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Post-wildfire reality sinks in for High Plains ranchers

Sherry Bunting for Progressive Cattleman Published on 17 March 2017
burned range

“The overwhelming reality of it all is sinking in,” said Greg Gardiner of Ashland, Kansas, in a phone interview 10 days after the Starbuck fire – which had consumed over 300,000 acres in Oklahoma and nearly 500,000 acres in southwest Kansas – claimed 43,000 of the 48,000 acres at Gardiner Angus Ranch.

Officials are calling the Starbuck fire the largest single fire in Kansas state history. Additional wildfires on the same day brought the state total to 650,000 acres burned.

All told, multiple windswept wildfires on March 6 burned close to 2 million acres of grasslands and left a deadly trail of crippling losses in four states.

Preliminary livestock loss estimates for Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado are approaching 7,000 to 9,000 adult cows and untold numbers of calves, horses and wildlife. These numbers are expected to increase in the weeks ahead as more cattle are located and those with less severe injuries are monitored and may not recover.

Tragically, some of the affected ranching families suffered the ultimate loss of loved ones. Seven people lost their lives, at least five while trying to herd cattle to safety before becoming trapped in the rapidly moving fire when the high winds changed direction.

It was the perfect storm when the red flag day dawned in the High Plains. The 60 to 70 mph winds drove multiple fast-moving fires that found abundant fuel in the grasslands that had previously benefited from two years of good moisture before turning tinder-dry over the past 60 days.

In fact, the Starbuck fire was so fast and intense that even where fence appears to be standing, the wood at ground level is disintegrated. In Kansas, alone, an estimated 12,000 miles of fence will eventually need to be replaced. The priority is perimeter fencing, so materials and fencing crews are needed.

With severe losses of grazing land and stockpiled hay, another immediate concern is feeding the estimated 25,000 to 30,000 surviving cattle in the affected areas of the four states for the next 30 to 60 days while ranchers deal with the recovery while finishing out the calving season before they can take stock of their positions and make decisions about their futures.

The toll of survival

While Gardiner Angus Ranch lost 500 adult cows – mainly donor cows for fall breeding and spring calving females on grass – the 1,500 cattle on wheat pasture and those gathered for their April 1 production sale were not affected. Gardiner estimates they have lost 300 calves. All of their stored hay is gone – 5,000 round bales and 3,000 bales of horse hay – despite scattered locations. Of the cattle in the line of the fire, 150 survivors are being monitored in corrals, and 30 of them have calved within days of the fire.

“Those cows didn’t deserve this,” said Gardiner of the devastation. “We found many with their calves flat beside them – having just calved as the fire raced through. The fire happened so fast, but everything that day seemed to be happening in slow motion.”

“Everywhere you looked, it was like the world was on fire with fire lines on every horizon,” Gardiner said, explaining how fast the fires were upon them and the complications of changes in wind direction, making it impossible to move cattle ahead of the fire.

Even people evacuating their homes were back and forth on where to go as the shifting high winds fueled fires that jumped roads and turned in unpredictable ways throughout the day and night. Greg’s brother Garth had a few close calls, as the fire came first from the north and Garth’s family evacuated their home. Then it switched and the roads were blocked.

Greg Gardiner described his own close encounter while following his brother Mark with a horse trailer. Mark and Eva were attempting to save three horses and two dogs with the fire closing in on their home. When a tree belt erupted in flames, the blackness descended and the heat of the fire reached Greg’s vehicle. He was forced to retreat with zero visibility, and was left wondering for what seemed like an eternity whether Mark and Eva had escaped before their home was engulfed.

A firefighter emerged 30 minutes later to tell him they had made it out.

“This thing is of biblical proportions. Everywhere you look, it is like an apocalyptic wasteland, but that seems like small potatoes right now: My family is alive,” said Gardiner.

View the slideshow below to see the aftermath of the fires. Click through to view captions for the photos.

Waves of relief

As the heart-wrenching stories and statistics emerge from the region, the focus is transitioning from cattle triage to organizing the significant short- and long-term needs of the ranchers. The agriculture community across the country is wasting no time organizing shipments of donated hay, milk replacer, fencing materials and other needs, while foundations are setting up methods to accept donated funds, and auctions are being organized to raise additional funds for these ranchers.

“When the hay trucks rolled in, it was like the cavalry arrived,” said Gardiner, whose ranchlands were largely burned by the Starbuck fire, deemed the largest single fire in Kansas state history. All told, 22 counties in Kansas were affected by multiple wildfires.

Truckers dispatched from drop points to ranches describe the evident relief in the faces of the ranchers they have met. While the early convoys of semis and flatbeds traveled under lifted highway restrictions, strangers along the way offered cash for fuel or for the ranchers. But the cost of fuel and the availability of trucking remain a bottleneck in getting some of the hay donations to their destinations.

