One year after the smoke cleared: George Ochsner Ranch, Prairie Center Fire, Torrington, Wyoming
Prairie Center Fire
July 10-11, 2016
Recovering from last summer’s fire was going smoothly for the George Ochsner family ranch near Torrington, Wyoming.
“We got some good moisture and the burned ground come back really good,” George said. They had their calving barns rebuilt and all the fences put in.
Then in July a hailstorm went through and pounded all the grass down and damaged all the new buildings.
“The little bit where it didn’t hail looks good,” George said. “We had exceptional, good rain.”
Lightning started the fire on July 11, 2016. The next day they had 50 mile per hour wind. “We had about 100 fire trucks here. We just couldn’t get ahead of it,” George said.
The fire burned their buildings and windbreaks, and a total of 25,000 acres on several ranches, but they didn’t lose any houses. The worst part, George said, was that his oldest son, Rodney, was injured when his fire truck collided with another fire truck in the smoke.
Rodney was in the hospital for six weeks, but has been out putting up windbreaks and helping around the ranch this summer. He’s had three surgeries on one leg, which was crushed in the accident, and will have another surgery this fall. He’ll be in a wheelchair for three months and unable to put any weight on that leg. But George isn’t worried about him. “He’s one in a thousand. His attitude is so good that he don’t complain and lay around. He just up and gotta keep a-going.”
While Rodney recovered in the hospital the rest of the family, Steve and Dixie (Ochsner) Roth, Rustin Roth and Blake Ochsner and their families, were rebuilding. “We’ve got a big family, that’s why we get things done around here,” George said.
The fire burned about 11,000 acres on the Ochsner ranch, including several buildings and all the windbreaks they’d planted over the years—many of which were over 50 years old.
They put up metal windbreaks and planted more trees, but the hail took out the new trees. “We’ll have to try it again next year, I guess,” George said.
While losing 50 years of trees and all the buildings was a setback, the hardest part—after Rodney’s injury—was the 125 head of cattle that died. The Ochsners are known worldwide for their registered Hereford and Angus cattle.
“It was a big loss and sad to have them go through that drama, to go through what they had to,” George said. “They just burned up. We’ve had some fires before, but they never burned any cattle.”
The response from friends, neighbors and customers from all over the United States was overwhelming, with people sending donations, hay, fencing supplies and volunteering their time and equipment to help rebuild.
“A lot of them stayed here about a week to help clean up this mess,” George said. “They brought in their payloaders and stuff to haul it out. It was such a blessing to have that many people stay here and clean this mess up.”
With the fire followed by the hail, which severely damaged the calving barn and other metal sheds they’d just put up, George said they’ve been thankful for the good relationship they have with their insurance company. “We have Farm Bureau. They come right out and worked with us real well. We can’t complain about that. We’ve had insurance with this company for a long time.”
As they began rebuilding they had to take a hard look at their business and figure out what made sense to keep doing and what to change.
They started with 57 registered cattle and have grown that herd to 600 cows, but losing 125 of their best necessitated keeping more replacement heifers.
They were able to lease some land to run the remaining herd and the replacements for the cattle that died, but they had to cut back on their bred heifer program. George said they usually buy about 2,000 yearling heifers from their bull customers to market as bred heifers, but they didn’t have the pasture to do that last year.
“Pasture is hard to lease because everybody wants that,” George said. “But we’ve got good neighbors and friends so we got along good.”
They were able to calve out their cows at home, but had to haul the pairs to pastures that hadn’t burned, instead of turning them out in their usual calving pastures.
“We didn’t aim to put any cattle on these pastures this year,” George said. “We had to give the grass a chance to get up and seed back down. Some bare spots it cooked the ground so bad the grass didn’t even come up. We were blessed we had so much rain. Otherwise it would have been just a big blowout.”
George was born on the place in the middle of the Depression 85 years ago. “I was born in a homestead shack. My father delivered me. You didn’t even bother to have a doctor in those days.”
He married Ruby in 1955 and moved three miles to a ranch adjoining the place George’s grandparents homesteaded in 1913. They’ve seen some hard times, and some fires, but nothing like this.
“We cut back our income some this year. We’ll survive. We’re achievers. We keep a-going. We don’t sit back and feel sorry for ourselves. We keep a-going. You’ve got to have a lot of faith, and the good Lord blessed us to get things started back again.”