Disaster among area’s costliest

Disaster among area’s costliest

03 March 2011

published by amarillo.com

USA — Sunday’s firestorm ranks among the worst disasters in Potter and Randall county history, if the measure is property damage, county officials said Wednesday.

Driven by fierce winds, wildfires destroyed 70 homes and 110 other structures in Potter and Randall counties, scorched more than 25,000 acres and caused minor or major damage to an additional 20 homes and 25 other structures, according to statistics released Wednesday by emergency management officials for Amarillo and Potter and Randall counties. Property damage totaled $13 million, officials said.

“If we talk about Potter and Randall County in the last 25 to 30 years, (the recent fire) is going to be one of the top five events as far as mass property loss goes,” said Walt Kelley, Amarillo’s emergency administration manager.

But one statistic stands out in the minds of many emergency officials: No one was killed in Sunday’s fire.

“If you don’t lose your life, that says a lot,” said Roger Short, chief deputy of the Potter County Sheriff’s Office.

Far larger in scope than Sunday’s outbreak were the wildfires of March 2006 that killed 12 people and 1,000 cattle, scorched 1.1 million acres and caused $96 million in damage in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles and New Mexico. Over the course of six days from March 12 to 18 of that year, the wildfires reached several Panhandle towns, including Borger, Skellytown, Pampa, McLean and Canadian.

Because those wildfires tore through mostly rural land, the impact on structures wasn’t as extensive as that exacted by Sunday’s blaze: 102 structures were destroyed in 2006, according to federal statistics and Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico data.

Nonetheless, “2006 was historic in a national perspective,” said Kevin Starbuck, emergency management coordinator for Amarillo and Potter and Randall counties. “The first day of the fires, 750,000-plus acres were burned. That was the single largest burn in a 24-hour period in U.S. history. So from that perspective, you really couldn’t compare (Sunday’s fire to 2006).”

In a region where nature all too frequently rules by brute, deadly force, tornadoes rate highest on the disaster scale: Two major twisters in the late 1940s caused a combined $6.5 million in damage in Pampa and Amarillo. Adjust for inflation, and the figure soars by almost 10 times to $60 million.

Two more tornadoes in the 1970s caused a total of $11.5 million in damage in Donley and Lefors and Gray counties. That figure moves to $47 million when adjusted for inflation.

Another disaster that ranks high in Texas Panhandle history is the May 26, 1978, flood in Canyon that killed four people, washed away hundreds of cars and caused millions of dollars in property damage. Many homes later were salvaged, said Canyon City Manager Randy Criswell.

“That is not the case when you burn a house down. It’s not salvaged,” he said.

Still, officials agreed, property damage pales next to the loss of life. That provides cause to be thankful in the wake of Sunday’s destruction, Starbuck said.

“We’ve been very blessed that we haven’t had a tornado strike the Amarillo proper,” he said.

Kelley agreed.

“I’m a firm believer in God, and he has looked down on Amarillo,” he said. “The problems are devastating, but as far as big-time major disasters, where thousands and thousands are put out, we’ve been spared that.”

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