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‘It’ll take years’: Panhandle residents contemplate rebuilding their lives after the fires

Rachel Osier Lindley
Tatum Pennington and her children evacuated as the Smokehouse Creek fire approached. "Our house should have burned down, but it didn't," she said. While their home is just outside of Canadian, the ranch it sits on spans several thousand acres. "The ranch...the ranch has suffered a tremendous loss."

As the wildfires in the Texas Panhandle continue leaving scorched homes, barns and livestock in their wake, some residents are beginning to glimpse what recovery will look like when the blazes are finally extinguished.

Tatum Pennington and her husband live in hard-hit Hemphill County. Their ranch, located outside the town of Canadian, is usually home to between 250 and 300 head of cattle.

“Right now, we would be at the height of calving season. So we've had a lot of babies and mamas that have passed away,” she said.

When the Smokehouse Creek fire, the largest of the blazes, got close to her house on Tuesday, Pennington evacuated the area with her children and dogs.

Since returning, she has been cleaning up — and seeing an outpouring of community support.

“I've had so many people come out,” Pennington said. “The basketball and football boys and their coaches came out and helped chop down trees, clean up ... haul burnt, destroyed stuff out of our yard.”

Rachel Osier Lindley
Burned grasslands outside of Canadian, Texas. The Smokehouse Creek fire has consumed more than a million acres, making it the largest wildfire in state history.

Her family was without power until volunteers from her church brought by a generator on Thursday morning. As the machine rattled on outside, she surveyed the burnt landscape and described the devastation the fire caused to her family’s ranch.

“We found several cattle that were burned severely, but they weren't dead yet,” she said. “It was, it was just gruesome. That's probably been the toughest, darkest moments we've had. We had to shoot a bunch of cattle yesterday.”

As of Thursday, the full herd hadn’t been accounted for.

“My husband and my two boys are out on the ranch trying to still find live cattle and pen the ones that we find. And everyone else is working on what to do with the ones that have passed away,” she said.

State authorities said a full assessment of the destruction can be completed after the fires die down. But it’s unclear when that will be. Dry and windy weather is expected to return this weekend after a brief period of cooler temperatures and rain and snow blanketed the area.

“Probably tens of thousands of cattle [are] lost, that’ll be just personal estimate,” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller told The Texas Newsroom Thursday. “We know that over 50 structures [have been lost]. Hundreds and hundreds of miles of fencing is going to have to be replaced.”

Two people have died in the fire, and Andy Holloway, the Hemphill County agent for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, told the Texas Standard Thursday that 10,000 cattle may have perished in Hemphill County alone.

Heather Helms, who drove from Oklahoma to Canadian to be with her family, got an up-close look at the damage along the way.

“It was heartbreaking. It was very heartbreaking to see,” she said. “I mean, you just don't even realize that in a split of a second it can all be gone.”

Rachel Osier Lindley
Cattle roam outside of Canadian, Texas two days after the Smokehouse Creek fire roared through the area. It's estimated tens of thousands were killed in the wildfire, including many on Tatum Pennington's ranch. "It takes years to build a really good breeding program in cattle. And so we're basically starting from scratch," she said.

Right now, Helms is focused on her father, who helped some of his neighbors evacuate after authorities told residents to flee their homes.

“I'm just waiting for my dad to get out of the hospital because he [inhaled] too much smoke so they’re keeping him for another day,” she said.

As of Friday morning, the Smokehouse Creek has consumed more than 1,078,000 acres and was only 15% contained, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. A separate blaze, the Windy Deuce in nearby Moore County, had covered 142,000 acres and was 60% contained.

Cooler temperatures and wetter conditions provided some help to firefighters Thursday. But the dry weather that helped fuel the fires earlier this week is forecast to return this weekend.

“As we go into the weekend, we are expecting to see higher winds, warmer temperatures again and lower humidity, which is kind of a recipe for fire spread,” Adam Turner, a public information officer with the Texas A&M Forest Service, said. “If any fires do start, with really high winds, you have a chance for pretty rapid spread.”

Regardless of when the smoke clears, the Penningtons said they aren’t going to let Mother Nature destroy their way of life.

“We dust off and we just start building back, one step at a time. We take one problem at a time and find a solution and move on to the next,” she said. “It’ll take years. But that's what we'll do because that's what Texans do. I mean, we don't give up and we don't lay down and feel sorry for ourselves. We just dust off and get right back after it.”  

After all, the home on her family’s ranch has been in the path of at least three fires before.

“Two tornadoes, too,” she added. “And we’re still here.”

The Texas Newsroom's Julian Aguilar contributed reporting from El Paso.

Rachel Osier Lindley is Statewide Senior Editor for The Texas Newsroom.