Grass fires scorch Southwest Kansas

Friday, March 17, 2017

McCOOK, Neb. -- What is being called the largest and most damaging wildfire to ever burn across Kansas has left in its ashes indescribable and heartbreaking loss of life, livestock, homes, outbuildings, machinery and grassland. Smoke inhalation killed one truck driver in Kansas, and wildfires in Texas claimed five lives.

"Complete and total devastation," is how Steve Rice of SR Farms at Wilsonville described Clark County, Kansas, after hauling hay there Tuesday.

Rice and other producers across America are hurting for fellow producers faced with death and destruction the depth of which is unheard-of in recent history. They're responding with offers of livestock feed, because they know that that type of help would come north if the tables were turned. That's just what American farmers and ranchers do ...

Last week, grass fires fueled by tinder-dry grass and accelerated by 70-80-mile-an-hour winds scorched more than 850,000 acres in Southwest Kansas, devastating farming and ranching communities and turning ranch land into an arid, sandy moonscape. Ranchers are still trying to asses the damage; their cattle losses could be in the thousands.

Dr. Patsy Houghton of Heartland Cattle Co., southeast of McCook, said that with the loss of spring grass and stored hay, the immediate need of producers in the ravaged areas is feed for their surviving cattle.

Houghton teamed with forage producers and trucking companies in Southwest Nebraska to haul feed to Clark County, Kansas, Tuesday and Wednesday. Heartland Cattle Co. sponsored five loads of alfalfa and six loads of corn stover that were taken Tuesday to the five-generation Gardiner Angus Ranch at Ashland, Kansas, in Clark County, the epicenter of the worst damage in Kansas. Kansas Division of Emergency Management spokeswoman Katie Horner said that the 625 square miles charred in Clark County is about 85 percent of that county's land.

Houghton said she and the Gardiner family are lifelong friends. "They've lost ranch homes and have experienced unspeakable livestock losses," Houghton said As much as the Gardiners have lost themselves, they've offered their ranch as a "touchstone," she said, for area cattle producers needing feed.

Houghton said that Steve Rice of SR Farms and Husker Hay Haulers of Wilsonville, with whom Heartland contracts alfalfa, organized truck drivers "in short order" for a hay relief caravan to Southwest Kansas on Tuesday.

Calling from Kansas mid-morning Wednesday, Rice said that south out of Bucklin, Kans., to Ashland, Kansas, "everything is burned. Eighty-five percent of their county is burned. That's like Bartley to McCook -- everything is burned."

Steve said that he used to drive a "winding, little road out of Bucklin ... pretty country, nice meadows. Now, it's all ash. Nothing but ash."

Pulling onto the Gardiner Ranch, the Nebraska truck drivers drove to a hay drop-off area where accumulating supplies of hay will be divvied up among neighbors. "There was hay there Tuesday from Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and Nebraska," Steve said.

The local hay train caravan Tuesday included two trucks driven by Tim and Jeff Carlson of Carlson Brothers Hay Company of Holbrook, one truck driven by Heath Ruf of Wilsonville and three trucks from SR Farms driven by Travis Landreth, Brian Ballou and Steve Rice. Nick and Amy Brown, Heartland Cattle Co., and Scott and Steve Rice donated hay. Kyle and Trent Odens, Heartland neighbors, provided corn stover.

Steve said that so many other people offered hay. "Once the word got out (about the hay relief effort), lots of people wanted to be involved," Steve said. "It was a good deal."

Wildfires across Kansas burned thousands of acres, hay reserves, fences and personal property.

Funds generated through donations to the Kansas Livestock Foundation will be used to support ranchers impacted by the fires. Donations are tax deductible.

To donate to the wildfire relief, contact Ryan Higbie, Director of Membership Marketing & Services Kansas Livestock Association, (785) 273-5115,

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