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‘Neighbors helping neighbors’: How Borger employees fought the Panhandle fires

When the largest wildfire in Texas history threatened the Texas Panhandle, Phillips 66 employees at the Borger Refinery answered the call.

“We were set up on the highway, and it just started raining fire,” said Bobby Smith, a lieutenant on the refinery’s Emergency Response Team and a member of the Stinnett Volunteer Fire Department. “The fire came over the top of us and hit the highway, and we had to retreat. That was probably the scariest moment because it was almost a total blackout because of the smoke.”

The Phillips 66 team responded as part of the Panhandle region’s mutual aid concept, in which the Borger Fire Complex and neighboring towns help each other to fight bigger fires and respond to major emergencies. The response to these blazes consisted of multiple dispatches and long hours — most first responders only got about two or three hours of sleep at a time.

In addition to a wildland firefighting team, the Borger Fire Complex includes several employees like Smith who serve as volunteer firefighters for small towns around the refinery. That put a number of them on the front lines of the Smokehouse Creek and Windy Deuce fires.

The larger Smokehouse Creek Fire eventually burned over 1 million acres — roughly comparable to the distance between New York City and Philadelphia. It killed two people and countless livestock, destroyed more than 500 structures and devastated grasslands needed by the region’s cattle ranchers.

Phillips 66 volunteer firefighters are trained and equipped to work alongside volunteer fire departments. They spend 16 hours each quarter on training, and employees can attend Phillips 66 Fire School held twice a year and taught by company instructors at Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service.

Though Smith, Tim Graham, Asa Woodfin and Josh Yates brought that knowledge and experience to bear in fighting the wildfires, they knew from the start that the blaze north of Stinnett, Texas on Feb. 26 was no ordinary event.

“The voice coming from our captain as she was trying to call out personnel was bone-chilling,” said Woodfin, a maintenance lead at the Borger Refinery and assistant chief for the Stinnett VFD. “I knew we were going to show up and have something big that we probably have never dealt with to that magnitude.”

Graham, the refinery’s Emergency Response Team leader and assistant chief for the Fritch VFD, said the firefighters often take a wait-and-see approach to wildland fires, allowing the blaze time to burn into an area where it can best be attacked.

“There is honor and commitment in not only going out the door knowing you can fight fires, but also in knowing that you’re going to have the best possible chance to come home from that fire,” said Graham.

The firefighting team’s approach to risk management extends to proactive measures. Because of the vast amount of grasslands and wildlands surrounding the Borger Refinery, the Borger Fire Complex performs controlled burns each year to reduce the risk of an uncontrolled fire.

But the Smokehouse Creek Fire was uncontrollable. “It was massive when we got there,” said Woodfin.

“We get big fires in our county,” said Graham. “It’s not unusual for us to get 400 or 500 acres or sometimes 1,000 acres, but 40 minutes into this fire, we were already at 10,000 acres.”

Smith recalled the view once the smoke lifted.  “As soon as that blew over and got a little bit clearer, we could see homes going up,” he said. “We basically went in and just started trying to pick out which homes we could try to save.”

Unlike some of his colleagues with strong firefighting backgrounds, Yates was new to firefighting when he joined the Borger Refinery as a Health and Safety specialist. “You rely on your teammates to learn tips and tricks,” he said. “Some of it’s learned on the job, and a lot of it is learned in training. I’ve learned everything from our Phillips 66 response team members here at Borger.”

The Borger Refinery, along with the ChevronPhillips chemical plant, are major employers in the area. When firefighters respond to a house fire, it likely belongs to someone who either works for Phillips 66 or ChevronPhillips, or to a family member who knows someone employed there, said Graham.

“It’s a good way to serve the community, especially out here where there aren’t big fire departments that can respond,” said Yates. “One of the local volunteer fire department slogans is ‘Neighbors helping neighbors,’ and that fits pretty well around here.”

Said Yates, “I am just trying to help my neighbors because I’m physically able to when others may not be.”

Clockwise: Asa Woodfin, Tim Graham, Bobby Smith and Josh Yates