Rural communities rally after fires sweep across Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Texas

The Fence Post
By: Jeremy D’Angelo
Photo: By Ryan Kanode, Dailey, Colorado

Photo Caption: The blowing dirt and ash has hampered fire containment efforts, compromised visibility, and made it more difficult for area ranchers to locate displaced cattle.

Over a million acres have been burned and seven people reported dead as wildfires ravaged areas of Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado, devastating rural communities last week.

Since March 6, thousands have been forced to flee from their homes as a wet summer, dry winter conditions and high windspeeds accelerated some of the largest infernos the Plains have ever seen.

For ranchers like Garth Gardiner, of Gardiner Angus Ranch in Ashland, Kan., the ordeal has been devastating.

"One word would be 'unreal,'" Gardiner says. "It's like a nuclear bomb hit because there is just nothing left."

Gardiner and his family first began monitoring the situation on March 6, but as the winds shifted, their property became a target for the inferno.

He estimates that 40,000 of his family's 50,000 acres were burned, consuming the grass, fencing, structure, and most importantly, a lot of their cattle.

According to Gardiner, there was no time to evacuate livestock.

"One second its 10 miles away from you and 10 minutes later it's on top of you," Gardiner said.

He and his family evacuated themselves and prayed that others would do the same.

"In some pastures, the cattle were smart enough to get into creeks, but others didn't have that luxury and they were totally consumed," Gardiner said.

Nothing Left

He says his home was spared, but many others, such as brother's family (Mark Gardiner), lost their home in the tragedy and have nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Frank York, banker and rancher in Ashland, Kan., almost lost his home as flames danced around his property.

York said he and his wife evacuated their home and property southeast of Ashland, but their neighbors who stayed behind relayed the status of their property back to York.

He said they were worried when they evacuated their home and property–which has been in their family since 1903–that they wouldn't have a home to come back to, but luckily it was still standing when they returned the next day.

York said he worked on a tractor throughout the day, with the help of some fire rescue personnel, to save his home as more fires encroached.

"My place is black all the way around it, its kind of sitting on an island," York said.

York is a stocker operator and had not bought his summer cattle yet. He said he's fortunate to have lost only pasture and fencing, but others north of Ashland where the terrain is rougher were less fortunate and lost everything.

Yet, the little farming and ranching towns that populate this the plains are showing resiliency as neighbors, ranchers and community members band together to rebuild, and support pours in from across the country.

"This is a very resilient community and it's full of very good people," Gardiner said.

They have received donated essentials such as food and water and truckloads of hay from people all across the country just trying to help.

Randall Spare, veterinarian with Ashland Veterinary Center, is one of the volunteers doing everything they can to provide support and relief to those in need.

"You can't get outsiders who don't know the (local) people to coordinate those (relief) efforts and we feel like it is our opportunity to serve the people whose trust we have garnered over the years," Spare said.

He says it is especially important to connect ranchers and farmers who are not as well-known with relief resources.

Spare stresses how emotional this time is and how many individuals are finding it difficult to share their pain and hurt.

Taking A Toll

He said they are calling individuals and asking how they are getting along, what can they can do to help, if they need any hay for their cattle, if they have any cattle that need veterinary attention.

They are also helping ranchers verify their death loss and finding people to help gather up dead cattle and dispose of them, he says.

Volunteer veterinarians from all over, including Kansas State University, have poured into the area to help them treat livestock on all the ranches, he said.

Spare said some of his friends with the Kansas State University Diagnostic Lab have called to offer their help, and they have received monetary support from the Kansas Veterinary Medical Association who has put out a call for donations for relief efforts, and they have had people anonymously bring by cash saying to use it wherever it is needed.

Their veterinary practice is on the highway and they can see hay truck after hay truck drive by and that a company has donated and delivered all-terrain vehicles for relief volunteers to use, Spare said.

Spare said he has had calls from all over and has received donated loads of hay from Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, Nebraska and other parts of Kansas for the ranchers in need.

"The outpouring of support is just huge," he said. "Friends and neighbors are helping each other, youth groups, FFA groups, 4-H groups, in fact there is a 4-H group in Meade, Kan., who has been taking and caring for orphaned calves."

Spare said they are just trying to coordinate relief efforts while honoring people's privacy as they grieve, collect their thoughts, and decide what to do with their livestock.

He says all of the work that he and the other veterinarians have done has been pro bono in an effort to just help the ranchers in need.

Fence Damage

The fence damage alone has been tremendous and will need to be repaired as soon as possible, but it has to rain before they can put fences up.

"It is a double edged sword, but by the grace of God and the support of our friends, we will get through it," Spare said.

York is also trying to help coordinate relief efforts and said that the bank where he works has turned into sort of command central to keep relief efforts coordinated.

"We are hearing some really tough tales of people in this area who are encountering some serious hardship," York said.

He said that they have also started receiving hay, fencing material and monetary donations from all over and that's just the ranch and farm way.

"You help your neighbor out when they are in need and we are seeing evidence of that and I am sure the end result will be very amazing and heartwarming," he said.

Material possessions can be replaced, but the emotional impact that this has had on individuals and the financial impact this has had on their community will be felt for a long time, Gardiner said. "It is not about them or us, it is about all of us and you just try to dig in and get through it together."

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