- Photo by Denise Cleckler: On March 6 and 7, flames roared across the Southern Plains. Denise Cleckler’s husband, Todd Cleckler, is a volunteer firefighter. While the wildfire raged, Cleckler took photos just as she has so many times before. During that time, she documented the event now known to be the largest fire in Kansas history.
- Photo by Denise Cleckler: An electric pole burns in half near Englewood, Kan. “We’ve been attending meetings with the fire department,” Cleckler said. “The guys said that at times the fire was moving at 85 mph with 100-foot flames and burning 900 acres a minute.”
- Photo by Denise Cleckler: Cleckler’s husband also works on David Clawson’s ranch in Englewood, Kan., where this photo and many others in this gallery were shot. Here, Clawson attempts to plow a firebreak to save his house as flames raged behind him. “I was busy looking down to see if there was any fire going to get across that line toward the house,” he said. “That’s all I was focused on. Quite honestly, if I would have looked up and saw that, I would have been getting out of there pretty quick.”
- Photo by Denise Cleckler: Firefighters foamed Clawson’s roof. Their efforts, combined with Clawson’s plowed firebreaks, saved the house, but other structures burned. The fire spread from Texas into Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado. Currently, estimates are that 2 million acres were consumed by the blaze.
- Photo by Denise Cleckler: These are the demolished remains of the building from the previous photograph. Families lost their homes and hundreds of structures like this one were reduced to ashes across the four states. Seven people died and thousands of animals were injured or killed.
- Photo by Denise Cleckler: “The Anderson fire last year had previously been the biggest fire in Kansas history,” Cleckler said. “In our meeting with the fire department, they said this fire—they’re calling it the Starbucks fire—outdid the Anderson fire in 12 hours.”
- Photo by Denise Cleckler: The day after the fire, a burned cow stands in a scorched field in Clark County, Kan. David Clawson, who typically calls his cattle with a siren (a common practice used by ranchers with large amounts of acreage), ended up losing 35 head of cattle when a fire truck siren diverted some of the herd to the south and into the flames. “We didn’t find out until the next day that we didn’t get all of the cows out of the first bunch,” he said. “But in terms of losses, ours was minimal compared to neighbors.”
- Photo by Denise Cleckler: Cleckler drove around the next morning photographing the the burned landscape. “It wasn’t until I got home and finally found time to download my pictures and zoomed in, I noticed the cow standing by the stock tank with her ear tag all melted…and the one I thought was probably a charolais cross. They were all ours. They had Clawson tags.”
- Photo by Allison Jenkins: In Missouri, people began coordinating donation efforts soon after word began to spread about the devastation their neighbors to the west were facing. Here, Marc “Tiny” Rackers, left, manager of highway transportation for MFA Incorporated, secures a load of hay with help from Ryan Groepper of Ashley Farms in Clarksburg, Mo. The farm donated this hay for victims of recent wildfires in the Southern Plains, and Rackers hauled it with his own truck and time to Ashland, Kan.
- Photo by Allison Jenkins: Marc “Tiny” Rackers, left, manager of transportation for MFA Incorporated, is ready to head out with a load of hay donated by Ashley Farms in Clarksburg, Mo., to wildfire victims in the Southern Plains. The farm is operated by cousins Ryan Groepper, pictured, and Matt Ashley.
- Photo by Allison Jenkins: Ryan Groepper loads a bale of hay onto Marc "Tiny" Rackers trailer on March 16. Rackers took two trailers of hay from Missouri to Ashland, Kan. in two days.
- Photo by Leanne Cope: Rackers hauled hay from Clarksburg, Mo., to Englewood, Kan., on Friday, March 17, then turned around and headed for Aurora, Mo., to haul another load on Saturday from MFA Board Member Glen Cope’s farm. Rackers traveled 2,300 miles in total.
- Photo by Leanne Cope: MFA Transportation’s Marc “Tiny” Rackers, left, and MFA Board Member Glen Cope, right, teamed up to make a trip to Kansas with donations of hay and farm supplies for producers affected by recent wildfires. Pictured with them are Cope’s daughter, Katie, and son, Orran. This was the second trip in two days for Rackers who had just returned from taking another load of donated round bales to Ashland, Kan.
- Photo by Kerri Lotven: Just days after the fire, Courtney Collins of Ashland, Mo., heard of the devastation and jumped into action. Collins organized donations of hay and supplies and spread the word through facebook live streams. Soon, Missouri news crews began picking up the story. Within a week, Collins had coordinated a convoy, contributions of cash and supplies, and the donation and transportation of more than 5,000 bales of hay to Ashland, Kan.
- Photo by Kerri Lotven: Jason Mott presents Courtney Collins with a check from the Chamber Agribusiness and Biosciences Committee's Agriculture Recognition Banquet. At the end of the banquet, Mott collected free will donations to help those affected by the wildfires.
- Photo by Kerri Lotven: On March 16, Collins gathers donations at the Englewood Clubhouse in Englewood, Mo. Justin Rhine, Aaron Mott, and Brock Wilson, all seniors in the Columbia, Mo. FFA chapter, loaded roughly 220 square bales bound for Ashland, Kan., the next morning.
