Kansas: 400k acres, livestock, structures, more destroyed in wind-fueled fire
It doesn’t feel much like Christmas in north-central Kansas. But the cattle industry across the county is drawing together to help carry the heartache, and support ranch families affected by fires and high winds last week.
Kristian Rennert, a Charolais producer from Elm Creek, Nebraska, is helping family in the area. His cousins own Stull Cattle Company in Natoma, Kansas. They run about 800 cows and Rennert estimates a loss of approximately 200 head. He spent Thursday helping check cattle and putting down the ones that were too badly burned to recover.
He said telephone poles and fence posts were still smoldering and helicopters were still dropping water on Thursday.
He was returning Friday morning to continue the grim work, bringing four wheelers and care packages. The road between Natoma and Paradise, he said, is burned on both sides.
“You head south at Pelton’s corner, and you start seeing bodies lying everywhere,” he said. “They were tied up in fences, they were piled in the corners, there were a few alive that were wandering around that were trying to lay down, but they were in too much pain. Some of them stood there and they were struggling to breathe. They were putting cattle down left and right (Thursday).”
Rennert gathered supplies near his home in Nebraska and while shopping at the local Orscheln’s Farm and Home store, another shopper asked if he was shopping for the fire victims. That shopper handed him cash on the spot.
“First of all, these people need moral support,” he said. “They need fencing supplies, wire, clips, posts, hay, antibiotics for cattle. There will be lots of sick cattle that come out of this. This is a nightmare.”
It started on Dec. 15 with record-high winds and drought conditions that flared into fires that have, according to the Kansas Fire Service, impacted nearly 400,000 acres, primarily in Ellis, Russell, Osborne, and Rooks Counties in the north central portion of the state. Dubbed the Four County Fire, crews were still working Thursday morning to control flames and hotspots. What was barely a mention on mainstream newscasts, has been life-altering for the ranchers affected.
Eric Metzger, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Wichita, said the largest fire on satellite imagery was in Russell County, where two blazes had merged in a massive one that appeared to be 40 miles long. On satellite images, the light of the flames rivaled the lights of nearby hubs including Hays, Pratt, and Russell.
David and Stephanie (Stielow) Dickerson run cattle on Bar S Ranch in Paradise, Kansas. Stephanie told J Bradley Hook on the Genuine JBH Podcast they received a call around 3 p.m. on Wednesday from the sheriff’s office that there was a fire reported near Fairport, located about 6 miles west of the ranch. The flames, she said, were headed north toward the home of Dickersons’ friends and neighbors, Craig and Jolene Lawson. The Lawsons reached out to the Dickersons, asking them to bring trailers to help evacuate their roping horses. The Dickersons, along with their son Jace and Jace’s college roommate, Austin Clock, headed to help with two rigs.
When they arrived, still fighting 65 mph sustained winds and gusts up to 107 mph, Lawson told them they had turned the horses loose because they were surrounded by the fire and told them to get out of harm’s way. The Dickersons turned back to the southeast, toward their ranch, and made it about two miles before wind gusts tipped over the pickup and trailer David and Jace were driving. Clock, who was with Stephanie, opened the driver’s side door so David and Jace could crawl out.
“By the time they came back to the truck, the bumper-pull stock trailer I was pulling ripped off the truck and rolled into the ditch,” she said. “All three of them jumped in and David told me to ‘get out of here.'”
At that point, Stephanie said they pulled into the driveway leading to the Pelton Ranch because the flames were shooting across the road. Without any other options and with visibility that often even hid from view the front grill guard on the pickup she was driving, they tore through a ditch. The flames that surrounded them melted their side mirrors and headlights and burned the paint on the pickup.
They made it back through the flames to where the pickup and trailer lay in the ditch. Jason and Tyler Lund, who are volunteer firefighters and ranchers themselves, were searching the truck and Dickerson stopped to report that they were not in the wrecked rig.
They followed Lund back to the Lawsons’ home where Craig Lawson was still trying to move horses. He asked Dickerson to go to the house and bring Jolene out so they could all evacuate. With Jolene in the pickup and Craig and the couple’s son behind them, they returned to the county road. Fire trucks were coming down the road and instructed them to follow.
The rigs and a single tanker truck led the way a couple of miles and off the road where they bounced out into the middle of a green wheat field. Firefighters- all volunteers- doused the group of about 15 for about an hour while they waited for the flames to pass over them, praying all the while.
“All of our volunteer firemen around us have cattle and their houses were in danger, too,” she said. “They were out there fighting fire not knowing if their house was being lost.”
