Texas Fires Kill Thousands of Animals

Quenching rains last weekend slowed the progress of Texas panhandle fires that consumed more than 800,000 acres of land and killed an estimated 10,000 head of livestock in less than a week. At least 30 horses in the McLean area of Texas succumbed to smoke or flames.

Brad Williams, DVM, director for the Texas Animal Health Commission's (TAHC) Amarillo-based Area 1, has served as the TAHC spokesperson on the fires. The East Amarillo Complex of fires consisted of two blazes, the Borger and the Interstate 40, which were 100% contained over the weekend. The fires began the afternoon of Sunday, March 12. Between one and two inches of rain fell on the fire zone Friday (March 18) and there was snow on Saturday (March 19), which weakened the fires considerably.

Williams said the I-40 fire, which burned an estimated 350,000 acres, was the one that impacted ranch and saddle horses the most. "There are a lot of horses down through there, and I know a lot were going to their veterinarians for treatment," he said. Both fires approached from the West; one moved north, and the other moved south. However, Williams said the winds changed direction so many times that it is difficult to describe the path of the flames.

Saving human lives is first priority, as Williams said it should be. He said the fires moved so quickly that many people didn't have time to get animals moved. Some owners in the towns of Miami and McLean were able to evacuate their horses to the rodeo grounds in Pampa and Canadian, but for the majority of livestock, teams tried to cut fences and herd the animals away from the flames. Since the animals were accustomed to their boundaries, it was difficult to move them toward the new fence openings, and many would run back toward the blaze.

"The wind was blowing 60 mph, and the fires were so wide that you couldn't get around them," Williams said. "The animals that got out on the roads still didn't have any place to go. As far as anything in the path of the fires, it was a devastating deal, because the flames were moving so fast (up to 10 mph) and it was so hot. There was a lot of ground cover, and the smoke was so thick that any animals in the way were seriously affected or dead. I would like to think that they mainly died of smoke inhalation before the fire got them."

Treating the Wounded

Williams said there would continue to be losses because of how serious the burn injuries have been. "There are cows with burned udders that are kicking the calves off, and there are a lot of injured cattle and horses that might succumb to their injuries," he explained.

David Woods, DVM, owner of McLean Veterinary Clinic, estimated that he treated 25 horses following the fires, most of which are suffering from serious injuries.

Another practitioner, Brian Gordzelik, DVM, owner of Gray County Vet Clinic in Pampa, treated three horses--two with burns and one with complications from smoke inhalation. "With the burn injuries, more than anything we have to worry about skin infections," said Gordzelik. "When the dead skin starts to slough off, we're painting them with different types of antibiotic ointments to prevent infection. I don’t know what kind of scarring problems they'll have, because they're sloughing big, giant patches of skin all over.

"They got little eye abrasions from all the debris that was flying around that day," Gordzelik continued. "The burned grass and soot is pretty irritating to the eyes, and they get ulcers. We're treating some of these horses' eyelids that were burned severely, and they're having a hard time closing them, which is resulting in dryness."

The other horse Gordzelik treated had labored breathing from smoke inhalation, but he was fine after a few days of treatment.

Inspectors from the TAHC have been working daily to identify and contact ranchers who have equipment to capture, restrain, and haul stray livestock to holding facilities. In the meantime, they're assisting with damage assessments and compiling official numbers of livestock deaths (the 10,000 figure was calculated using acreage and estimated livestock density). They have buried more than 500 head of cattle, and the loss count is 3,200 and growing.

The Texas Forest Service reported that the second week of March is a common time of year for large fires (for example, the Big County Fire, March 10-15, 1998, burned 366,000 acres). However, Williams says typical range and grass fires aren't usually as involved as those seen near Amarillo this year.

"Typically you can move the cattle off and it burns (out)," Williams explained. "The relative humidity was in the single digits, then there was the drought, and then the wind…those combined made it a tremendous task to get the fires under control."

The fires have affected the cattle industry far more than the horse industry in Texas, and the situation was described as "an extreme temporary setback" by Williams.

Gordzelik said that the owner of two of the horses he treated lost his entire ranch near Lefors, Texas, with exception of the main house and structures. The owner of the third horse lost all 50 sections of his ranch, which was 20 miles north of Pampa. (A section is 640 acres or one square mile.) Gordzelik said, "The good thing is it seems a lot of the other area ranchers, even the ones going through the same thing, all are pulling together and helping each other out. The ones whose ranches weren't affected are offering short-term pasture to those who have no grass…locally the help has been pretty encouraging."

He added that federal assistance is expected.

The spirits of affected ranchers is high, considering the situation. "They've really been pretty optimistic," Gordzelik said, "at least the ones I've talked to."

Woods added, "They're hanging tough."

About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

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