The Fires of March 2017

“I couldn’t make out flames but did see a cloud of white-and-brown smoke above the canyon rim, moving rapidly over the flat country. It had formed in the seven minutes it had taken me to return to the house.”


Excerpted from chapter three of Bad Smoke, Good Smoke: A Texas Rancher's View of Wildfire (Voice in the American West) by John R. Erickson, by permission of Texas Tech University Press. Copyright © 2021 by John R. Erickson.



The weather forecast had warned that high wind was coming, the kind of wind we had learned to fear, 40–50 miles an hour out of the southwest, with gusts to 70. We feared it because the fires of 2006 had taught us what it could do to an ocean of dry prairie grass. Against such a force, we are as helpless as rabbits.


The day began as any other would on our ranch. I got up at 6, drove to my office, and worked on an article. When the sun peeked over the canyon wall, I stepped onto the screened porch and looked out on the beautiful place we had owned for twenty-seven years. The wind was stronger than normal for that time of day, but not terrible. This was March, after all, and in the Texas Panhandle, the wind blows in March.


The National Weather Service, which had developed an uncanny accuracy in predicting bad events, had issued a Red Flag Warning for wind: extreme fire danger.



At ten, I left my office and went to the house, a log home with 3,500 square feet of living space. Kris designed it in 1993, working with a log-home company in Montana, and we moved into it in time for Thanksgiving, when Ashley was fifteen and Mark was coming up on eleven. Kris had homeschooled them at the ranch.


Kris had always been a gourmet cook but had spent most of her married life working in small kitchens, so she designed this house around a large kitchen with plenty of workspace, a big refrigerator, and a walk-in pantry with three walls of storage. The restaurant-quality Viking stove had four gas burners, two ovens, and a griddle in the center for making pancakes.


There were no inside walls to separate the kitchen from the great room with its big front windows, cathedral ceiling, and fireplace made of native stone. The space flowed together, with the kitchen serving as the focus of the home. That’s where people tended to gather, blending two very old and fundamental human endeavors: lively conversation and the preparation of food.


A long dining table occupied the east wall and could seat twelve, or more if we brought in folding chairs, as we often did. It could accommodate a big crowd of family at Thanksgiving, friends from town, or a crew of archeologists who were spending a week with us while they dug sites on the ranch.


Some notable archeologists had sat at that table at one time or another: Doug Boyd, Brett Cruse, Billy Harrison, Rolla Shaller, Charles Frederick, Chris Lintz, Scott Brosowske, Doug Wilkens, and Richard Drass. Their books and articles on archeology of the Southern Plains would have filled several large library shelves and provided anyone who read them with a fine education on the people who occupied the Canadian River Valley centuries before our ancestors arrived.


We had also fed a lot of first-rate cowboys at that table after a branding or a shipping roundup: Tom Ellzey, Bobby Barnett, Chuck Milner, Dale Githens, Merl Kraft, Hack Coffee, and Nathan Dahlstrom; Lance and Jim Bussard from Lipscomb; Jack and Sam White from the Parsell ranch; Jason Pelham from the Spade ranch and the Abraham brothers from Red Deer Creek; Billy DeArmond, Jody Chissum, and Dave Nicholson from the C Bar C; Burk Adcock from the Killebrew; Brent Clapp from the Adams outfit; and the Erickson boys, Mark and Scot.


And of course the legendary Frankie McWhorter: horse fixer, cowboy, storyteller, and fiddle player. I wrote two books about him and could have written more. Several times we invited friends out for an old-fashioned Saturday night ranch dance. We moved all the furniture against the walls, slid one of Frankie’s CDs into the player, and waltzed and two-stepped the night away, remembering our old friend.


It was a very comfortable house, pleasant to the eye and nourishing to the soul. It was filled with Kris’s goodness and her love of beautiful things: ten of her handmade quilts, wall hangings, scrapbooks, and photographs of our parents, children, and grandchildren.



