Borger Wildfires

March 12, 2006 - "The Day Hell Came to the Panhandle."

I am sure we all remember that day - unseasonably warm, powder dry, and very windy. The previous summer saw rains which caused the grass and brush to shoot up, only to dry out as the winter months went by with no moisture. Burn bans and fire danger warnings were in effect. On that day in March 2006, these dangerous conditions combined with strong winds and improperly maintained electric lines to spark the two largest wildfires in recorded Texas history, burning approximately 900,000 acres; destroying fences, vehicles, buildings and homes; killing livestock; and taking human life. These two fires were a catastrophe.

It is during catastrophes that heroes emerge. Societies need heroes, so much so that we often dub as "hero" those who are not. Talented athletes, celebrities, and politicians are not heroes. A true hero is a person who, faced with a circumstance where human life or limb is at stake, chooses at mortal risk to help another, just because it is the right thing to do.

Three heroes emerged on March 12, 2006, when the larger of the two wildfires, the "Borger Fire," was rapidly approaching the Borger Greenhouse, the home and former business of Bill and Oleta Pfeffer. Oleta, in her early 90's, was totally disabled with advanced Alzheimer's disease. Her husband, Bill, was in his mid-eighties, dependent on supplemental oxygen, and used a cane. Their home was surrounded by the fruits of their labors, hundreds of mature evergreens.

Kathy Ryan, a 64 year old widow, was treating her elderly parents to lunch when she heard of the fire. As Kathy rushed toward her home near Skellytown, her route took her by the Borger Greenhouse, which lay directly in the path of the rapidly approaching fire. She raced down Greenhouse Road to rescue her elderly neighbors.

Shortly thereafter, an E.O.C. volunteer, James Cornelius, and Kenneth Winters, foreman on a nearby ranch, learned that the Pfeffers were at their home and Kathy Ryan was there trying to get them out. Without hesitation, Cornelius and Winters went in to help

Winters and Cornelius ran in the house to find Kathy Ryan helping Bill Pfeffer get his oxygen hooked up and running. Winters and Cornelius scooped up Oleta and put her in Cornelius' pick-up. The Greenhouse buildings and the surrounding trees were already in flames. James drove through a lane of burning evergreens and made it to the highway with Oleta unharmed, though he and the interior of his truck were singed by the heat.

Kenneth ran back in to help Kathy get Bill Pfeffer. As they hurried out the front of the house, flames had already reached the back of the house. The path to the highway was totally engulfed in heat, flames and blinding smoke. As Kathy and Bill Pfeffer got into her pickup, Ken Winters told them to follow him. "If I stall out, you hit me and push me because we are going to have to blow through the fence," Ken told Kathy. Ken ran to his truck, dropped it in gear, sped through the yard, jumped the raised drive, passed by burning trees, drove through the fence and sped to the highway through the adjoining burned pasture. When he cleared the smoke, he realized Kathy and Bill were not behind him. It was later determined that Kathy Ryan's truck would not start in the oxygen-starved and smoke-filled area just ahead of the fire. Trying to flee, Kathy Ryan and Bill Pfeffer were overtaken by the flames and heat several yards downwind from her truck.

James Cornelius is a hero. Kenneth Winters is a hero. Kathy Ryan is a hero one who sacrificed her life, just because it was the right thing to do. To honor Kathy Ryan, her children and my law firm have created The Kathy Ryan Rural Fire and Rescue Endowment, administered by the Amarillo Area Foundation. The income from the endowment shall be used annually to award funds to educate and train fire and rescue volunteers and personnel in the Texas Panhandle.

We ask you to honor Kathy Ryan, James Cornelius and Ken Winters, help train future heroes, and make your Texas Panhandle a safer place by contributing to this endowment. Contributions can be sent to The Kathy Ryan Rural Fire and Rescue Endowment, in care of the Amarillo Area Foundation, 801 S. Fillmore, Suite 700, Amarillo, TX 79101. Applications for education and training grants should also be sent to the Amarillo Area Foundation.


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