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Part 1: A Texas Panhandle couple recalls the horrific events of Feb. 27, as the Smokehouse Creek fire ravaged Hemphill County, and the glimpses of hope that have surfaced in the midst.

Shelley E. Huguley, Editor

March 8, 2024

7 Min Read
Tatum Pennington
Tatum Pennington and her family ran from the flames for 20 hours. Her parents lost their home and her husband half of the cattle on a ranch he's managed for 22 years. Shelley E. Huguley

In this 3-part series, two Texas Panhandle families, who happen to be related but live in different communities, share their accounts of outrunning and surviving the Smokehouse Creek fire.

It was the darkest day as black smoke temporarily smothered the sun’s rays. Shane and Tatum Pennington, their four of five children, and a grandchild, along with Tatum’s parents and sister, Tasha Butler and her three children, spent hours trying to escape the flames.

They ran for their lives. The wildfire seemed untamable. It had Canadian, Texas, surrounded on all four sides. Tasha’s husband, along with the Pennington’s son-in-law, Jacob Hamby, and many volunteer firemen, tried to hold back the flames and protect the community. Their families.

The Pennington caravan would drive in one direction and be met by flames. With 30-foot flames in their rearview mirror, they would turn around and flee in the opposite direction only to be confronted by flames again. They ran for 20 hours.

Tatum thought they were going to die. There was no way in and no way out. Only towering flames and billowing, blinding smoke. No cell phone service. Nowhere to go.

“Do you stay put? Do you leave? Do you go to Oklahoma?” Tatum recalls asking.

Their family’s vehicle caravan eventually got separated in the chaos.

Related:Canadian, Texas, couple recalls wildfire's initial moments

With their hands tightly grasped, Shane and Tatum repeatedly cried out to God.

As the winds eventually began to die, and the flames quieted, the couple was reunited with their family. They were alive and grateful.

Unsurmountable loss

That day, Tatum’s husband lost half his livelihood on a ranch he’s managed for almost 22 years with livestock that are more than “just cattle” to him.


Tatum lost her childhood home, a house built on the backs of her parents, Bo and Tresea Rankin - 38 years of hard work and endless memories. Tresea, separated from the group, watched alone as her home burned to the foundation. Her husband frantically tried to make his way back to her.

As the Penningtons returned to the ranch, their teenage and preteen sons became men overnight. The family began to search for cattle finding the indescribable — charred, shocked, suffering livestock. In mercy, tears streaming down weary faces, the family began to shoot them to silence the misery.

But darkness wouldn’t win. Although overwhelmed with grief, “We pick up the pieces and get after it” is what the Penningtons say.

The needs are endless. Tatum said they evaluate the problems and then prioritize and “start with one.” Nothing can be fixed at once, nor restored in a day. Rebuilding the ranch will take years.

Related:Texas Panhandle: After the wildfires

“It’s a new beginning,” Tatum’s decides.

Beauty for ashes

The couple say they felt like they were literally at the gates of hell. God’s presence and provision took center stage, as glimpses of hope began to surface. The Penningtons hold tightly to the scripture that God makes beauty out of ashes.

After returning to the subdivision where her childhood home once stood, Tatum said they noticed her son’s pickup. He had parked it in front of his grandparents’ home prior to the fire, but it had been moved. When they opened the door, in the backseat, they found photos that had once adorned the walls of her parents’ master bedroom, along with a pair of Tatum’s baby shoes her mother had kept as a keepsake. The family has yet to determine who rescued these irreplaceable mementos from the burning home.


The Smokehouse Creek fire escalated. Students were released from school. Tresea picked up the kids, while Shane and Tatum made the excruciating decision to evacuate the ranch. As they joined the rest of the family at Tatum’s parent’s house, the kids immediately wanted to know. “Is it gone? Did the house burn?”

“I don’t know what all is burning, but it’s burning,” the couple told them. “Tyson, he’s our cat person, asked, ‘Did you get Beans?’ No. They were all asking, did you get ‘this’ animal?” There was no time to grab the family pets, only the clothes on their backs.

Related:Panhandle fires: Finding refuge in a wheat field

One animal was heavy on their hearts. When the couple’s twins, Talan and Tyson, were three years old, they helped bottle-feed a calf they named Tino, who became more like a family pet. “She still comes to the truck and wants you to hug her and feed her cake out of your hand,” Tatum says.

