Walls of fire roaring through the prairie grass lands at unimaginable speeds, consuming everything above ground, will now be known as “The Katrina of the West” for those who lived through it. Those fires at the beginning of March destroyed 630,000 acres, or an area the size of Ashtabula and Lake counties combined.
That is the scene in Oklahoma, Colorado, Texas and Kansas. These fires destroyed everything in their paths, including livestock, homes, barns and people. In one of the hardest-hit areas, Ashland, Kan., some farmers lost up to 80 percent of their cattle herds, not to mention grass pastures, homes, barns and even their lives. Seven ranchers died in these fires, many while trying to save their cattle. Three young friends, cattle ranchers in Texas, were out trying to save their herds when the fire took a turn and caught all three by surprise. These two young men and woman, 20-year-old Cody Crockett, 35-year-old Sloan Everett, and 22-year-old Sydney Wallace, died from burns and smoke inhalation while trying to move their cattle to safer ground.
Unlike the farming done around here, where cattle are normally kept close and in smaller pastures, in these states, pastures can stretch for miles and be miles away from barns and homes. Cattle are left to graze in the most fertile pastures and moved as the grass becomes low. This is called rotational grazing and helps to keep the health of the grassland and soils.
When fire strikes like this, there is not much that ranchers can do except hope that the fire will turn before striking their pastures and farms. In this case, many ranchers were not so lucky. Some estimate that they have lost more than 500 head of cattle. The worst part came the day after. When the fires passed and the ground had cooled, farmers were tasked with the job of putting their severely burned animals out of their misery. In many cases, ranchers ran out of bullets before they could get to all the animals.
While not much has been made of this tragedy in the national news, farmers around the country immediately came to the rescue, donating hay, feed, burn spray, money and time. See, it’s not just about the supplies and money. All of the fences that kept those cattle in are now charred and unstable. The fences need to be restrung and that takes time and effort.
On one trip, more than 100 Ohio farmers and 15 trucks and trailers, several semis and a few SUVs loaded with hay, feed, fencing material, milk replacers for calves that lost their mothers, and other supplies left for Ashland, Kan. March 24 to take these much-needed supplies and labor to help farmers begin to rebuild. Farmers from Minnesota, Missouri and Michigan also organized groups to help the fire victims.
Mark Gardiner, a cattle farmer who farms 48,000 acres with his brothers, sons and nephew, lost 550 head of cattle, thousands of miles of fence and 42,000 acres of pastureland stated the silver lining in the dark cloud of fire: “I buried some cows but I didn’t bury my kids.” It is this spirit, in times of tragedy, that have helped to sustain the American farmer. It is something that we can all learn from and take heart. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “There is not a man of us who does not at times need a helping hand to be stretched out to him, and then shame upon him who will not stretch out the helping hand to his brother.” (May 8, 1903).
If you would like to donate to the relief effort, donations can be made to Texas, Oklahoma or Kansas. In Oklahoma, you may mail checks made payable to Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Foundation and write “Fire Relief” in the memo line. The address is Oklahoma Cattleman’s Foundation, PO Box 82395, Oklahoma City, OK 73148, or make an online donation. For contributions to those affected in Kansas, go to the Kansas Livestock Association, or for contributions to Texas, go to Texas Farm Bureaus’ site.
Clemson is a member of the Trumbull County Farm Bureau and completed her Ph.D. at the Pennsylvania State University. She and her family farm in Mecca.
Photo caption and credit: Cattle graze by a wildfire near Protection, Kan., early Tuesday, March 7, 2017. (Bo Rader/The Wichita Eagle via AP)