A year later: John Erickson writes about the Perryton fire through the eyes of Hank the Cowdog

A year later: John Erickson writes about the Perryton fire through the eyes of Hank the Cowdog
Source: Western Horseman
Source: Western Horseman
Source: KFDA
Source: KFDA

OCHILTREE COUNTY, TX (KFDA) - It's been just over a year since the Perryton Fire burned 318,000 acres across multiple counties in the Texas Panhandle.

The fire devastated many ranchers, including John R. Erickson, author of the Hank the Cowdog series.

He says the fire changed his life, but he and his wife Kris have managed to get through it with the generosity of people across the Panhandle and even the state.

He hopes to demonstrate that Panhandle spirit through his soon-to-be released book: The Case of the Monster Fire.

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"This is like no fire we've seen before."

Those are the words you will find in a book of fiction about a very real tragedy told by John Erickson.

As he walked through the remains of his old home, John was reminded of painful memories.

"It's kind of sad to look at it," he said.

Old plates, pieces of tile and other metal debris now sit where their house once stood before the third largest fire in Texas history claimed their home of 27 years.

"It burned about 90 percent of our ranch, and we lost our home, a guest house and my writing office," said John. "Got out with two laptops, and Kris' mandolin and the clothes we were wearing. We're probably lucky to do that. After the fire, I had no place to write."

A year later, black trees are still standing on their 6,000 acre ranch, serving as a reminder of March, 6th 2017.

John's son Mark was the one who discovered the ashes of his parents home the next morning.

"At that point, the ranch was all smoldering, and a lot of it was on fire," said Mark. "The whole drive in was through this sort of smoking inferno."

John said Mark's news only got worse and worse.

"He said, 'I got terrible news, the house is gone.' I said, 'How about the bunk house?'

'It's gone.'

'How about my office?'

'I haven't been there yet, but it can't have survived.'"

It's a scene that's still burned in the minds of those who helped work the blaze that night.

Chief Paul Dutcher of the Perryton Fire Department remembers the night perfectly.

"The flames going up the canyons, the flame heights of 40 and 50 feet, it's really indescribable," said Chief Dutcher.

Along with their house, the Ericksons lost a horse and a dog, and every day they discover something else they need.

"It's been really hard to replace everything," said John. "You don't think about all the things you've lost. Starting with just the simplest thing, a can opener, a washcloth, I had no boots. I lost all my dress boots, all my work boots, my snow boots, my coats, my vests, all my clothes for working on the ranch, gloves, hats."

The loss of his writing library has been one of the hardest things to bear.

"I had my own personal library of history books, books by Texas Panhandle authors," said John. "I started keeping journals in 1960, oh probably 69 or 70, and I wrote in journals a lot. I had a stack of them that wide. And they of course told the story of what I was doing on the ranches, and what I was writing, the discouragements, the rejections from New York publishers... and poof, all gone."

Despite the devastation, they are moving forward.

"As Job said, 'Naked I came into this world, and naked I'll leave it,' and that's about all you can say when you lose everything," said John.

They didn't have to suffer the loss alone. John said offers of help came from anywhere and everywhere.

"Two guys showed up with trailer loads of hay from Floresville, Texas," he said. "It was over 600 miles."

Fan mail still sits on the floor of their current living room, all with messages of support for the children's author and his family.

With every hay bale brought in, every person brought a light to a dark memory.

"The fire was a devastating experience for us because we lost so much, but it was also an inspiring story of how a community rallies around one of its own," said John.

After the fire, John began recording the events on paper as though he were making journal entries.

He wrote a non-fiction book about the fires of 2017 and also the fires of 2006. Then it was time to write a Hank book.

"It was no question what I was going to write about," he said. "The thing that was on my mind every day."

The Case of the Monster Fire takes their story into Hank's world.

"Slim's house gets burned down in a fire, and he loses 10 heifers that he had borrowed money on," said John.

The "Head of Ranch Security," Hank, believes he and Slim can defend the ranch against anything, until they come face-to-face with a wildfire like no other.

John said he normally lets a Hank book sit for three years, but this one was written in just three weeks.

"I thought, this may not need to sit for three years because it came out fast and just about perfect," said John. "It's a story for all of us in the Panhandle who went through that awful experience and for kids who have never seen a prairie fire before."

He believes it will have readers laughing at times and crying at others, but it will serve as a reminder that the strength of the Panhandle is in the people.

"[The books are] our special gift for the kids who live in this tough hard country," said John. "It's not beautiful the way some country is. It looks kind of ugly when the wind blows and it doesn't rain. But, it produces wonderful people, and they're strong and resilient, and we still have a sense of humor."

John says they hope to rebuild a new home where their house once stood.

The Case of the Monster Fire will be released this coming Wednesday.

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