When the Pennington’s returned to the ranch, their house was covered in ashes but otherwise unscathed. They were grateful and relieved. The twins and their teenage son, Riggs, began inquiring about Tino.

“Guys, it’s not looking good,” she told them. “Where she was supposed to be is where we found so many burned ones. We had gone to the far end of the ranch and then shot back up the river and were calling the siren.”

That afternoon, Tyson turned around and pointed. “We looked up, and coming out of the river was Tino. It was like another thing where God was saying, ‘It’s going to be ok.’”

That moment was a culmination of what the couple so deeply believes, “As dark as it gets, God’s always with you, and there’s always hope.”

The ranch had no electricity. The pasture blanketed in black. Cattle were either dead or injured and wandering, with calves separated from their mommas.

“Our neighbors down the road, they didn’t have any cattle. They were about to receive 800 head off a starter yard the first of March. They all would have been in those pens that burned, so that was one miracle. But they immediately were asking, ‘What do you need? How can we help?’” and welcomed the Pennington’s into their home until the electricity could be restored.


Water for the cattle was a priority, but without electricity, they couldn’t pump it. Tatum’s dad, through work connections, got water trucks out to the ranch to top off the tanks. In the meantime, Canadian Water Well was installing a generator at a neighboring ranch. They called Shane to see if they needed anything.

“We need a generator,” Shane told him. Canadian Water Well had lost 40 generators the day before in the fire. “We’ve got five left if you want one.” They hooked one up that day.

Three of Tatum’s friends cleaned her house, which was covered with thick dust and ash, and took the family’s smoke-stenched clothing home to wash. They also relocated the Pennington’s beef to their freezers to prevent it from spoiling. “And all this while wildcats are cleaning up my yard,” Tatum says. “This day was like, ‘We’ve got you!’”

Hay donations were also being delivered and people brought meals. “There were like 50 people out here. We were blown away.”

A little normalcy

School has resumed. With it, new backpacks and school supplies, as so many lost those as well. Teachers and coaches have volunteered at the donation distribution center and opened the school last Friday for families who needed somewhere for their kids to go while they cleaned up what the fire left behind.


“The students who lost everything were taken to the mall so they could get away but also buy new clothes,” says Tatum, who is an occupational therapist at the school and the local hospital.

This isn’t the Pennington’s first rodeo. Their ranch has survived extreme weather events before, including two tornadoes, one of which blew out their windows and flooded their living room, other close-call wildfires and the freeze of 2021, when temperatures remained below zero for 14 days.

“It’s insane,” Tatum admits.

But as they’ve done before, they’ll continue to pick up the pieces and move forward one step at a time as they witness God make beauty out of ashes.

For more information about how or where to give to help families in the Panhandle rebuild, visit Texas A&M AgriLife's 2024 Texas Panhandle Wildfire Relief Resources.

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About the Author(s)

Shelley E. Huguley

Editor, Southwest Farm Press

Shelley Huguley has been involved in agriculture for the last 25 years. She began her career in agricultural communications at the Texas Forest Service West Texas Nursery in Lubbock, where she developed and produced the Windbreak Quarterly, a newspaper about windbreak trees and their benefit to wildlife, production agriculture and livestock operations. While with the Forest Service she also served as an information officer and team leader on fires during the 1998 fire season and later produced the Firebrands newsletter that was distributed quarterly throughout Texas to Volunteer Fire Departments. Her most personal involvement in agriculture also came in 1998, when she married the love of her life and cotton farmer Preston Huguley of Olton, Texas. As a farmwife, she knows first-hand the ups and downs of farming, the endless decisions made each season based on “if” it rains, “if” the drought continues, “if” the market holds. She is the bookkeeper for their family farming operation and cherishes moments on the farm such as taking harvest meals to the field or starting a sprinkler in the summer with the whole family lending a hand. Shelley has also freelanced for agricultural companies such as Olton CO-OP Gin, producing the newsletter Cotton Connections while also designing marketing materials to promote the gin. She has published articles in agricultural publications such as Southwest Farm Press while also volunteering her marketing and writing skills to non-profit organizations such as Refuge Services, an equine-assisted therapy group in Lubbock. She and her husband reside in Olton with their three children Breely, Brennon and HalleeKate.

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