Burning tumbleweeds flew forty feet above the ground

The Texas/Oklahoma/Kansas fire storm of March, 2017

Wildfires that started March 6, 2017 in the Southern Great Plains burned about 1.8 million acres — 781,000 in Oklahoma, 608,000 in Kansas, and 482,000 in the Texas Panhandle. Residents whose families had lived there for generations said they had never seen anything like it. There was much more fire than there were firefighters to handle it.

Ian Frazier, a writer for the New Yorker who spent time in the area in recent months talking with many of the locals, has published a fascinating, gripping account of how the residents and firefighters dealt with the rapidly spreading, wind-driven blazes.

 fires in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas satellite photo
A satellite photo of smoke from the fires in Kansas, Oklahoma, and northern Texas on March 7, 2018. The red dots represent heat detected by sensors on the satellite. NASA photo.

Attacking the flanks or head of the fires was not an option. They were moving too fast, so protecting structures and saving lives was their only choice.

The article is extremely well written. It tells not only the firefighting story, but also the immediate and long-lasting effects on everyone else in the area. If you appreciate great writing, and especially great writing about wildland fire, read it — and thank me later.

Below is a brief excerpt:

…Still the fire came on. Burning tumbleweeds flew forty feet above the ground, and the red cedars in the hollows roared as their resinous boughs ignited like kerosene. The wind swept up the dry grass until the air itself was on fire. Ashland’s firefighters had never seen a blaze that could not be outflanked and subdued. “But what could you do against this monster?” Millie [Fudge, Clark County’s head of emergency-management operations], asked. Like the Englewood firemen, Ashland’s tried to save structures and people. In outlying areas, they hosed houses with a flame-retardant foam. Some houses could not be saved. Here on the prairie, fires are fought from trucks, not on foot. Bumping over rough ground, the trucks threw the firemen around, banging them up and bruising them as burning sparks went down their necks. Several times, the fire’s front line jumped over the trucks, and the firemen kept from burning by spraying a mist around themselves.


(We wrote several articles about the fires; they are tagged “Kansas”.)

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

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