LAVERNE — It was Monday evening when the nearly 1,000 residents of Laverne were told to leave their homes as a wildfire that had already charred hundreds of acres inched closer to the town.
The fire, known as the 283 fire from its proximity to U.S. 283, came within a mile of taking the Harper County town off the map, and residents credit volunteer firefighters for saving the town.
It burned more than 69,000 acres, the Oklahoma Forestry Services reported Saturday.
‘Makes me sick’
Bill Zollinger, an Oklahoma cattle rancher who just turned 80, lost the home he grew up in to the fire.
“It makes me sick … it really makes me sick. I mean the old house was not worth a lot anymore, but, I don’t know, it kind of hit me hard that it just burned down,” Zollinger said, looking at the rubble the fire left behind.
Although he no longer lived in the house, he said he still considered it home while recalling memories he and his six siblings made there.
At least eight homes were destroyed in wildfires that burned hundreds of thousands of acres in northwest Oklahoma last week.
In the ditch
In an effort to save as many head of cattle as he could, Zollinger said he attempted to reach his property just outside of town but ended up in a ditch after being overwhelmed by smoke from the fire.
“I could not even see the road, and consequently I ran off the road into a barbed-wire fence,” he said.
As he worked to put out small fires approaching him, Zollinger said he was saved by a passer-by who drove him back to safety.
“It is just another thing that has happened,” he said.
More than 1,100 acres of his land burned in the fire, but Zollinger said he hadn’t lost any cattle as of Friday afternoon.
Cecil Maynes, 60, Zollinger’s son-in-law who lives north of Laverne, said some of his cattle will have to be euthanized due to severe burns.
“It came up so fast, that the cattle could not do anything,” Maynes said, as he pointed out the carcasses in a field.
The forestry services reported that thousands of head of livestock were killed in wildfires across the state.
Robert McClung, 62, who lives west of May, lost more than 100 head of his herd. He said some cows that lived might not survive. Their udders were burned, which is prohibiting them from feeding their calves.
McClung said he is bottle feeding 30 calves in hopes of keeping them alive.
Maynes said he was driving his tractor-trailer, hauling 34 bales of hay, when the fire came barreling toward him.
“I was trying to get it into town, cause I figured that Laverne was going to be the safest place,” he said.
As the fire neared the road, Maynes said he pulled the rig over to the side and he was rescued by a passer-by. The truck, however, is a heap of scorched metal along State Highway 46, its load of hay nothing but ashes.
Despite the devastating losses, those in communities affected by the fires have worked to support each other.
“This is a place where the pioneer spirit of Oklahoma is still very proud, very strong and very effective in dealing with things,” said Stephen Hale, pastor at Laverne and Rosston United Methodist churches.
Organizations from across the state have come to the area to offer aid to those fighting the fires and those who have been displaced from the fires.
Stationed in Laverne, the Oklahoma Southern Baptist Disaster Relief is serving meals for lunch and dinner.
“For us it is, as it always is in any disaster, it is to try to reach people and help them at their point of their need and to show them the face and hands of Christ,” said volunteer Brad Biddy, who was wearing the blue cap of the disaster team.
The American Red Cross reported as of Saturday they had provided more than 1,700 meals and 3,000 drinks and snacks to first responders and those displaced by wildfires.
For residents and ranchers, replacing burned out fence is one of the next steps, with each mile costing almost $3,000, Maynes said.
On Saturday, rain was forecast for the area, but only a mist came early in the day.
“I hope everybody prays for rain, because if we do not get a lot of rain, all of this sand will (be) blowing clear to Texas,” Maynes said.
CAPTION: Cecil Maynes stands beside his tractor-trailer, which was destroyed in the wildfire. [PHOTOS BY ERIECH TAPIA]