The McDannald Ranch Fire burned up hills inside the Highway 188/166 scenic loop west of Fort Davis. (Photo: Sally Beauvais/KRTS)
As of Monday, May 14, the McDannald Ranch Fire, which has been burning west of Fort Davis since late April, is 100% contained. It burned up 19,043 acres of grassland in the Davis Mountains.
Millions of dollars in resources and personnel were directed towards putting out the fire, which reached into portions of the Davis Mountains Nature Preserve.
Larry Belles, the state fire manager for the Nature Conservancy in Texas, came in from Nagocdoches to coordinate the firefighting strategy on the protected land – which, as it turned out, contained resources that were crucial to fire operations at large.
Standing next to a small pond dug out by cattle ranchers years ago to collect rain during monsoon season, Belles says helicopters have been dipping into the water for 5 days now. “We still have water in the tank, which is amazing,” he says.
A large orange helicopter is pulling in over his head, approaching the water like a giant mosquito.
“He’s got a big snorkel hanging down underneath, it has a hydraulic pump, and in about 30 seconds he can pull 2,000 gallons of water up into that tank,” Belles says.
These firefighting helicopters were dropping the water on the ridge of nearby Paradise Mountain, where the McDannald Ranch Fire burned for days.
It started early in the morning on April 30th, when lightning struck west of Fort Davis. Pine and juniper brush and tall grass caught fire. By the next day it was edging in on the Davis Mountains Resort, a neighborhood of about 400 homes.
Shannon Barron has lived in the DMR for 3 years. “I was looking out my living room window and I saw a light and I said oh what is that?” she says. “And I walked out into the front yard and I actually took a picture of it, and the whole top of the mountain was on fire. And I said ok. I have to leave. It was scary.”
The neighborhood is especially vulnerable to fire at this time of year because it’s surrounded by fuel.
Grasses, shrubs, and trees are extremely dry this season, thanks to a shortage of rainfall in West Texas through the winter and early spring. That means everything is ready to burn.
Pat Olivas, Fire Chief for Fort Davis, says the McDannald Fire moved rapidly through the area in its first couple days.
“When you have that much wind coming over these hills at this time, you’ll burn literally the top layer of the grass. The bottom will stay in tact, and kind of simmer for days,” he says.
It wasn’t just fire weather that made the fire so difficult to fight, though. It was burning in rugged terrain, up rocky mountain sides and deep in canyons. Those areas that can be impossible for fire engines and personnel to get into.
Once officials got a grasp of the complexity of the fire, the Texas Forest Service and Jeff Davis County called in a federal Type 1 Incident Management Team.
“It’s in very remote country,” says Mike Dueitt, an incident commander with the Red Team. “Fires here are typically longer duration. And the local resources a lot of times are volunteers, and just the capacity to stay on it for a week, 2 weeks, 3 weeks kind of thing, is not in their normal realm that they deal with.”
According to officials from the Red Team, the fire cost more than 6 million dollars to fight. About 75% of that money came from FEMA grants, and went towards resources like aerial firefighting from single engine air tankers, and those helicopter drops on Paradise Ridge.
Several structures were lost in the McDannald Ranch Fire, but no homes. The fire’s edge reached a half mile from the Davis Mountains Resort neighborhood, where residents were under a voluntary evacuation request.
Julian Pierce lives in the DMR. Several days into the McDannald Fire, he and his wife hadn’t evacuated. “My wife and I packed the car until there were no seats left last time,” he says.
But now, they have it down. They pack the car with the two things that matter most: a hard drive of family photos, and the cat. And they don’t leave until it feels necessary. “Well, after the Rock House Fire, and the Tejano Canyon Fire, and the Livermore Fire, and the Hughes Fire, I’m kind of numb,” Pierce says.
Many here vividly remember the 2011 Rock House Fire, which burned up 300 thousand acres around Fort Davis. It was one of the largest grassland fires in Texas history.
Shannon Barron moved to the DMR years after that. When she saw this fire crest over Paradise Ridge, she evacuated for the night. But she spent all of her daytime hours over the last 2 weeks at the neighborhood fire hall, making sure the internet was working and that crews had something to eat.
“The community came together and brought food, for these guys to feed them, we were doing homecooked meals for them, hot meals,” says Barron. “Just to give them something and show how much we appreciate their help.”
With the McDannald Fire now fully contained, operations have returned to normal for local volunteer fire crews. But as drought-like conditions persist, officials say there’s potential for more major fire activity this season.