Abundant dry grass coupled with windy conditions mingled to create deadly and disastrous results as wildfires spread through the Midwestern states of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado. The amount of acreage burned easily exceeded 1 million acres.
Fires that began March 4 took an especially hard toll in Kansas, in what Kansas Division of Emergency Management called the largest single fire in recorded history.
Another string of fires in the Texas Panhandle claimed five lives, including three ranchers in Gray County, who were working together to save cattle on a family operation in Franklin. The ranchers were identified as Sloan Everett, 35; Cody Crockett, 20; and Sydney Wallace, 23.
Other Texas fatalities were reported in Lipscomb and Ochiltree counties, with two other fire-related deaths reported in Kansas and Oklahoma.
Livestock officials in the affected states could not place an early number on the total cattle lost. But in Kansas, more than 500,000 acres have burned in Clark and Comanche counties alone, and total acreage burnt hit 650,000 acres on March 8.
In the Texas Panhandle, total acreage burned reached 440,000 acres, with 400,000 acres consumed in Oklahoma, and another 30,000 in Colorado.
At least 70 structures in Kansas were damaged or destroyed, with thousands of cattle killed in the blaze, authorities told the Wichita Eagle.
Randall Spare, co-owner of Ashland Veterinary Center, told the Wichita Eagle he guessed some of his customers lost at least 1,600 adult cattle and probably another 500 calves, since the fires were spreading in the heart of calving season.
“Let me put it into perspective: If someone had 500 cattle on their ranch, I’d guess at least 80 to 90 percent were killed in the last day,” Spare said. “That’s not including the calves; we’re really getting into calving season and there was a lot of baby calves on the ground.”
Among those operations affected was the Gardiner Ranch, one of the oldest and largest in Kansas. One of the owners, Greg Gardiner, told the Wichita Eagle that he estimated at least 500 cows were killed, most of them with unborn calves.
“This isn’t the first catastrophe we’ve faced, but I think it’s going to be the biggest speed bump we’ve run into for the ranch.”
In the Texas Panhandle, Danny Nusser, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension regional program leader in Amarillo, said livestock supply points were being established to help producers in several counties hit with losses.
“We know there are animal death losses and the Texas Animal Health Commission and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will take care of those issues; however, we also know there are those people who need help with their live animals right now,” Nusser said.
“We have livestock that are displaced and don’t have forages available to keep them fed. We are setting up two livestock supply points to collect and disperse feed, hay, fencing, vet supplies and other donated items.”
Ted McCollum, from AgriLife Extension in Amarillo, said many cattle might have survived the fires and will need to be checked for injuries as soon as possible.
“It’s important to have them looked at by a veterinarian as soon as possible because there could be secondary problems that lead to infections and further problems,” McCollum said.
Health disorders such as burned eyes, feet, udders, sheaths and testicles, as well as smoke inhalation with lung inflammation and edema, are the most common problems, he said.
The fires came at a very inopportune time for ranchers who are beginning the calving season, McCollum said.
Animals that were not evacuated and remained in a fire danger zone, even if only for a short time, could suffer injuries, McCollum said. A fire-danger zone is the area where the livestock risk inhaling smoke, and changes according to the wind direction. Smoke can move for miles, and cattle that are not near the flames or heat could suffer some injury.
“We probably had a lot of calves that were lying out susceptible to the fire, as fast as it was moving across there,” McCollum said. “They had no place to go. Also there will be a lot of mothers with potentially scorched udders. The calves that survived won’t be able to suckle the mothers that have sore udders. Producers should be looking for bawling calves to provide replacement milk to or to sell to someone who can care for them.”
Kansas Department of Health and Environment encouraged ranches with livestock lost in the fire to contact it at (785) 296-1121 for assistance in disposing of dead livestock. Likewise the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality recommended Texas producers call (800) 832-8224 for disposal concerns.
Additional relief efforts were established among livestock and cattle industry groups to assist ranchers. The Kansas Livestock Association has asked for hay and fencing material donations to go to affected areas. Call (785) 273-5115 or go to the group’s foundation site for additional donations.
In Oklahoma, donations can go to the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Foundation.
In Colorado, where fires have taken 30,000 acres, the immediate need was for hay, feed and fencing supplies and trucking services.
"These people are going to need help," Kent Kokes, past president of the Northeast Colorado Cattlemen's Association, said in a statement. "There was a lot of loss. Not only did people lose their homes, but ranchers have lost their livestock, infrastructures and equipment. There is so much dust and dirt in the area that plows are shoveling it off the roads like snow.” Donations there can be made by calling Kokes at (970) 580-8109 or by going to the NE Colorado Immediate Fire Relief for Farmers & Ranchers Facebook page.
With additional reporting from Kay Ledbetter, AgriLife Today.
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PHOTO: Many cattle perished in the Texas Panhandle wildfires, but others that survived will need to be examined by a veterinarian as soon as possible. Photo by Andy Holloway, courtesy of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.
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