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Firefighters risk lives in rural TX

Volunteer firefighters vividly recall trying to save their close-knit community.

BY CHUCK HUSTMYRE | RINGGOLD, Texas | January 7, 2006

In Ringgold, a rural Texas town, volunteer firefighters vividly recall trying to save their close-knit community.

Darrell Fuller Jr., 44, is the closest person Ringgold has to a full-time fireman. Fuller said the New Year's weekend fire that destroyed 30 homes in the tiny town was simply unstoppable. "It was like a hurricane," he said. "There was nothing you could do. It wouldn't have mattered if you had one truck or a hundred trucks out there. You were not going to stop that fire. It was massive."

The blaze started four miles east of town when a crossbar on a utility pole gave out. Wind gusts, some as high as 80 miles per hour, fanned the flames. A rancher who spotted the fire called the Ringgold Volunteer Fire Department.

Ringgold residents say their community is a place where people spend a lot of time helping their neighbors. The tiny town sits on the prairie lands of north Texas, just a mile or so from the Red River and Oklahoma. Most of the 200 or so people who call Ringgold home struggle to make ends meet.

After two back surgeries, Fuller is partly disabled. A member of the fire department for 12 years, he spends more time at the firehouse than most of the other dozen volunteers. Both his father and father-in-law are also volunteer firefighters.

The department has only three vehicles, and one was in the shop on New Year's Day. That left only a water truck and an old Dodge pickup to battle the blaze.

The Ringgold Volunteer Fire Department's main fire truck - painted fire engine red - is a converted military truck with water tanks welded onto the bed and a couple of hoses. The day of the wildfire, Fuller started off trying to find the end of it.

"Anytime you are fighting a fire, you don't want to hit it head on because you are taking a chance of getting burned up," Fuller explained. "You want to get behind it and chase it down."

Fuller maneuvered the truck into position behind the fire. He and his crew joined other fire companies and started beating the flames down with water.

Then the wind shifted. And so did the fire.

It swept around and behind the Ringgold volunteers, cutting them off from their escape route. Tornadoes of flame spun off from the leading edge of the fire, Fuller recalled. Flames exploded upward, sometimes reaching the height of a telephone pole, he said.

Fuller realized he had to get himself and his crew out of the path of the new fire line. As its towering flames rushed toward the firefighters, their only path to safety lay through the smaller - and potentially less lethal - line of flames in front of them. Yet, even as Fuller prepared to move, the distance between the two fire lines was steadily shrinking.

With his crew onboard, Fuller said he accelerated toward the fire line to their front. If he got up enough speed, he knew he could punch through the flames. He said he'd done it before.

"What was behind us was worse than what we were going through," Fuller said.

Then the two fire lines crashed together.

As the huge flames that had been chasing the Ringgold crew rolled over them, Fuller said his father-in-law dove for cover beside the water tanks on the back of the truck. The fire left second-degree burns on his back and arms.

Hanging from the front of the truck, Thomas Garcia, Fuller's son-in-law, tried to spray a path through flames that were so close they left one of his hands blistered.

Inside the truck, Fuller recalled, flames shot up alongside the gearshift, and for an instant a flash fire filled the cab. The flames singed Fuller's hair and eyebrows and left slight burns on his neck and face.

It took just seconds for Fuller and his crew to make it through the leading edge of the fire.

All three were treated at an area hospital and released. Fuller and the other Ringgold volunteers - along with firefighters from more than 50 fire departments - continued to battle the fast-moving blaze for two days before bringing it under control.

In his 12 years of fighting wildfires, Fuller says he has never seen anything like the New Year's Day fire. Its speed and power were overwhelming, he said. "It was terrible."

Yet no lives were lost, and Ringgold residents said they are very thankful for that.

"If that fire had come through here at night, there's no telling how many people it would have killed," said one veteran firefighter.

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