Yesterday was the most depressing, and most hopeful, day I’ve ever spent in the Big Bend/Davis Mountains region, when I surveyed damage from the Rock House fire that started in Marfa, raced through Fort Davis, and is still burning East of the McDonald Observatory.
|On the road between Marfa and Fort Davis|
On the road between Marfa and Fort Davis, one can drive miles without seeing a living thing – there is nothing left alive between the deep blue sky and ash-covered dirt – only some charred fence posts along the road remain.
In Fort Davis, the scars of the fire’s path make many acts of heroism obvious. At house after house, one can see where the fire came right up to homes, then split before coming together on the other side to continue its wind-fueled death march. What happened is obvious on its face: residents – defying orders to evacuate – stood shoulder-to-shoulder with volunteer firefighters, and they never gave up on beating back the flames to save their homes. Armed with little more than garden hoses, shovels, and courage, most succeeded.
|Outside the McNight Mansion|
|Inside the McNight Mansion|
The biggest architectural casualty of this war appears to be the McNight Mansion in Fort Davis. Just across the road from the historic Jeff Davis County courthouse, the mansion is situated in a grove of giant old cottonwoods. The rock exterior shell of the house remains, but that’s just about all. The house doesn’t look like it merely burned – it looks more like a bomb hit it. Inside the house, everything is destroyed. And yet, on the mansion’s porch, a wood porch swing remains completely undamaged, swaying in the West Texas breeze.
A few blocks away, the home of a decorated combat veteran burned to the ground. Searching through the rubble later, the man apparently found his Medal of Honor, before the heavy equipment came in and scraped up what was left of the house and hauled it away. Already, there’s no sign that the house was ever there.
From the high altitude of the McDonald Observatory, one can see vast expanse of fire damage in the region, as well as the smoke plumes of pockets of fire still burning, which according to local ranchers may never be extinguished until the rains come.
Despite the enormity of it all, there is no sign of despair, but plenty of signs of hope and determination. Fort Davis is bustling. Clean-up operations there are already well-underway. In fact, most buildings that burned have already been cleared away by crews. Galleries and restaurants are open, main street is undamaged, and the welcome sign is up.
In the country the fire didn’t reach, it’s so dry that every blade of grass is dead, and even the old oak trees are dropping their leaves. Cattle look stressed. There’s no moisture at all in the air. The hot dry winds continue to blow. But there’s more to do than just stand around and wait for rain.
One rancher, having already lost all his cattle and his range land to the fire, was busy helping others by hauling cattle feed to another rancher who lost his grass, but not his cattle. The man’s truck, struggling up a mountain with an over-loaded trailer behind him, overheated. We went to get him more water, and he continued on his way with no sign of discouragement or defeat, to help somebody else.
|Clean-up efforts are underway in Fort Davis|
Others are stockpiling and distributing hay and feed, which has come in, donated or at cost, from every part of the country. The hardware store in Alpine is encouraging people to buy a fence post, at their cost, to donate to ranchers who lost miles and miles of ranch fencing, which costs $5.75 a linear foot to replace. Schools are having bake sales, churches from all around are pitching in what they can. The Feds have brought in the heavy airborne artillery, some of it standing by at the Alpine airport, there to ensure that pockets of fire still burning don’t spike out of control and start this nightmare all over again. People at the Texas Department of Agriculture are putting donated equipment together with the highest need, and have started a fund to help replace ranch fencing.
In this region, helping each other out is apparently what you do while you’re waiting for it to rain.
When the rain does come – and sooner or later it always does – life will return with a vengeance. We saw signs of that yesterday, just outside of Marfa where the fire first started. Fire crews there attempting to stop the fire at its origin dumped a lot of water on the ground. And as a result, poking through the dark ash along the road, are fresh sprigs of green lush grass.
Here’s where to contribute to the relief fund.