Families, officials assess damage from fire

Courtesy photo: Missy Terry Britni Sherwood’s horses run from Sunday’s blaze in south Curry County. While all of Sherwood’s animals survived the fire, she said they are still going to have to sell their cattle because they no longer have anywhere to graze them.

Sharna Johnson

For about $20,000, five miles of fence line can be replaced. But no amount of money can bring life back to burned grassland.

Grass is priceless to Britni Sherwood and her family, who are left with nothing but charred and blowing sand after a massive fire Sunday consumed all but a small area on their 1,500 acres of grazing land near Curry Roads 6 and T.

The fire, which started in Melrose and moved approximately 25 miles to the east, mostly through grassland, destroyed three homes, an unknown number of barns and outbuildings and fences.

Officials said the fire was sparked by a tire blowout on the highway south of Melrose.

Clovis Fire Chief Ray Westerman said Wednesday fire officials are still working to tabulate the damage caused by the fire and do not have complete counts on structures damaged or livestock lost.

Estimates have placed the extent of the fire in the neighborhood of 17,000 acres.

Luckily, the Sherwood’s cattle, a horse and mule were saved from the fire. But now with their fences and grass burned, they have nowhere to graze their 60-some head of cattle and they say they will be forced to sell their herd.

“It’s a herd that we have built up ourselves and we had it the way we wanted it,” Sherwood said Wednesday. “At least we have ours to sell, a lot of people lost livestock.”

With cattle prices at an all-time high, Sherwood said they expect to be able to pay off their cattle loan and put money back to start a new herd, but she said even if it rained today it would take a month before grass started to grow.

And that hardly seems likely with the persistent dry weather in the region.

“(Our land) is in the sand hills but we had grass. Now … it’s unreal. Black charred land as far as the eye can see, (and) that’s how it’s going to be until we get some rain,” she said.

“The grass will come back. There were other places around us that lost cows, those are the ones you really feel for.”

High winds in the days since the fire have created a haze of dirt — free to blow without the grass that had anchored it — in the sky over southern Curry County.

“It’s mother nature,” Sherwood said. “It doesn’t take much… hopefully that showed people how bad it really is.”

Curry County Road Superintendent Steve Reed and his road crews saw firsthand how bad it was when they went out in blade equipment to help cut fire lines Sunday in an effort to save properties and redirect the blaze.

One driver got stuck in deep sand while cutting a fire break, stalled, then couldn’t get his blade restarted. With the fire coming at him about 40 feet away, Reed said the worker finally abandoned the machine and fled on foot.

“By then the wind had changed and was bringing the fire right toward him,” Reed said. “He got scared and bailed out of the blade and went to running.”

The man was picked up by another crew member who knew he was in distress and the fire moved over the top of the equipment.

A second driver was overtaken from behind by the fast moving fire and drove through it, he said.

Drivers are trained to stay in their machines and even turn and drive back through the fire to get out on the backside.

“The blade will withstand quite a bit of heat. That fire is moving really fast and it will blow over you in a hurry, you just have to protect yourself from the heat,” Reed said.

With melted headlights and wiring and scorched paint, the two machines will be fine with some minor repairs, Reed said, but “the main thing is (they) didn’t get hurt and the equipment can be replaced.”

While certainly the worst, Sunday’s fire wasn’t the first.

“I’ve been with the county 15 years and we’ve fought more fires in the last two weeks than the entire time I’ve been here,” Reed said.

The road department, which already equips its blades with respirators, is now in the process of looking for fire blankets or fire proof coveralls for drivers to give them a little extra protection.