Battling the Blaze: Communities band together following devastating Oklahoma/Kansas fire
A wildfire that started March 22 has scorched more than 400,000 acres of Kansas and Oklahoma land. The blaze continued through the Easter weekend, and thanks to an inch of snow in some areas, the fire was 81 percent contained after a week of flames. At press time, six homes had been destroyed and ranchers were still trying to gather wandering cow-calf pairs to assess the damage and loss.
Ron Keeler, DVM, of Nennescah Veterinary Service in Hutchinson, Kansas, said that while ranchers struggled to round up, feed and account for their herds, the next couple of weeks will reveal a long list of potential health issues for surviving animals who were exposed to the fire and smoke.
“When the fire came through pastures, the cows ran and many of the calves laid down and hid,” he said. “Many deaths haven’t been recorded yet because ranchers haven’t been able to pair up the herd and take an inventory yet. The severely burned animals have been put down, and the sick ones will be dealing with burns and infections, swollen, irritated eyes from the heat and smoke, respiratory issues like pneumonia, and even foot rot from burnt hooves.”
He said that one of his clients ran across several black lumps on the ground, which he discovered were dead calves. Keeler said accounting for death loss will be difficult in the blackened terrain, and it could take weeks before accurate numbers are reported. For now, producers are relying on the help of donations to get feed to their herds and treating those animals that need immediate medical attention.
“Ranchers are dealing with animals with burnt ears, tails, feet, udders, and noses; these burns can turn into infection. A blister between the toes of the hoof can lead to foot rot, and calves with respiratory issues might succumb to pneumonia. Unfortunately, many folks lost their pastures, their hay supplies, and their working facilities, so it will be a struggle to deal with all of these health issues in a timely manner. What’s worse is with the fire, ear tags melted off, so even identifying whose cows are whose has become difficult for neighboring producers.”
Although 50 miles from the flames, Keeler has received many phone calls in the last couple of weeks after a post about the flames on the vet clinic’s Facebook page went viral.
“I’ve been so impressed with the tremendous outreach I have received from people across the country who want to help out,” said Keeler.
An Oklahoma FFA Chapter called Keeler asking how they could assist area ranchers, and several members of the chapter have volunteered to help restore lost fences in the area. One rancher in Comanche County, for example, lost 90 miles of fence, and fencing supplies and crews will be desperately needed to retain a sense of normalcy in the rugged, burnt terrain.
“It’s disheartening to know that these folks are going through this right now,” said Barrett Smith, Kansas State University (KSU) Research and Extension Kiowa County agricultural natural resources agent. “Being in agriculture, we are eternal optimists. I know these folks will get through it, and fellow producers will rally to help them recover from this fire.”
Smith has helped coordinate incoming donations, and he said people have been extremely generous in the recovery efforts.
“We’ve had people donate one bale up to three semi loads of hay,” he said. “Innovative Livestock Services in Lions donated $75,000 worth of 40 percent protein distillers range cubes. We’ve received an outpouring of support, and whether it’s hay and feed supplies, fencing materials or a helping hand, these folks can definitely use the support.”
Aaron Sawyers, KSU Research and Extension Comanche County agent, has been working hard to gather resources for producers at the Farmers Co-op in Coldwater, Kans.
“We tried to get hay delivered to producers over the Easter weekend, so we could try and offer some relief and allow them to enjoy the holiday a little bit,” he said, “We have had a tremendous amount of support from folks donating so far. Hay was the immediate concern, but I think fencing will be the biggest loss. Ranchers have lost thousands of miles of fence, and it’s been great to see fencing crews and people loaning things like skid steers to help folks recover from the fire.”
The Kansas Livestock Association has been overseeing many of the relief efforts being conducted by area organizations. Hay donations can be dropped off at the Farmers Cooperative on South Central Avenue in Coldwater and Farmers Cooperative Equity Company 1447 NW River Road in Medicine Lodge. Tractors will be available to unload. Questions on delivery logistics can be directed to Sandra Levering at (620) 518-2247 for Coldwater or Chris Boyd at (620) 243-2584 for Medicine Lodge.
“Sandra has done an amazing job of coordinating with KLA for dropoffs,” said Sawyers. “We have met to discuss who needs help following the fire and to figure out where donations need to head to.”
The worst fire in the states’ history has brought out the best in the people who ranch and call this place home. Bill Broadie, a rep for Superior Livestock, coordinated a rollover auction at Pratt Livestock Commission Company in Pratt, Kansas, on March 31. A heifer was donated in the auction and raised more than $90,000, with donations still coming in, to be spent on recovery and relief efforts for the area ranchers.
Broadie says interested parties can also donate directly to the Kansas Livestock Foundation by sending a check to 6031 S.W. 37Th St., Topeka, KS 66614. Write “Disaster Relief” in the memo line if sending money to KLA for the cause.
“Cattle losses are going to be tremendous,” said Broadie. “It’s sickening to think what these ranchers are going through. One night everything is fine, and the next day, all hell breaks loose. It’s rough country out here, and the fire has been hard to contain. I’m hoping the winds die down and don’t reignite the flames, and it’s amazing to see the strangers who have come together to empathize and help these folks who have been hurt by this devastating fire.”
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the June 19, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News