After wildfire, Giles sisters, family, to continue long Clark County history

Apr 17, 2017

Sisters Molly Giles Beckford, left, Katie Giles Shaw and Jenny Giles Betschart will rely on their trong family bond and their faith to rebuild what the wildfires destroyed on March 6, 2017.
Credit Sandra J. Milburn / The Hutchinson News

ASHLAND - Over the phone, Jenny Giles Betschart gives directions to her makeshift home amid the incinerated plains - describing the residence as the one you shouldn't miss.

"It's the white house with the clutter," she said.

It's the only house left on this section of road. The home, with its paint now peeling from the intense heat of a wildfire, lies at the end of a long sandy drive, damp from several days of downpours. Scaffolding is stacked on a trailer - not far from the new picnic tables made by the FFA - waiting to be used to put new siding on the house.

There is so much to do here. It's early April, a month since the Starbuck wildfire - the largest in state history - roared through more than 500,000 acres of southern Kansas. Remains of charred hedge posts dangle from barbed wire. The rubble of structures dot several mile sections. The red-dirt landscape - scorched black to the bare earth - looks like Mars. And the cattle, which far outnumber the population, aren't roaming the range. 

Fourth-generation rancher Roger Giles and his ancestors have made a living in Clark County since 1947 - working to improve their premium Angus genetics in their cowherd. Over the years, he and his parents worked to expand the operation to make room for three of his four daughters - Jenny, Katie and Molly - and their families.

But, on March 6, the wildfire swept across the 30,000-acre Giles Ranch from one end to the other in an hour. It took four homes, a barn, outbuildings, an office, 500 head of cattle and at least 100 miles of fence.

The task ahead might seem daunting - to rebuild a life's work. Yet inside the white house in the middle of the open range, three sisters couldn't imagine another lifestyle or place to call home.

They talk of hope and the future as they recounted the narrow escapes and the hundreds of family, friends and strangers who have come to their aid. Their close bond is evident, as well as their faith.  

"There were 75 people (who came) the first four or five days," said Jenny, 38, the oldest, of the outpouring of help after the fire. "It was people who had lost their own land and fence, but they knew we had lost more.

"Looking back, how we respond to disasters after this, half the battle is just showing up. If those people hadn't shown up, we would be sitting in a puddle of mush, wondering what to do."

Fighting a fire

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March 6, 2017, started as a normal Monday. The ranch was amid calving season and the Giles family already had a full list of ranch activities to do that week. 

The family has been working together for more than a decade. First Jenny returned after college in 2001, then Katie. Molly, who met her husband, C.J. Beckford, while in college in Texas, told him of her lifelong intentions of returning to Kansas. 

All the girls had learned to love the land and cattle from their parents and grandparents, who took them along as they worked.

"Ever since I was little, I wanted to be with my dad - especially on a horse," Molly Giles Beckford, 30, said. "I never thought about doing anything different."

The three married and built their homes on the ranch. Jenny's husband, Shane Betschart, ranches with his family. So does Katie's husband, Brett Shaw. C.J., who has an agriculture education degree, didn't care for teaching.

"He's at the ranch, too," said Molly.

A fourth sister, Megan, works at the Texas Grain and Feed Association. 

They juggle their lives as wives and mothers with the workload of the ranch. At noon each day, the family typically gathers for a meal together. 

"We are a pretty tight family," said Roger, 68, adding his own family, which includes five sisters, are close. "That is how it always has been."

There have been fires over the years, including an oilfield fire in 1979 that burned 3,500 acres of the ranch, said Roger.

But nothing like this.

They knew a wildfire was burning across the county line in Oklahoma. C.J. Beckford filled up a water truck to haul water to the fire while Molly and her mother, Cathy, and the kids prepared a cooler of water bottles and sandwiches to send to firefighters.

As they were loading the truck, their father called. There was a fire west of the ranch. 

Katie Giles Shaw, 36, was at home with two young children at the time. Her 5-year-old had recently had her tonsils removed. She saw the smoke in the distance, calling her mom for updates. 

The family began preparing, opening gates for cattle and moving them to wheat pasture. At the time, Katie said, they didn't think it would hit their homes - maybe just the edge of the ranch.  

She met her mom and gave her the kids and then began to round up horses at her parents' house with Jenny.

"You could see the flames at the top of the hill," she said. "Dad came and said 'you guys need to get out of here.'"

Katie hopped in her truck and Jenny got in with her dad. 

"I remember looking back and the flames were coming back over the ridge, back to mom and dad's house," she said.

Jenny took one last picture of her parents' home.

"We both said we are never going to see that house again," said Jenny. "As we were going south, we kept trying to cut fences for the cattle, but two different groups turned around and ran into the flames."

