to wane as folks realized they were not alone, that people cared about what had happened to them.
Some told me they never expected that outpouring of generosity from people they didn’t know. Some wiped tears from their eyes as they explained how much the area lost and how grateful folks were for the help they received.
I’ve been writing about these people for nearly 40 years. I’m not surprised. When farm and ranch folks need help, someone raises a posse before that last ray of hope can fade to black.
Editors’s Note: Farmers and ranchers across the Southern Plains are recovering from the devastating wildfires. Their courage and resilience know no bounds. But much remains to be done; help is still needed. Most appear to have adequate hay for the time being, but many still need fencing materials—likely the most costly recovery item—and other rebuilding supplies. Contact the Texas, Oklahoma or Kansas Departments of Agriculture to find ways to help. Several organizations have set up websites