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Texas wildfires are devastating the cattle ranching industry


Wildfires are still burning in the Texas Panhandle. The Smokehouse Creek fire, the largest, has already burnt more than a million acres. So far, two people have died and thousands of cattle. Shane Pennington is a manager at the Fields-Mahler Ranch near Canadian, Texas, and joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

SHANE PENNINGTON: Yes, sir. Thank you.

SIMON: What have these days been like for you?

PENNINGTON: Well, they're long days after all this. They were long before this, but since this has all, you know, happened, they've really been long, so daylight till dark for sure.

SIMON: Well, what's it been like? Tell us what - how the days have been filled, what you've had to contend with.

PENNINGTON: Well, just the first part of the week, you know, after that fire, we were just busy trying to assess damage and gather cattle that had gotten out. We had a few that kind of stayed contained and put, but all the fences were down. So they were kind of in shock, and they were just walking fences and getting on the neighbors and crossing over the river. And it was tough to keep them in till we finally got some hay in here. We had baled about, oh, eight or 900 bales of grass hay this summer. We had a lot of forage, but every bit of it burned up, including hay. But we're full of hay now, and we've got these cattle kicked in here, and they're contained. We're just still assessing the damage, you know, of the cattle theirselves - just the burnt ones, the ones we found dead and the ones that we still need to probably put down.

SIMON: So you lost some cattle and will probably lose more.

PENNINGTON: Yeah, we've lost almost sixty head on this place. There's other places that lost considerable more than that. They're worse off than we are.

SIMON: Do you know people who've lost their homes or perhaps even their lives?

PENNINGTON: My in-laws, actually - my mother and father-in-law lost their home in this. And several of my friends, local people here, you know, have lost homes. I think they said just in the Canadian area, maybe 50 homes were lost.

SIMON: People coming together to help out in the community now to help each other?

PENNINGTON: Yes, sir. This was a great community before the fires. Canadian's kind of a, you know, gem in the Panhandle. It's on the river. There's a lot of cedar breaks as you're coming into town. It's just beautiful, you know, in the summertime, in spring and lots of trees and just grass, and everybody knows each other. We're a small town, you know, about a AAA classification right now in Texas, and we have one of the best football programs in the state of Texas. It's just a community of everybody pretty much, you know, loves everybody, and everybody helps everybody.

SIMON: How are you doing, Mr. Pennington?

PENNINGTON: Well, I'm doing good. I wasn't doing too good the first few days afterwards, but I'm a lot better. You know, things are looking up. And with what we've had, you know, that died in the fire and what we've had to put down, we're within about 18 head of finding all of our cattle that we had before the fire. And one of my neighbors north across the river several miles, he called, and those cows that had gone to his place during that fire, and he said, they're over there, and he's feeding them, and they're good, and when we get ready to come get them, he'd help us get them hauled over here. So it's just people helping people, and, you know, 22 years of this just on this place is how long I've been here. You know, we raise all these calves from babies, and it's hard to see them suffer and perish like that when you - that's all I do day in and day out, is take care of them.

SIMON: What'll the cattle business be like in these next few weeks and months ahead because of these fires?

PENNINGTON: Oh, gosh. I'm not sure. You know, there's - it's going to be - for the people that owned land and owned the cattle, it's a bad deal. You know, I don't know as far as market. The market was good on them. And to have them destroyed like that, it's going to be tough to recover from it, you know, especially a cow calf operation like this place is 'cause your cows are your factory, and you've got to keep them going. And you can't just get rid of all of them and start over. You can, but it's extremely hard, and it takes years to do to build back up. So we're kind of going through the process now of a lot of them we can save, and we're going to, and we're going to try to keep that part of the herd together. But a lot of them are going to have - especially the calves, you know, their lungs are damaged from the smoke, and they look good right now, but as they grow and their body gets bigger, their lungs are going to be damaged, and that lung capacity won't support a bigger animal as they get to be a weaning calf, you know, seven, 800 pounds or so. So the effects of this will last for a long time.

SIMON: Well, good luck to you, sir.

PENNINGTON: Well, I appreciate it.

SIMON: Shane Pennington, manager of the Fields-Mahler Ranch, thank you so much.

PENNINGTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.