One federal wildlife officer is being hailed as a hero after he led more than 65 Boy Scouts and their leaders to safety just 30 minutes before a tornado struck their camp at Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. On May 16, a tornado tore through 12 miles of refuge land, cracking trees in half and destroying tents. Thankfully, due to the efforts of Officer Matt Belew, those tents were empty. In anticipation of the oncoming storm, Belew personally evacuated Boy Scout Troop 955 to the refuge headquarters basement. No injuries were reported.
“One of those blue tents that was totally smashed by a large tree was the one my son was in. We had no idea a severe storm was approaching when your officer came and had us evacuate for shelter at the headquarters basement,” one grateful father told refuge staff in a press release. “I fear my son and others would have died had we not left. So, thank you.”
Belew was commended for his quick thinking by refuge manager Tony Booth, who credited the officer with taking the initiative to evacuate the camp as soon as they discovered a tornado was forming. Belew also received a letter from US Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.
“It looks like many boys and their parents are in your debt this morning. As a parent myself I know I would be calling you a hero. Thanks so much for your foresight and action,” Ashe wrote.
The Boy Scout Troop also thanked refuge officers in their own way, with one member leaving behind a Styrofoam plate on the headquarters door saying, “Thank you for the shelter during the storm. Thank God for Matt Belew. You were our guardian angel. You saved our lives! Troop 995 cannot thank you enough! This is still our favorite camp out! God Bless!”
According to officials, the tornado caused significant damage to a refuge residence and a camper trailer but no campers were hurt. Staffers added that while the storm will likely have an effect on nesting birds, the refuge’s large mammal population seems to have come through unscathed as well. Visitors are reminded to check the weather before visiting the refuge, which remains open despite debris and some downed trees.