Kansas wildfires bring out the best in people
March 20, 2017
It was the worst of times. On March 6, wildfires started in Kansas that would eventually burn over 833,841 acres in Kansas and Oklahoma. Before being contained, the fires would spread to Texas and Colorado and burn 355,000 more acres. Lives, livelihoods, homes, equipment and many livestock were lost. While the fires were still burning, ranchers in those states and many others began mobilizing to help.
Chris and Amy Potter, who work for Drummond Ranch on the Maple City, Kan. camp, were on a trip to South Dakota as the fires raged. Amy was keeping up with events on Facebook.
"What started it was I started texting with Erin Boggs," Amy said. Erin Boggs and her husband, Austin, ranch near Ashland, Kan., which was one of the hardest hit areas. Clark County, Kansas was 75 percent incinerated, with 461,000 acres burned. The famous Gardiner Angus Ranch in Ashland was burned in that fire.
Erin was mobilizing her 4-H members to take orphaned calves for bottle feeding. She kept Amy informed on the fire's progress. The farther Chris and Amy drove, the worse the fire damage became.
"We had a lot of time to talk about it," Amy said. "So finally Chris said 'maybe we should go help them.' So I put on Facebook that we were thinking about doing that and it just went viral."
Amy told neighbors and friends to drop off items at their house and barn, never thinking what that would mean. When the Potters arrived home, "we found all kinds of stuff everywhere," Amy said. A total of five pallets of milk replacer and creep feed, "and people had left bags of feed all over," Amy said. Hay, medicine, household items, food – anything someone might imagine would be needed.
Chris, a former Working Ranch Cowboy's Association Top Hand, and three friends, Lance Alcorn, Russell Powell and Connor Grokett, started planning the trip. Last week, they loaded up all the supplies, along with two new saddles bound for someone who had lost theirs.
Chris was in the middle of calving 800 Drummond cows, but he knew Amy, a former Women's Ranch Rodeo Association champion, and their kids, Colt and Carlee, could handle that for a few days.
A soft-spoken man not prone to exaggeration, Chris explained what he saw in Clark County this way, "the death loss is pretty bad. They spent days shooting cattle that were all but dead. The fences are gone. There's some wire left, but all that will have to be torn out and rebuilt. The T-posts are left, but a lot of the braces burned. Most of these are not big herds and 80 percent of the cows were lost in many herds.
"The first thing we did when we got out there was help this couple gather what was left of their cows. We penned 28 head of 55 they had in the herd, I think, and they had to shoot about 20 of those. They had burned udders and feet falling off.
"Anywhere I stood, where ever I looked in any direction, all you could see was black. We passed burned houses along the highway.
"The FSA will help on fence and cows, but they can't touch the fence until the agents see it in person and they have to take pictures.
"But the people will amaze you. I think they are just still in shock, but they are graciously humble and can't believe all the help they've got. We passed semis (loaded with hay) on the way home going that way."
If the rain will fall, grass will come back soon on the charred land. If not, the sandy soil will blow in dust storms. Even the people in the area who stand to lose revenue are helping others. "In the outfit where we had breakfast (before starting home), I heard a guy tell a rancher he wouldn't owe any grass rent this year," Chris said.
The fire is all put out now and, "Some of that county has a green tint to it," Chris said. The help and donations have been phenomenal, but both will be needed for a long time to come.
The Cedarvale Cowboy Church the cowboys and their families attend sent several $450 worth of gift cards which were distributed on the trip. Dave Harris sent his new handmade saddle and $400 for someone who "needs it more than I do." Chris donated a new saddle won at a ranch rodeo that has never been on a horse.
Those were large donations, but there was a small one which might have been worth just as much. Lauren Prater, daughter of Brad and MacKenzie Prater and an elementary school student, made cookies. The cowboys made the trip with the cookies intact. When they gathered that first handful of cows, the granddaughters of the owners were there, and the cowboys thought the family were perfect recipients for the cookies.