The Day Hell Came to Cross Plains

The weather in West Texas brings its share of violent thunderstorms and high winds as Howard Heads can attest to.  Seems like every four or five years violent weather pays Cross Plains a visit during Howard Days. The weather also swings to the other extreme, with long periods of drought, coupled with high winds and low humidly, which can lead to grass fires when a spark or carelessly discarded cigarette ignites the dried vegetation.

This was case on December 27, 2005 when a massive wildfire swept through the small town, destroying over 100 homes and resulting in the deaths of two of its citizens.  The Howard House was nearly a casualty as well if not for the efforts of a neighbor who kept the small frame house wet with a water hose. The fire got so close it singed the grass surrounding the house. The valiant effort of this gentleman, other citizens, the Cross Plains Volunteer Fire Department and volunteers from across the county saved many a structure and prevented a greater loss of life.

This past December was the fifth anniversary of the fire and similar weather conditions were present when the citizens paused to reflect on the disaster for a local television station. And the same wildfire conditions exist today — Callahan County firefighters are currently fighting several grass fires as noted in this March 17 story from the Abilene Reporter-News:

Forest Service, VFD’s battling Callahan County wildfires
By Celinda Emison
March 17, 2011

Fire fighters are battling several wildfires that started overnight in Callahan County.

The first fire sparked around 11:45 p.m. south of Putnam, according to officials at the Callahan County Sheriff’s Department. Fires were reported on FM 880, FM 3265 and County Road 482, officials said.

The Texas Forest Service is assisting with the three fires, cumulatively dubbed the “880 Complex” fire. No structures are threatened at this time, officials said.

“Volunteer fire departments contacted us at 2:30 a.m. for assistance,” said Marq Webb, public information officer for the Texas Forest Service.

Volunteer departments from Putnam, Cottonwood, Cross Plains, Baird, Cisco and Rising Star have been on the scene along with TFS personnel and equipment.

“The winds are pretty bad, this is going to create difficulty in suppression efforts,” Webb said. “We just want to remind everybody that today is not a day to be doing anything with fire.”

So the people of Cross Plains and Callahan County must remain ever vigilant and make every effort to prevent another disastrous wildfire. The December 2005 fire was one that the Texas Forest Service and Texas A&M took note of as they did an in-depth study of the event, which is available online. You can also find online a large collection of photos showing the aftermath of the massive wild fire.

As a reminder that the dry conditions can occur all year round, the Howard Days 2011 page at the REHupa website has a statement regarding the rules for smoking at Caddo Peak. Common sense dictates this advice should be followed at all the outdoor events during the celebration as well.

Cross Plains is a very resilient community, having made an amazing comeback from the brink of disaster. Even though visible scars of the fire remain, the city has healed, rebuilt and is a stronger community for having survived the fire. Indeed, Howard’s hometown has a lot to celebrate this year — a successful comeback from the devastating wildfire and the centennial of its birth.

Cross Plains resident Tom Stephenson begins the daunting task of cleaning up after the fire destroyed the First United Methodist Church.