Don’t overlook the danger

By Kristen Tribe | Published Wednesday, January 24, 2018

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Grass fires never alarmed me until the last few years.

To most firefighters this probably sounds like a naive statement, but consider my perspective: I can’t recall any devastating grass fires from my youth, and as a professional reporter, a grass fire normally ranks pretty low in the breaking news hierarchy.

For a run-of-the-mill grass fire call on scanner, the blaze may destroy a few acres, or as many as two dozen if it’s a large fire, but there’s no loss of life, equipment or structures. Fire departments are able to get a grass fire under control quickly, and it’s extinguished before most people know it happened.

Kristen Tribe

Kristen Tribe

That’s the case nine times out of 10. It’s that one time that has made me more vigilant on high fire danger days and wary when a grass fire call comes across scanner.

Whether it’s maturity or heightened awareness, it seems conditions are worse on a more regular basis today than they were 10 years ago, and we’ve all witnessed horrendous fires in recent years.

In December 2016, 920 acres and three structures burned in a grass fire near Crafton, and 400 acres burned in November 2017 in northern Wise County, leading to an evacuation of Slidell schools. Of course, in between there were hundreds of smaller grass fires, stretching firefighting manpower and resources.

To understand the levity of a grass fire, you have to think beyond the acres and consider the people in its path. Not long after returning to work at the Messenger and helping oversee the newsroom, I found myself on the phone with a reporter who had become disoriented covering a grass fire. She accidentally drove directly into the path of the fire, got turned around in the smoke and narrowly avoided the flames.

To remember the panic in her voice still numbs me today. I tried to stay calm on the phone and give her direction, but it was a helpless feeling knowing I couldn’t simply scoop her from the scene. In the end, she was OK, but it rattled us all.

Last March West Texas was devastated as three huge grass fires devoured land, cattle, and sadly, even people. The blaze was monstrous. It was documented in a touching piece by Skip Hollandsworth – “The Day the Fire Came” – in the July 2017 issue of Texas Monthly. If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to do so. You will never blow off another high fire danger day. You will wince when the wind gets high.

In the story, Hollandsworth details the weather conditions leading to the tragedy, but more importantly, the lives of Cody Crockett, 20; Sydney Wallace, 23; and Sloan Everett, 35; all of whom perished on the Franklin Ranch. They managed to save their cattle, but the fire turned unexpectedly, consuming them.

Just imagine if that was you. Your son. Or your neighbor.

My heart aches just thinking about it.

These are just two examples of things that changed my perspective on grass fires, but of course, there are other examples across Texas and the United States. Grass fires are not as harmless as I once perceived them to be but instead are unpredictable, ruthless and potentially deadly.

Please heed the county’s Red Flag burn ban. Pay attention to weather conditions and use caution, even on days when burning is allowed. Your life depends on it.

Kristen Tribe is assistant publisher of the Wise County Messenger.

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