Hay has been delivered from mainly a 300-mile radius of the affected areas. Dr. Randall Spare of Ashland Veterinary Clinic said 800 bales are waiting in Waco, Texas, if they can find trucking. Convoys are also being assembled in South Dakota, Kentucky, Tennessee and Minnesota, with calls coming into the various state coordinators from as far away as Arizona, Wisconsin, Vermont and Canada.

“By Friday we were just amazed at the amount of hay and calls we were getting, and it continues,” said Danny Nusser, Texas A&M Agrilife Extension regional director. “We put the message out Saturday morning that we will take all that we can handle.”

By Monday, however, the 4,200-bale goal set for the three Panhandle supply points had been met, and Nusser reported they are taking names and numbers until they further assess the region’s needs. The goal was to gather a 30-day supply for the estimated 15,000 surviving cattle in the Panhandle.

In Oklahoma, hundreds of large round bales were received over the weekend; one convoy was organized by ranchers in the southern part of the state.

In Kansas, 3,000 large bales were received within a week of the wildfires, and according to Spare, they can use more. “We don’t want to turn down hay because some of our ranchers are just coming to grips with what their losses are and what their needs will be. Since Gardiner Ranch has the capacity to unload and accumulate hay where neighbors can come and get what they need, we are utilizing that.”

Southwest Kansas has an estimated 15,000 surviving livestock on ranches that have lost most of their grazing and hay.

Donations that lift spirits

The challenge with the hay, said Spare, is that “some producers are saying they don’t need the hay or they feel embarrassed to take it, but the grass is all gone and we are 60 days from good grass [in unburned areas], and that’s if it rains, so we are still in the process of contacting ranchers, trying to help people understand as they make their plans that they will need to have something to feed.”

As the immediate hustle to triage cattle and secure feed and care for survivors shifts to a longer-term coordination of ongoing recovery, those close to the situation are urging more distant donors to consider monetary donations to help with trucking of closer hay and materials and other needs instead of trying to send hay from 1,000 miles away.

Spare has spent his time trying to connect the dots. And those dots include the growing number of orphaned calves.

With fences to build and repair, feed to secure, cows still calving and long-term plans and decisions to make, there’s no time to bottle and bucket feed calves two and three times a day, particularly for those ranchers who have also lost their homes.

Kansas county 4-H clubs put the word out early that youth members are taking in bucket calves to help the ranchers who have so many other things to do in the recovery. To follow their progress and donate milk replacer and other supplies, visit the Orphaned Calf Relief of SW Kansas on Facebook.

Veterinarians are reaching out to colleagues in the hard-hit areas. Spare received a call late last week from Dr. Tera Barnhardt. She and Deerfield Feeders’ general manager, Cary Wimmer, came up with the idea of offering temporary homes and care in the calf ranch hutches for orphaned calves from Ashland.

Many ag companies have donated milk replacer, feed, pharmaceuticals and other animal care products – and along with hay donations from other ranches, have come personal items for the families who have lost their homes and belongings.

“Our hearts go out to the ranchers,” said Barnhardt. “I’m just glad we could help connect some dots and take something off their plate.”

Moving forward

With the fires mostly contained in the affected regions, conditions are still tricky in some spots, according to Nusser. He said it will be June or July, with sufficient rain, before the greenup slows the fire threat in the Panhandle.

County FSA offices are asking ranchers to contact them with loss numbers so this information can be tied to emergency declarations from each state’s respective governors for grazing lands exceptions and assistance.

The problem is that individual ranch losses will far exceed the individual $125,000 caps for USDA programs like the Livestock Indemnity Program and fencing cost shares.

“Every individual rancher will weather these losses differently, depending on their financial position at the time of the fire,” said Dr. Steve Amosson, AgriLife Extension economist in Amarillo, Texas. His early estimate for the Panhandle, alone, is $21 million in losses, which he expects to see increase as more information is gathered. He said that for many ranchers, little insurance money will come into play.

In Texas, the Perryton/Lipscomb fire is deemed the third largest in Texas state history.

For the short term, the tangibles are necessary because it takes time for the various foundations to pool monetary donations and get resources to the ranchers. Over the next 30 to 60 days, the recovery will transition to a rebuilding effort.

This will be a long recovery for ranchers who have lost 50 to 90 percent of their herds and multiple years of income and stockpiled forage, according to Spare.

“We’re praying for rain,” he said, describing dirty skies as the wind lifts the gray dusty sand over charred soils.

“I told CNN that we as ranchers are stewards of the grasslands, and that the only way we have something to sell for an income is to sell grass through the cows that are eating it. We are working to take care of that and start all over again,” said Spare, who had significant losses among his own cow herd and was relieved when his son showed up in the driveway Tuesday morning, taking time away from vet school before spring exams to take care of the home front while he worked with other ranchers and their cattle.

