4 killed overnight in Texas Panhandle wildfire

Sydney Wallace, left, and Cody Crockett died trying to save cattle and horses from Monday night’s wildfire, according to Gray County officials. 

Posted March 7, 2017 08:36 am - Updated March 7, 2017 08:18 pm  
By 

Ronald Balaskovitz

ron.balaskovitz@amarillo.com 

 

Four people died Monday night in wildfires that had consumed nearly half a millon acres and continued to burn across the Texas Panhandle into Tuesday evening.

The Gray County blaze took three lives. Cody Crockett and Sydney Wallace were confirmed dead by Sandi Martin, Gray County’s Emergency Management Coordinator, and rancher Sloan Everett was confirmed by a family friend as being the third victim. Gray County Judge Richard Peet said they died while trying to save cattle. One died from smoke inhalation and two from burns.

Cade Koch, 25, has been confirmed as a fire victim in Lipscomb County, his wife Sierra Koch told the Amarillo Globe-News.

The two deadly fires kicked up in Gray and Lipscomb counties about 4 p.m. Monday, following a blaze that began in Potter County just north of Amarillo that forced 70 homes and some business to evacuate. The latest total provided by the Texas A&M Forest Service showed 478,935 acres had burned in the fires.

The fires across the Panhandle were so severe, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statement Monday night saying he was sending state resources to the area to assist in fighting the fires.

“As wildfires continue to spread in the Panhandle (Monday) evening, threatening Texans and their property, I have deployed resources to the region to help combat the fires,” Abbott said in the statement. “Due to the unpredictable nature of wildfires, I encourage local residents to heed all warnings from local emergency management officials as firefighters work swiftly to contain the fires. Cecilia and I extend our prayers to the firefighters injured while combating these fires, and we thank all first responders for their tireless efforts on the front lines of this dangerous situation.”

Wildfires were also an issue in Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas, with two other death occurring in those fires, including an Oklahoma woman who had a heart attack while fighting the fires, according to Associated Press reports.

The first of the three Gray County victims died at around 10 p.m. Monday, according to Martin, while the two burn victims were airlifted to Amarillo and Lubbock but did not survive. One victim died while en route to a hospital.

The fire continued to burn well into the afternoon according to the Texas A&M Forest Service dispatch page, with about 135,000 acres burned as of 7 p.m. Tuesday. At last check, the fire was listed as being 65 percent contained, but that the fire’s activity was reported as “low” by the Forest Service.

Crews from Hoover, McLean, Groom, Wheeler County, Pampa, Gray County, Carson County, Donley County and Wheeler County were all called to the scene, as well as crews from the Texas A&M Forest Service and Department of Public Safety.

State fire marshals arrived in Gray County on Tuesday to investigate the three deaths, as well as attempt to determine where the fire started, as well as what caused the fire to start. Officials in Gray County and from the Forest Service confirmed that no known buildings were lost in the fires.

The fire in the northeast part of the Panhandle is the largest, with more than 315,000 acres burned as of Tuesday afternoon, spreading into parts of Lipscomb, Ochiltree, Hemphill and Roberts counties. As of Tuesday evening, Forest Service reported that the fire was 50 percent contained.

Koch, who died in the northeast fire, was on his way home from work to try and get he and his pregnant wife away from the area. Authorities found his abandoned car on Highway 305 about 5 miles north of the Hemphill County line. His body was located near his car, according to the Lipscomb County Sheriff’s Office.

“After calling his cell phone many times, a sheriff answered and said they found the car on 305,” Sierra Koch said through tears. “Around midnight, somebody found him not far from the car and said that he had died from smoke inhalation.”

Ochiltree County Sheriff Terry Bouchard said that despite the large number of acres burned, damage to structures in the area was minimal, with two confirmed houses lost, three to five commercial hog barns, and several outbuildings. Bouchard estimated that more than 500 animals were lost in the commercial hog barn fires.

“Other than that we’re in pretty good shape,” Bouchard said. “We’re just working to get some relief to our firefighters and get them food and water.”

The fire in Potter County, which was listed as 100 percent contained by the Forest Service at about 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, started near Bluebonnet Road and spread quickly to the northeast up Highway 136 and Farm-to-Market Road 293. A Potter County judge ordered mandatory evacuations of the area Monday evening, and 71 homes — as well as several businesses — were evacuated, according to Capt. John Coffee with the Potter County Sheriff’s Office.

The blaze jumped over both roads and requiring three planes from the Forest Service to drop water and fire retardant material to help, according to Phillip Truitt, spokesman for the Forest Service. Two of those planes were on stand-by in Amarillo, while one was brought in from Abilene to assist.

No fatalities or buildings were lost in the fire, but three firefighters were injured in the blaze according to the Amarillo Fire Department and Forest Service. One of the firefighters was from Pantex, whose plant was near the blaze when it approached the area of Highway 136 and FM 293, while the other two were from the nearby Skellytown Fire Department. Phone inquiries to agencies seeking updates on the injured firefighters were not returned.

The Forest Service reported approximately 28,800 acres had burned in the fires north of Amarillo.

Outpourings of support had already started from local communities. The Arena of Life Cowboy Church hay fund has started collecting funds to help buy loads of hay for ranchers who lost their grass, with all funds going to local ranchers.

A GoFundMe has been started for Cade Koch to cover funeral expenses.