I talked to Kris for a while, checked email, and drove to the barn to load sacks of feed. I spent the next two hours pouring out 38-percent protein cubes for cows and yearlings. The cows had started calving; it was always nice to see new life in the ugliest month of the year. The wind was howling now.


I went back to the house, ate a bite of lunch, read for a while, and napped for an hour. I was awakened by the sound of my cell phone ringing. It was our son Mark in Amarillo. He said he was seeing white smoke east of town and wondered if I had noticed anything. Maybe I should check.


I agreed. We didn’t have a good view of the horizon in our canyon. In a high wind, a fire could be on us before we knew it. That was a lesson we had learned from the fires of 2006. On days with high fire danger, I made frequent trips to the upper west pasture to check for smoke.


When I started the Ranger, Dixie, our blue heeler, heard the motor and came at a run. She stopped and looked into my eyes. Could she go? “Come on!” She flew into the front seat and licked my face. Riding in the Ranger was always the high point of her day.


When I fed cattle with Dixie, I had to be careful. The dog had been endowed with the powerful instincts of the blue heeler breed: she couldn’t resist making a lightning dash at cattle and biting them on the heels, and my shouting had no effect on her.


She was a sweet dog but lacked discipline and self-restraint—my fault. A few weeks before, she had dived out of the Ranger and spooked a cow. The cow ran away from Dixie’s slashing attack, bumped into me, and knocked the sack of feed out of my hands. If she had hit me squarely, she could have done some damage. Old guys should try to avoid getting run over by full-grown cows.


We drove a mile south, past the bunkhouse and the barn, turned right, and drove up the long, steep hill that led to the upper west pasture. There, 300 feet above the valley floor, I had an unobstructed view in all directions and could see objects 30–40 miles away.


I saw a thin wisp of white to the southwest, probably from the fire Mark had mentioned, but nothing close to us. The wind was screaming out of the west-southwest, blowing so hard that I could feel it rocking the Ranger.


I drove back down into the valley and parked behind the house, went inside, and told Kris that all was well. My cell phone rang. It was Brian Freelove, who worked for Mewbourne Oil Company and took care of some wells on our place.


“John, a pumper just called and said there’s a fire on Ouida Wilson’s place.”


“That’s odd. I was just up on the flats and didn’t see any smoke.”


“I don’t know if it’s true, but in this wind, you ought to check.” I agreed and thanked him for the call.


Ouida Wilson had died several years before, a charming, beautiful, tough, resourceful widow who stayed on the ranch, thirty miles from town, after the death of her husband, Elrick. She had been our closest neighbor, five straight-line miles from our house, but the country between us consisted of rough canyons, and the actual driving distance on gravel roads was over twenty miles.


I stepped out the back door and looked to the northwest. There it was! I couldn’t make out flames but did see a cloud of white-and-brown smoke above the canyon rim, moving rapidly over the flat country. It had formed in the seven minutes it had taken me to return to the house. I knew it was going to be serious trouble for anyone downwind.


I rushed into the house and gave Kris the report. We weren’t in the path of the fire (yet), but we needed to evacuate. Most likely the blaze would follow a path to the northeast and we could come back in the evening, after the wind died down, but Kris needed to pack an overnight bag, just in case, and we needed to get out of the canyon.


I glanced around the house. What do you take?



Excerpted from chapter three of Bad Smoke, Good Smoke: A Texas Rancher's View of Wildfire (Voice in the American West) by John R. Erickson, by permission of Texas Tech University Press. Copyright © 2021 by John R. Erickson.


John R. Erickson, one-time bartender, handyman, cowboy, and founder of Maverick Books, has written and published seventy-five books and more than six hundred articles. He is the author of the bestselling Hank the Cowdog series of books, audio books, and stage plays. His writing has garnered many accolades, including the Audie, Oppenheimer, Wrangler, and Lamplighter Awards, and his works have been translated into Spanish, Danish, Farsi, and Chinese. A fifth-generation Texan, Erickson owns a ranch in Perryton, Texas.