Fueled by high winds and dry conditions, the wildfires that swept across Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado on March 6 and 7 burned at highway speeds—fast, furious and unfeeling.
On his farm near Englewood, Kan., David Clawson frantically plowed a firebreak to protect his house and barn as a wall of flames threatened. He and volunteer firefighters fought a losing battle against the uncontrollable blaze, which consumed nearly everything in its path.
His home was saved, but the 53-year-old farmer figures he lost 7,000 to 8,000 acres of grazing land and 35 head of cattle along with farm buildings, hay and equipment. Still, he describes his family’s loss as “minimal” compared to others who lost much more.
“We’re all neighbors and friends here, and my heart goes out to everyone affected,” said Clawson, who also serves as president of the Kansas Livestock Association. “We still don’t know the full extent of what has been lost and what it will take to rebuild, but we are a strong community who looks out for one another. We’ll get through this.”
The fires incinerated some 2 million acres, mostly rural farmland, across the four states. Seven people died. Thousands of animals were injured or killed—livestock, horses, pets and wildlife. Undetermined miles of fences were ruined. Hundreds of structures were destroyed, including homes, barns, sheds and other buildings.
Kansas was hit particularly hard, with some 651,000 acres burned in what was the largest wildfire in the state’s history.
Some 500 miles away on her farm in Ashland, Mo., Courtney Collins began hearing heart-wrenching stories about the wildfire’s impact and knew she had to do something. Within a week, she had coordinated donations of more than 1,000 round bales of hay along with transportation to haul them to Kansas and Oklahoma.
“Farmers are going to lend a hand, no matter what,” Collins said. “We’re one big family. These farmers lost their livelihood in a matter of minutes. They watched their animals die and their houses burn. Their hay is gone, their grass is gone, so they have nothing to feed the livestock that are left. We had to help.”
Collins and a convoy of nearly 20 trucks and trailers from across mid-Missouri headed West on March 17 with hay, fencing materials, milk replacer and other much-needed farm supplies. Thirteen hours and seven blown-out tires later, they arrived at the donation drop point at Ashland Feed and Seed, a local farm supply store and feed mill in Ashland, Kan.
“We work hand in hand with the farmers who are affected by this disaster. They’re the ones who helped build our business to what it is today,” said Janell Smit, Ashland Feed and Seed owner. “We decided coordinating donations was the best way we could help. We’ve taken calls from all over the United States, from farmers and ranchers who have generously donated hay and supplies. We’ve been blessed. There are so many wonderful people throughout rural America.”
In describing the situation, Smit recounted story after story of neighbors who desperately tried to save their animals, homes and property while facing imminent danger. Residents evacuated to nearby towns with eerily appropriate names such as Protection and Coldwater while lush, green wheat fields became a haven for people and cattle caught in the midst of hellish conditions.
“Ashland was essentially in a ring of fire. It moved so fast, and the winds were so high, it was like a flame-thrower,” Smit said. “The fire was to the magnitude that our volunteer firefighters couldn’t get it under control. There were so many people who were one step away from making the wrong move and losing their lives. It’s truly amazing we aren’t burying a lot more of our friends.”
As word spread—mainly through social media channels—aid has poured into the Southern Plains from countless farmers, truckers, companies and agricultural organizations. The convoy organized by Collins is one of many that have hauled donated hay and supplies from the Show-Me State. MFA Incorporated worked with the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association to help arrange transportation and provide financial assistance for fuel and freight.
With his own time and truck, Marc “Tiny” Rackers, MFA manager of highway transportation, made two trips in two days to Ashland, Kan., with trailerloads of hay donated by local farmers—Matt Ashley and Ryan Groepper of Ashley Farms in Clarksburg, Mo., and Glen Cope of Aurora, Mo. In total, Rackers traveled some 2,300 miles and said he’d gladly “do it again.”
“If I get a chance, I’ll go back with another load,” he said. “In agriculture, we have to stick together. One of these days, we might find ourselves in the same predicament, and I know those farmers would be there for us.”