As for the immediate fencing need, a short- and long-term approach is being pursued. While fencing certainly has its government specs to qualify for USDA cost-sharing, several ranchers interviewed for this report indicate that the amount of fencing they have to replace so greatly exceeds the cap on funds they will begin with what is donated to establish perimeters and do their cross fencing as they can over the next few years.

While prayers are most coveted, those who want to help are urged to contact organizers in the affected states to see what the needs are as community leaders develop an ongoing relief plan.

“There are no guarantees in agriculture. We know the risks and we appreciate this is life we have chosen to live,” said Gardiner. “This is an emotional deal, hitting us all every day. We’ll take it one step at a time. We’ll survive by keeping ourselves moving.”

“There is so much appreciation in this community for the outpouring of love and compassion from the people who have come alongside us with prayers and help,” said Spare. “Many don’t know how they’ll get through this, but we know we will get through it.”  end mark

Sherry Bunting is a freelance writer from East Earl, Pennsylvania. Email Sherry Bunting.

PHOTO: The Starbuck fire consumed 43,000 of the 48,000 acres at Gardiner Angus Ranch. Over 12,000 miles of fencing in Kansas, alone, is estimated in need of replacement as the rapidly moving and intense fire disintegrated posts at the ground level. Photo by Julie Tucker.

How you can help

Wildfire relief organizers are indicating that the best way for distant donors to help is to provide monetary donations for transporting nearby hay and resources to the areas affected by the wildfires.

In addition, auctions are being organized to benefit wildfire funds. For example, a heifer donated by Oklahoma West Livestock Market was auctioned 105 times on March 8 to garner $115,449 with proceeds going to the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Foundation Fire Relief Fund. Similar ideas are creating a ripple response throughout the agriculture community and can be replicated anywhere.

Trent Loos at Rural Route Radio is helping to organize this idea to fund the recovery and rebuilding efforts in the fire-ravaged areas of the High Plains through means of raising cash. For information about how to participate in this and to find a list of upcoming auctions, as well as how to set one up, contact Trent Loos at (515) 418-8185.

To give supplies and trucking or to donate funds to foundations for direct wildfire relief, contact the state-by-state resources below.

Kansas

Monetary donations: Ashland Community Foundation/Wildfire Relief Fund at www.ashlandcf.com or P.O. Box 276, Ashland, KS 67831. The Kansas Livestock Association/Wildfire Relief Fund at 6031 SW 37th St., Topeka, KS 66614.

Hay, trucking and fencing donations: Call Ashland Feed and Seed at (620) 635-2856. (Ashland Feed and Seed is also taking credit card orders over the phone for feed and milk replacer or other supplies for ranchers in the area.)

Texas

Monetary donations: Texas Department of Agriculture STAR Fund.

Hay, trucking and fencing donations: Ample hay has been received for two to three weeks, so call to see if and when more is needed. Fencing supplies are needed, which can go to the Agrilife supply points. Contacts are J.R. Sprague at (806) 202-5288 for Lipscomb, Mike Jeffcoat at (580) 467-0753 for Pampa, and Andy Holloway at (806) 823-9114 for Canadian.

For questions about donations or relief efforts, contact Texas A&M Extension at (806) 677-5628.

Colorado

Monetary donations: Colorado Farm Bureau Foundation Disaster Fund at 9177 E. Mineral Circle, Centennial, CO 80112 and visit http://coloradofarmbureau.com/disasterfund/

Hay, trucking and fencing: Contact Kent Kokes (970) 580-8108, John Michal (970) 522-2330, or Justin Price (970) 580-6315.

Oklahoma

Monetary donations: Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Foundation Fire Relief at P.O. Box 82395, Oklahoma City, OK 73148 or www.okcattlemen.org.

Hay, trucking and fencing donations: Contact Harper County Extension at (580) 735-2252 or Buffalo Feeders at (580) 727-5530.

Other states organizing deliveries

Several states outside of the wildfire area are organizing assistance and deliveries. Find those resources at http://www.beefusa.org/firereliefresources.aspx

Preliminary statistics

Texas: Four deaths and more than 480,000 acres burned and early livestock loss estimates of 2,500 adult cattle. Texas A&M Agrilife Extension estimates preliminary damage at over $21 million, not counting equipment losses. Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster in six counties in the Texas Panhandle.

Kansas: One death, 11 injuries, more than 40 homes destroyed and 702,000 total acres burned, 462,000 of which stem from the Starbuck fire deemed the largest single fire in Kansas state history. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed a disaster declaration covering 20 counties. Early estimates of livestock losses are 3,000 to 6,000 adult cows and additional calves.

Oklahoma: One death, eight homes and 381,000 acres burned from the Starbuck fire. Three additional fires in the state have burned 120,000 additional acres. Gov. Mary Fallin declared a state of emergency for 22 counties. Early estimates of livestock losses are 3,000 cows and additional calves.

Colorado: Five homes were destroyed and more than 30,000 acres burned; early livestock loss estimates are 185 cow-calf pairs.

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