Once the group was able, they all returned to the Lawsons’. The family lost their barn and a number of horses, and several horses sustained injuries from fire and a barn door that blew off the structure, though their home was saved by the pond that redirected the fire line.
David and Stephanie left the boys at the Lawsons’ to help, and returned to their home. Unable to drive the normal route, they drove west and south about 25 miles out of their way, passing downed power lines and multiple active structure fires. Their ranch, she said, sits in the Saline River valley and they came in from the south, the high side, so they could better see what they were driving into.
The couple stopped to talk to the local emergency management director, also a neighbor, who told them the damage was extensive. The road was blocked by downed trees that were still burning. From a pasture east of their house, she said she could see their home burning. Her three Corgis were inside. Their haystacks were burning, though their sale barn, where they host their annual bull sale, was still standing and the feedlot pens, working facilities, and calving barn were all intact. The family homestead where her grandfather was born in 1919, built at the turn of the century, was completely engulfed.
Dark now, and still windy with extremely limited visibility, the couple drove back toward their home. Earlier in the day, they had been working show cattle in preparation for the show in Oklahoma City in January. The show barn was still burning, though she said there were no cattle tied inside. Despite that decision made out of concern for wind damage earlier in the day, they couldn’t get closer until morning.
“By the time we stopped, just in the time it took for us to drive to our feedlot and back, all that was left of my house was three concrete steps and the walls of the basement,” she said.
Stephanie said she looked out at the burned shells of vehicles in the yard and told David she thought she had left her purse in her pickup. She pried open the pickup door and said her purse and wallet were sitting there, untouched. She said she begged to go check on the show cattle but said David dragged her back into the pickup.
Meanwhile, she said her middle son, Ethan, had the foresight to go to Stephanie’s 75-year-old mother’s home to take her and her 52-year-old brother with special needs to Russell to safety. Stephanie’s dad, Ken Stielow, who is 75 himself, made his way to the home of Clinton Laflin and took him to safety.
The next day, they were able to determine that Stielow’s home, which is made of the limestone native to the area, with a metal roof, was spared. Though there is damage to windows, Laflin’s home is also relatively unharmed.
The power poles and fences are destroyed. There are over 100 pairs of fall calving cows that were moved to wheat pasture and survived. North of her parents’ home, she said there are 300 cows and 140 bred heifers on wheat pasture. While they were unable to get a solid count yet, she said it appears the majority are there. Farther north, the family moved 50 fall recip cows with Charolais ET calves on them.
“We were going to put embryos in them (Thursday) and we lost all of them,” she said. “They were in a pasture and they normally wouldn’t have been there, but we were getting ready to implant them.”
Across the road, about 10 herd bulls were pastured and they were badly burned. The weaned calves and bull sale bulls were all on dry lots at the feedlot facility and they appear to have been saved. At the show barn, one show heifer was put down with two more badly burned that will also likely have to be put down. The show barn, equipment, and feed were all destroyed.
On Friday morning, Stephanie said cash donations and donations of fencing supplies are needed. She said David and the boys lost all of their firearms and ammunition, their chinks, spurs, cowboy hats, boots, muck boots, coveralls, wild rags, ropes, tack, and other tools of the ranching trade used every day.
“My husband went to get on his horse (Thursday) and didn’t even have boots and spurs, because he just had his tennis shoes on,” she said.
Friday morning, the day after the embryologist was scheduled to work at the ranch, the veterinarian called Stephanie and said some of his other clients donated their own donor cows and are paying to flush the Dickerson’s remaining cows so they can begin rebuilding.
“These are people we don’t even know,” she said. “We have people who lost structures who are bringing us hay from western Kansas. They’ve lost stuff and they’re bringing us feed.”
Dickerson family c/o UMB Bank 507 North Main Street, Russell, KS 67665 or via Paypal
Donated items may be sent c/o Tyler Lund 222 US Hwy 18, Waldo, KS 67673
Stull Cattle Company c/o Western State Bank attn. Joshua Dechant P.O. Box 539 Goodland 67735 785-899-2493
Loads of Hay, equipment, and supplies can be organized through Clinton Laflin: (620) 583-0207
Feed and Supplies can be purchased for the Bar S at United Ag in Gorham, KS (785) 637-5481 and Great Bend Co-op in Russell, KS (785) 483-3752.
Mandy Raithel and Sheila Jensen are organizing an online sale to benefit affected ranchers. To donate embryos, semen, trips, or artisan-made items, contact Mandy at 402-245-7939, Sheila at 785-262-1116 or Nancy Heter at 785-587-7947.
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