There is a special endowment fund that has been going strong for about two years in honor of a local woman who lost her life working to save others in the major wildfires that hit the Borger area in 2006.
Attorney Joe Lovell, who works with the Kathy Ryan Rural Fire and Rescue Endowment Fund, spoke to the Borger Rotary Club Tuesday afternoon. Also attending were Tim Newsom, Nita Dyslin, and Pam Ayers, Ryan’s daughter.
He said he knows there have been a lot of events recently in the news that serve as reminders to everyone, notably the recent death of Osama bin Laden, which has been a reminder of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the sacrifices made by United States service men and women, along with all of the emergency officials involved.
Lovell also said the recent horrible weather in the deep south has been a reminder of how things change in an instant, and how important volunteers, namely firefighters and rescuers, are in such instances.
Another reminder has been an extreme drought in the High Plains of Texas and the fires that have come along with them.
“I’m sure this is particularly a reminder to all of you, who were right in the middle of the 2006 wildfires,” Lovell said.
He said he was present to talk about what can be done to help those who help others.
“We know what can happen and it can happen with a spark,” he said. “The two big fires in 2006 happened with just little sparks from some electrical facilities. The big fire in Amarillo a few months ago started with a spark. That’s all it takes, particularly in times like now when it hasn’t rained.”
Lovell said he and his firm and Ayers and her family are on a mission to help remind people of the importance of helping others around them. He came to embrace the cause because of the extraordinary courage that he came to be familiar with in the Borger area, James Cornelius, Kenneth Winters, and Katherine Ryan.
“I came to know them in the aftermath of the fire as an attorney. I came to learn the story of what these three individuals did, and I was moved,” he said. “I remained moved, and I was inspired, as was her family.”
He said he and his law firm, along with Ayers and her siblings, started the Kathy Ryan Rural Firefighters Rescue Endowment Fund.
On March 12, 2006, the Borger fire was rapidly approaching the Borger Greenhouse, the home and former business of Bill and Oleta Pfeffer. Oleta, in her early 90s, was completely disabled and suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Her husband Bill, in his mid-eighties, was dependent on supplemental oxygen, and used a cane.
Ryan was eating lunch with her parents when she heard about the fire. As she rushed toward her home near Skellytown, her route took her by the Borger Greenhouse, which was directly in the path of the approaching fire. She raced down Greenhouse road to rescue the Pfeffers.
Shortly thereafter, E.O.C. volunteer Cornelius and ranch foreman Winters learned the Pfeffers were at their home and Ryan was there trying to get them out. The two men went in to help without any hesitation.
Winters and Cornelius went in the house to find Ryan helping B. Pfeffer get his oxygen up and running. The two men scooped up O. Pfeffer and put her in Cornelius’s pick-up. The Greenhouse buildings and surrounding trees were in flames. Cornelius drove through a lane of burning evergreens and made it to the highway with O. Pfeffer out of harm’s way, though he and the interior of his truck were singed by the heat.
Winters went back in to help Ryan get B. Pfeffer. Flames had reached the back of the house, and the path to the highway was engulfed in heat, flames, and smoke. As Ryan and Pfeffer got in her pickup, Winters told them to follow him. He got in his truck, put it in gear, sped through the yard, jumped the raised drive, passed by burning trees, and drove through the fence, and sped to the highway. However, Ryan and B. Pfeffer weren’t behind him. It was later determined her truck would start in the area just ahead of the fire. Trying to flee, the two were overtaken by the flames and heat several yards downwind from her truck.
Lovell said the endowment is set up in such a way that whenever money comes into the fund, it stays in the fund. The income from the endowment is available for training and education of firefighters and rescue personnel in the rural Texas panhandle counties, defined as the top 24 counties in the area.
The fund is relatively new, having been established in 2009. One scholarship has been given as a result. An opportunity recently came up for the fund that led Ayers and those at the Amarillo Area Foundation managing the fund to make an exception, an opportunity to known as the Top of Texas Fire Academy.
“The Top of Texas Fire Academy is just that, it’s a fire academy, and it’s up here in the top of Texas,” Lovell said. “It’s specifically designed for the very thing that Pam and her family wanted to do with this endowment, which is establish a place for training that we really didn’t have here before.”
There was grant money available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that could be used to establish such an academy. However, he said there initially had to be seed money, a down payment so to speak. The Kathy Ryan Fund provided the down payment that allowed FEMA funds to come in and led to the establishment of the fire academy.
The fire academy’s home base is in Spearman, but branches are being opened in other places throughout the panhandle. A branch is set to be opened in Canadian in a few weeks, named in Ryan’s honor.
Lovell said the endowment is in need of more money due to the large amount of seed money that went out for this project. The whole purpose of the endowment is to provide funds for firefighters and rescue workers that have a place in the panhandle to use that money, get training, and help protect citizens in this area.
“We would encourage you when you think about those things that you can or encourage others to do that will help yourself and your neighbors, we encourage you to think about the Kathy Ryan Rural Fire and Rescue Endowment,” he said.
Ayers described her parents who had a strong sense of community, especially out in the Spring Creek area where they lived and were always ready at the drop of a hat to help anyone in need.
“I’ve always felt like that sense of community was really what made them, and certainly what made my mother,” she said. “She was one of those people who would do what was right without ever considering what the consequences might be. There was no question. It wasn’t a deep philosophical search. It was ‘Here’s what right, let’s do it.’ I think that’s what prompted her on March 12, 2006, to do what she did.”
To find out about donating to the Kathy Ryan Rural Fire and Rescue Endowment Fund, call the Amarillo Area Foundation at 806-375-4521 or log on to www.amarilloareafoundation.org . To find out about the history of the endowment and Ryan’s story, log on to www.kathyryanfund.com .