On Rackers’ second trip to Kansas, Cope and his 12-year-old son, Orran, followed him with their own gooseneck trailer full of hay along with barbed wire, T-posts and milk replacer donated by MFA’s Co-op Association No. 86 in Aurora. The Missourians took those loads to Gardiner Angus Ranch in Ashland, Kan., where more than 500 cattle were killed in the fires and nearly 42,000 acres and 6,000 round bales of hay were burned.
“Seeing the devastation firsthand really put the needs of those farmers into perspective,” said Cope, who also serves on MFA Incorporated’s board of directors. “I’m proud that MFA didn’t sit on the sidelines but took an active role to help their fellow farmers, even though they’re not in our territory. We’re all in this together.”
Even Missouri Director of Agriculture Chris Chinn took note of the outpouring of help from her home state.
“State lines do not separate us when a fellow farmer or rancher is in need,” she wrote in a blog post March 15. “When word hit Missouri about the wildfires, farmers and ranchers started asking how they could help. Donations and, most importantly, prayers, were offered up in a matter of hours. I’m certain the ranchers must have felt a sense of relief and comfort knowing they were not alone in the battle they were fighting.”
Along with monetary donations to wildfire relief funds, fencing supplies are the biggest need right now, Smit said. She estimated that replacing fences can cost up to $10,000 per mile or even more.
Total animal losses are still being tallied but could surpass 10,000 head, especially when unborn calves are counted. The region’s ranches were in the heart of calving season, and many of the newborns died or were left orphaned.
Weeks later, ranchers such as Clawson were still euthanizing cattle that were too badly injured in the fires to survive. He described the gruesome task as “mental torment.”
“Most of these cows were calving, and the farmers were trying to move their herds to the wheat pastures, but the mamas didn’t want to leave their babies behind. It’s nature,” Smit said. “They could sense something in the air, but they didn’t want to move, and that’s how a lot of them got trapped.”
The USDA has made more than $6 million in funding available to implement practices that will help farmers and landowners affected by the wildfires and is allowing emergency grazing of CRP land. Still, Smit said she’s been disheartened by the lack of coverage in the mainstream media. She cautions that assistance will be needed long term.
“We’re not going to recover from this immediately,” she said. “We’re going to have a need for the next few months and down the road. After the newness of the story wears off, our concern is that we’re going to be swept under the rug, and then we’ll be in a heck of a bind.”
As welcomed rains fell on the scorched ground in late March, the rebuilding process was in full swing. Clawson has started the daunting task of putting up perimeter fence and said he’s grateful for the help and contributions from his extended agricultural community across the country. Among those lending their support were Courtney Collins and some of the other mid-Missouri convoy volunteers who ended up taking donations directly to his farm. Collins has also vowed to come back and help with fencing in the future.
“The healing has begun because of those acts of kindness from people in agriculture who have showed up to help us, love on us and work alongside us,” Clawson said. “It’s been so heartwarming to know we have the type of community that comes together when a disaster like this happens. It restores your faith in humanity.”
How you can help
While there has been overwhelming response from MFA country to help victims of the recent wildfires in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado, those affected are expecting a long road to recovery.
“While this disaster is top of mind for many people right now, there will be needs for months and years to come,” said Jonathan Cutler, president of RanchAid, a non-profit entity dedicated to helping large animals in distressed situations. “Farmers likely won’t be able to graze this year and many will have to re-seed pastures. We’ve had a significant amount of hay donated, but we only have supplies for a few months without grass available.”
RanchAid stepped in after the wildfires to help identify needs, coordinate destinations for donations and work out logistics for volunteers who hauled hay and other supplies to the region.
“In face of adversity, you need to have a light,” Cutler said. “People are hurting and don’t know what to do, where to start. They need a plan.”
As producers continue to assess damage, Cutler said fencing supplies such as T-posts, corner posts and barbed wire are the most universally needed. Plenty of food, clothing and tack have been donated, he said. Financial contributions that directly support the farmers and ranchers are also encouraged. A link to some wildfire relief resources can be found on MFA Incorporated’s website at www.mfa-inc.com and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s website at www.beefusa.org/firereliefresources.aspx.