Texas Fires Kill Horses, Cattle

Quenching rains over the weekend of March 18 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) Area 1, based in Amarillo, 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 on March 19. The fires began Sunday, March 12.

Williams said the I-40 fire burned an estimated 350,000 acres and was the one that impacted horses. "There are a lot of horses down through there, and many were going to their veterinarians for treatment," he said. The fires came from the West; one moved north, and the other moved south.

The fires moved so quickly (up to 10 mph) that many people didn't have time to move animals. Some owners in Miami and McLean were able to evacuate their horses to the rodeo grounds in Pampa or 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 went 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 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."

David Woods, DVM, owner of McLean Veterinary Clinic, estimated that he treated 25 horses, most of which are suffering from serious burn injuries. Williams said there would continue to be losses due to these types of problems.

Brian Gordzelik, DVM, owner of Gray County Veterinary Clinic in Pampa, treated several horses. He said, "With the burn injuries, more than anything we worry about skin infections," said Gordzelik. "I don't know what kind of scarring they'll have, because they're sloughing big, giant patches of skin all over them. We're painting them with antibiotic ointments to prevent infection." The horses also have eye abrasions and irritation from the debris in the air, burned grass, and soot. Some horses have severely burned eyelids.

Agriculture officials helped ranchers catch and haul stray livestock to holding areas, and they are assisting with damage assessments and compiling official livestock death numbers (the 10,000 figure was calculated using acreage and estimated livestock density). By press time, the death count was 4,296 and rising.

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, "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 were not 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.

Affected ranchers' spirits are high, considering the situation. "They've really been pretty optimistic," Gordzelik said.

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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