Poindexter's Barbecue

As smoke from south of the border first dimmed Houston's summer skies earlier this month, another fire altogether raged over the desert peaks of the Chinati Mountains in West Texas. Six helicopters and almost 300 firefighters -- including local volunteers, National Guardsmen and Texas Forest Service professionals -- labored for more than two weeks to contain the fire, the state's second-largest wild-land blaze on record. By May 19, when the flames were finally smothered, 60,000 acres lay charred, almost all on private ranch land.

Though the disaster was officially dubbed the Chinati Mountain Fire, locals jokingly called it the Poindexter Barbecue. As almost everyone in the region seems to know, the fire started after Houston manufacturing magnate John Poindexter ordered his ranch hands to burn 3,000 acres of pasture.

Poindexter, the owner of J.B. Poindexter & Co., also owns the 25,000-acre Cibolo Creek Ranch. Cibolo is essentially a city person's dream of West Texas, a dude ranch where people like rocker Mick Jagger and former Transco CEO Jack Bowen go to cool their heels for $300 to $590 a night, and where Vogue recently photographed a spread on Texas fashion. Poindexter, who purchased the ranch in 1990, has painstakingly restored the three 19th-century adobe forts pioneer Milton Faver built on the land. There's a gourmet cooking squad at the end of every trail ride, and high-end tequila fills the help-yourself bar. Sporting clays and bison-sighting "safaris" round out the entertainment.

In this sleepy region of the state, where many of the cattle ranches are only marginally profitable, a guest facility like Poindexter's can be a boon to the economy -- but as Poindexter himself is acutely aware, outsiders aren't automatically welcome. Speaking from his Houston office, Poindexter is quick to point out that though his manufacturing and distribution conglomerate is headquartered here, he considers himself a resident of Presidio County and calls the ranch home. He says he does not want to be characterized as an absentee landowner who "set fire to a chunk of West Texas."

But that's precisely how some of his neighbors see him. By telephone, Poindexter ordered his ranch hands to initiate a "prescribed burn" -- something Cibolo does once a year to destroy non-native vegetation and renew grassland. Controlled burns are recommended in certain circumstances -- the environmentally sensitive Nature Conservancy sets them on land it owns -- but ranchers born and raised in West Texas don't generally use them because of the potential danger. Poindexter denies that his employees told him not to start the fire, but a source close to the ranch insists otherwise: "Nobody wanted him to learn a lesson from this more than those that work for him."

Cibolo hands bulldozed firebreaks around the pastureland Poindexter wanted burned and took what he calls "extraordinary precautions." Then, as ordered, they started the fire on the morning of May 5.

Though the day began calm, winds whipped up to about 30 mph, and in the tinderbox conditions of drought-ridden West Texas, the fire was out of control by the end of the day. Measurements taken while the fire was raging showed that the area's "ignition component" was 93 on a 100-point scale, says Ron Davis, the Texas Forest Service employee who commanded the firefighting team.

Thanks to the coalition of firefighters who worked on the blaze, the damage wasn't as great as it could have been. No livestock died, and the ranch houses and radio tower threatened by the fire escaped unscathed. The environmental damage can be mitigated by rain; in fact, says John Karges of the Nature Conservancy, vegetation such as mesquite will come back after a fire "with a thank-you note."

Which is not to say that the fire didn't cause significant problems. "The grass'll grow back," says local rancher Mike Livingston, "but the fences don't." Livingston lost six miles of fencing, which in West Texas can cost up to $10,000 a mile. And to replace the burned grass, ranchers will have to buy feed for their cattle.

On Cibolo Creek Ranch itself, fewer than 3,000 acres of land burned -- though Poindexter notes wryly that they weren't the acres originally intended for burning. "We achieved almost nothing," he says.

The total costs of fighting the fire are not yet available, but the Forest Service's Davis says a price tag of $200,000 would not surprise him. The Marfa Volunteer Fire Department was out about $7,000 in equipment, which Fire Chief Robert Johnson says Poindexter has already offered to replace.

Of course, not everyone thinks Poindexter has been a model neighbor. Barbara Wheelis, who is the caretaker of a nearby ranch and a former employee of Cibolo Creek Ranch, says Poindexter is just another outsider who doesn't make the small gestures that keep a community alive, such as purchasing livestock from the 4-H benefit auction. "You advise him, and he just turns around and does exactly the opposite. He's just a real stubborn man ... I think he wanted to show who's boss."

With a chuckle, she adds, "Maybe this was what was needed for him to say, 'Hey, these people out here aren't so stupid after all.' "

Poindexter seems to be doing just that. He's headed off early talk of lawsuits by exhibiting a healthy dose of humility, lavishing praise on the community's efforts to stop the fire, and opening his wallet. He's asked each of the five other ranches that suffered damage, as well as the fire department and Wheelis, who hosted the firefighters on the ranch she oversees, to provide him with an accounting of damages or fire-related expenses. Poindexter says he or his insurance company will make good.

And though conditions in West Texas may be unforgiving, the people aren't. Fritz Kahl, the mayor of Marfa, says Poindexter has gone "the second mile" to make amends.

"John's all right," says local newspaper publisher Robert Halpern. "He messed up. What can you do?"

One thing you can do is throw a party. On July 4, volunteer firefighters from the entire tri-county region, as well as anyone else who helped suppress the fire, are invited to a day of luxury at Cibolo Creek Ranch. The occasion? A real barbecue. Courtesy of an apologetic John Poindexter.

E-mail Shaila Dewan at shaila.dewan@houstonpress.com.

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