National Wildlife Refuge System

Federal Wildlife Officer Acts Quickly to Save Boy Scouts

Federal Wildlife Officer Matt Belew evacuated 65 campers and leaders to the refuge headquarters basement just before a damaging tornado raced through the refuge.
Credit: USFWS

May 19, 2015 – Federal Wildlife Officer Matt Belew came to the rescue for Boy Scouts camping at Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, OK, when a tornado blew through Saturday night (May 16). The tornado traveled 10 to 12 miles across refuge land, causing major damage to the Fawn Creek Youth Campground on the refuge and destroying nearly all tents. The campground was occupied by Boy Scout Troop 955 from Broken Arrow, OK, as the severe storm was approaching. Anticipating the storm, Belew evacuated all 65 Scouts and their leaders to the refuge headquarters basement about 30 minutes before the tornado hit. All Scouts are safe. 

One Scout father told headquarters staff that “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.  I fear my son and others would have died had we not left.  So, thank you.”

Refuge manager Tony Booth said Belew "got in there when the tornado was forming. He took prompt action to go in there and evacuate them.”

A weekend tornado destroyed nearly all the tents at a Boy Scout camp at Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, OK.
Credit: Ralph Bryant/USFWS

“It looks like many boys and their parents are in your debt this morning,” wrote U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe to Belew. “As a parent myself I know I would be calling you a hero. Thanks so much for your foresight and action.”

On the refuge’s Facebook page, one local resident wrote “I want to thank two of the law enforcement officers for doing such a great job of notifying everyone and keep us safe during the storm. Thanks Shawn Komahcheet and Matt Belew. We really appreciate you.” Officer Komahcheet was working to assure safety of visitors on the east side of the refuge as Belew worked on the west side. 

On Sunday, a member of the troop tacked a styrofoam plate to the refuge 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!  Darryl Laux.”

The tornado touched down about a quarter mile from the campground. One refuge residence and a camper trailer were damaged but there were no injuries. Deputy refuge manager Ralph Bryant says nesting birds were certainly affected but the large mammal populations on the refuge - elk, bison, deer and longhorn cattle - appear to have escaped unhurt.  

It’s not the first time Belew’s emergency response capabilities have been highlighted. In 2013,  he volunteered as an emergency medical responder  following massive destruction from a huge EF-5 tornado in Moore, OK. In a night and day of almost nonstop work with his team, Belew searched about 50 house sites.




Last updated: May 19, 2015