- Photo by Kerri Lotven: Taylor Rode, center, unloads fencing supplies with her mom, Kari Rode, left, and Caleb Rouse at the Englewood Clubhouse on March 16. Fencing supplies are currently the largest need for the ranchers affected by the fires. Thousands of miles of fencing will need to be replaced, and the estimated cost reaches upwards of $10,000 per mile for materials and labor.
- Photo by Kerri Lotven: In addition to hay, other supplies are still needed by wildfire victims. Fencing materials are most needed, with 6-foot T-posts in highest demand. For more information on how you can help, visit http://www.beefusa.org/firereliefresources.aspx.
- Photo by Kerri Lotven: The convoy gathers at Midway Truck Stop just outside Columbia, Mo., on the morning of March 17. Pictured from left to right: M.J. Williams, John Tummons, Dalton Sharp, Jeremy Justice, Christy Sharp, Cody Cook, Courtney Collins, Kyla Killian, J.R. Richardson, Luke Fenton, Cory Gibbons, Marc Fenton, Chris Bastian, Sam Tummons, Justin McSorley, Rick Voss, and Kevin McSorley. Not pictured, but also in attendance: Jacob Collins, Jason Benedict, Lexi Benedict, Larry and Paulette Moreau, Phillip Yoder, Andrew Miller, Levi Kinard and Trentley Mullin.
- Photo by Kerri Lotven: Collins explains the route the convoy will be taking from Midway Truck Stop to Ashland, Kan., prior to leaving out on March 17. “You couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to go with,” Collins said later. “How many people do you know who could go on a 13-hour trip and smile from the very beginning to the very end? Everybody in that group was all smiles the entire time.”
- Photo by Kerri Lotven: Collins troubleshoots a situation before the convoy embarks from Midway Truck Stop on the morning of March 17. One truck was loaded too high with bales and would not clear the interstate overpasses.
- Photo by Kerri Lotven: The mid-Missouri convoy stops to regroup when tires on two different trailers blew out at the same time. The group had seven blowouts during the 13-hour trip to Kansas.
- Photo by Kerri Lotven: Marc Fenton carries the shredded remains of a trailer tire into a Firestone location off the interstate. Many of the convoy trailers were used for local hauling and had never been on a 500-mile journey. “We’re going to have to have a special tire fund, I think,” Collins said. “We raised money for fuel, but nobody wanted to take money for fuel. We all need tires though, apparently.”
- Photo by Kerri Lotven: Courtney’s husband and one-man pit crew, Jake Collins, left, and Jonathan Cutler pose for a picture during a fuel stop in Ottawa, Kan. Cutler is the president of RanchAid, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing disaster relief in instances where large animals have been affected. Cutler coordinated the donations and logistics on the Kansas side and met the convoy in Ottawa to guide drivers to the drop point.
- Photo by Marc “Tiny” Rackers: This scene of the wildfire-affected area in southwestern Kansas shows the dramatic contrast between the charred pastures and green wheat fields, where many residents and their animals took refuge from the flames. Rackers, manager of highway transportation for MFA Incorporated, took this photo on his way to deliver donated hay.
- Photo by Kerri Lotven: As the sun set on March 17, the mid-Missouri convoy rounded a corner of the highway. It would be another four hours before the group reached their destination.
- Photo by Kerri Lotven: In sobered, hushed tones emblematic of the situation, the group gathers at the donation drop point, Ashland Feed and Seed in Ashland, Kan., as the first trucks of the convoy are unloaded around midnight.
- Photo by Kerri Lotven: Courtney Collins greets Janell Smit, owner of Ashland Feed and Seed, with smiles and hugs. Smit and her brother and fellow owner, Jeff Kay, agreed to coordinate donations of hay and fencing supplies for area ranchers. “This community opened their arms to us and helped build our company to what it is today,” Smit said. “We work hand in hand with these customers, so when this disaster happened, we knew what their needs were.”
- Photo by Kerri Lotven: Smit said the outpouring of help has been overwhelming. “We’ve taken hay in from Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, Nebraska—basically all over the United States,” she said. “People are very generous and have been willing to help us out during this time of need.”
- Photo by Kerri Lotven: Jonathan Cutler places supplies on top of T-posts unloaded from the convoy at Ashland Feed and Seed on March 18.
- Photo by Kerri Lotven: As the convoy trailers are unloaded in the early morning hours of March 18, Smit shared her thanks and recounted harrowing stories of the prior week. “We’re not going to recover from this immediately,” Smit said later. “We’re going to have a need for the next few months and down the road.”
- Photo by Kerri Lotven: M.J. Williams sits in the back of her truck as the convoy disperses to get a few short hours of sleep before driving back to Missouri in the morning. Williams later wrote: “Three hundred thousand acres fell victim to this beast. But love, love will rebuild it. The agricultural community knows no boundaries. Reaching out with calloused hands, we will cross state lines, we will build fence, we will pray, we will hold our brothers and sisters tight. We will share their burden with strong backs and full hearts. We will not stop. We will continue to deliver hope in the heartland, one bale of hay at a time.” This is just a short excerpt of her full poem, which can be viewed on the Hope in the Heartland facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/hopeintheheartland/posts/1602963236384034.
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.