Close calls

Sisters still strong after wildfires

The next hour was a whirlwind. Panicked with the fire all around her, Katie called Jenny, who told her to find a wheat field. She pulled into a small one nearby. 

"I could see the flames coming closer, and we just stayed on the phone together and prayed," Katie said. "I could feel what I think were fireballs hitting the truck. It was rocking back and forth and you could feel the heat. And everything was very dark, you couldn't see anything."

She was able to see a bigger wheat field through the smoke. When the fire passed, an aunt and uncle who traveled from Offerle helped lead her out.

They arrived at the YB, the name of where Molly and CJ had a home, as well as the family's office. Both were on fire. A century-old barn was already gone.

Molly said she didn't know until weeks after the fire that her husband had driven into the fire line before seeking safety in a shed. He had called her during the fire to tell her he and the ranch intern weren't going to make it out, but they would be OK.

The two saved the structure by beating out fires with mineral sacks and shovels. 

"At the time I never fathomed the whole ranch burning or our homes burning or anything dying," Molly said.

"I don't think we would have made it without" faith, she said. "The first day - whenever the fires were coming ... I called my other sister in Texas and told her what was going on, and we started praying the Rosary right away - just to keep everyone safe and He did."

Rebirth  

All told, more than 450,000 acres of Clark County burned that week. About 30 homes were lost and more than 100 other structures. The death toll is anywhere from 3,000 to 9,000 head of cows and calves, along with a truck driver who succumbed to the smoke.

Among the Giles' losses were the sisters' three homes, a vacant home and their ranch office, along with a historic barn, outbuildings, fencing and cattle. Roger and Cathy's home miraculously survived, thanks to neighbors who came after they left, turned on hoses and watered down the house.

Many others have also come to help rebuild - some even before the the wildfires were completely out. 

Kendall Kay, Ashland's mayor and a local banker, said the relief effort from across the nation has been astonishing. He has watched truckload after truckload of hay come down the road from all corners of the United States, as well as fencing supplies. Volunteers continue to arrive by the droves. 

"It's been amazing - but not that you would expect anything less," Kay said. "Truly these people are getting after it - getting some of the fence replaced."

Kay noted that the community banks in Clark, Meade and Comanche counties have stepped up in support of their customers, just as they have in other tough times. 

These ranchers are resilient and are working out plans to rebuild their operations, he said.

"The rebuilding process is in full swing and the attitude is 'we can do this,' Kay said. "There has been a lot of work done in the past five weeks. It will take years to mend everything but a lot has been accomplished." 

The Giles are taking it one day at a time. 

The day after the fire, the sisters began dividing the daily tasks. Those first jobs were some of the more burdensome. Molly helped round up the live cattle. Katie, C.J., Brett and Roger, with help from others in the family, were in charge of grouping dead cattle and putting down the ones too burned to survive. Jenny worked on the burial and other tasks.

Neighbors, friends, strangers began showing up to lend a hand. Women from Ashland worked morning to night for a week feeding baby calves. A man from Minnesota brought his excavator and spent a week at the ranch, removing and filling in the remains of Jenny and Katie's homes. 

Two wildlife and parks employees helped put down cattle, then came back to cook the family a couple of meals. Their wives also helped sort through donations and take care of children. Meanwhile, folks from across the nation have arrived - helping to tear out burned fences, along with other jobs. 

Roger Giles admitted he isn't sure there would be such a rebuilding effort if it wasn't for the volunteers.

"This would have been insurmountable if you had been left alone on this," he said. "We couldn't have done this without all the people. That is the big story."

Looking to the future 

There was never a question about it, said Jenny. The family knew they would rebuild.

"We are already in the rebuilding process," she said.

She and her sisters are finalizing details of replacing their homes, as well as rebuilding the herd. Until then, each sister has a place to live, including Jenny, who is staying in the white guest house. Last week, a crew was working to replace the home's siding.

Roger said each generation has had their own struggles. But each time, they rebuilt - coming back stronger. For instance, his great grandfather lost 3,000 head of cattle in the blizzard of 1886. Also a multiyear drought that occurred over the past decade caused them to reduce the herd by 60 percent.

It won't be easy. It will take several years to replace the $1 million in fences that burned, said Jenny.

And Roger said it could several years to rebuild their herd to the level before the wildfire.

"We spent 40 years rebuilding this herd for upper-end genetics," Roger said. "You don't do that overnight."

However, like his daughters, he sees hope. 

With the rains, the grass is greening. The family could have some cattle back on grass by mid-May and maybe fully stocked on the pastures by June or July, Roger said.

He feels blessed.

"We are lucky," he said. "We didn't lose anyone in this deal. That is the thankful part. Everything else can be replaced in time."

As the family begins rebuilding from the ashes, they aren't looking back, said Roger. Instead, they are focusing on the future and the sixth generation of Giles. 

There are six of them so far.

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