A beautifully tough place to live

Mar 10, 2017

Credit Sarah Nishimuta / Woodward News

It's hard for people who don't make their living on a ranch or farm, growing crops, grassland and cattle to understand how this week's fires have devastated residents here.

Last night I had someone who does not live here call me and try to console me by saying, "Well, ash is good for the grass." All I could say to that was "Wha?"

I have been in such a mental state, I just hung up the phone. Because I realized - trying to explain this to people who live in cities or other areas where the basics of life are less complicated - is like trying to explain the battlefield in Iraq to people who have never had to experience that. It's not their fault. They simply have no frame of reference.

But if you live here in this vast and wild land, where craggy canyons hide sage, prickly pear cactus and new baby calves, where buffalo grass carpets sandy floors and shares water with Old World Bluestem and nesting prairie hens, you know how beautifully tough this place can be to make a living.

On Tuesday morning at about 6:30 a.m. after the so-called 283 fire swept across Laverne, I found one of my ranching friends standing in a sea of downed fence in a lonely, remote section of highway. He was trying to splice one wire. He would expertly splice the barbed wire, tighten the wire with a set of fence stretchers and then move to the next. It struck me as a man trying to move a mountain one rock at a time.

I asked him, with cattle hopelessly dying just down the road, miles of fencing down and fires still threatening, how he managed to decide what to do first. He said, "I think the best thing I can do with my time right now, in this minute, is try to keep the cattle I have left off the highway" he said. "And as far as what to do first, well, I just pick up the piece of broken wire closest to me and start splicing." His lip was cut and bleeding from getting swiped by a stray strand of barbed wire but he didn't seem to notice. When he talked, there were tears in his voice, but none reached his eyes. Down the road from where he was, a small black, white-faced calf stood over his dying mother and bawled.

Because of its location in the United States, Northwest Oklahoma suffers in the winter from angry "northers" that scramble out of Kansas and Colorado, biting man and animal alike with mean, killing frost. In the summer, wind like 1,000 growling shop heaters comes from the south, scorching anything that was ever green for a moment.  Our area averages about 16 inches of rain per year. We are a target for tornadoes, ice storms, blizzards, lightning storms, dust storms, fire storms and even grasshopper swarms - and the final insult - earthquakes.

And yet, there is just something about it that makes us stay. Maybe it's because of those rare, still evenings here, when a light breeze lifts the scent of rain-soaked sage as you stand outside watching the sun dip, all pink and blue into the western sky. Yes, it might be that.

But whatever anchors us, folks who have made their lives here for sure understand how this week's tragic fires, dubbed the Northwest Oklahoma Complex Fires by the Oklahoma Forestry Service, have caused such a wretched tragedy including human death, immeasurable animal suffering, environmental disaster and financial devastation.

Approximately 833,000 acres have burned in Northwest Oklahoma and Kansas and 350,000 acres have burned in the Texas Panhandle. There have been at least six human deaths attributed to the fires, a woman in Buffalo trying to save her cattle died of a heart attack, four people died in Texas, three trying to save their cattle, and one Oklahoma City 39-year-old truck driver died when he was trying to navigate through the fires just east of Ashland in his truck. When he realized he was in trouble, he tried to back out of it and jackknifed his rig, got out to run to safety and was overcome by fire and smoke.

But it gets worse, if that's possible. Because these fires didn't only cause immediate losses of life, homes and cattle, which was bad enough in its own right. These historic wildfires fires caused the loss of the future for some ranchers who now have nowhere to pasture their cattle even if they did have fences. Add to that the loss of enormous stack yards of hay that ranchers could have used to feed their cattle and you begin to just scrape the surface of the enormity of this disaster. It's a calamity that will be felt in my community for years to come.

The fires caused the loss of habitat for wildlife. And now, because there is no vegetation to hold the soil, the wind is carrying away the top soil so that any grass that might try to poke through cannot get a good rooting system before it is blown and carried away.

In just seven weeks since the devastation to nearly the entire Northwest Oklahoma electrical grid, costing the company $15 million, Northwestern Electric Cooperative is once again replacing poles that have burned and snapped off at the ground level to get the more than 1,100 who lost power back up and running. On Thursday, a long convoy of bucket trucks made their way from Woodward north to continue work, once again, restoring power to the Panhandle, many of them ranchers who, on top of everything else, can't water their livestock.

This morning, when I stepped out my door where I live in the Panhandle, it smelled like an ashtray. In a few more days, the odor of decaying flesh will encompass the area from the hundreds of burned cattle, horses and wildlife.

And all of that is saying nothing of the emotional trauma churning deep in the guts of ranchers and their families who, still on Wednesday and Thursday, were discovering cattle so injured and suffering they had to be shot. I'm not sure if you have ever had to shoot one of your own animals, but I have and it is a type of pain I can't convey and won't even try.

For people who are uneducated in life out here, that might sound harsh. But we can't just toss a 1,000-pound cow into our car and take it to the vet to be put to sleep -  let alone the hundreds of dying animals around us, which needed attention. That's the reality out here.

My neighbors are people who are sleeping less than three to four hours a night right now. They are rebuilding several miles of fencing that has been flattened by the fire to protect drivers who just don't seem to understand they are in danger and who still insist on driving 10 miles per hour over the speed limit. My ranching friends are doctoring animals suffering from smoke inhalation, fixing water pumps and burned windmills and all the while, life goes on with normal duties.

If you look out at the pastures north of Laverne, there are numerous cattle now, standing in the middle of totally blackened pasture gathered around a hay bale. There is nothing left to eat. Across from them, about 20 momma cows lay dead, obviously confused by the smoke and caught in the raging flames. One rancher north of Woodward was said to have lost 200 cattle.

I painted that picture because I think it is important for people to understand the depth of torment that is happening out here and to then begin to point at the many efforts of people in this wonderful state to help each other.

Perhaps the most critical needs right now are for hay to feed animals still on burned pasture. Several hay donation locations have popped up over the last 24 hours. Locations for donated hay include Buffalo Feeders, Buffalo Farmers Cooperative and the Harper County OSU Extension Office along with Western Equipment in Woodward.

But also, there is a critical need for fencing supplies, water pump generators and animal health supplies - specifically antibiotics to treat cattle suffering from smoke inhalation.

Dr. Kyle Taylor and the vets at Tri-State Veterinarian Clinic can help ranchers attain donated antibiotics for their cattle through Zoetis Animal Health - 580-254-3321

One of the many problems left behind in the fire are orphaned calves. According to the good hearted kids of Meade County, Kansas 4-H, youngsters there will bucket feed and care for calves until ranchers can handle the extra work. Milk replacer and bottles are also being donated. Contact the Meade County Extension Office at 620-873-8790.

As ranchers begin to be able to look forward for more than 12 hours at a time, planning how they will recover financially will likely be the next thing that keeps them awake at night.

Woodward County Emergency Manager Matt Lehenbauer has been working non-stop to keep the federal government aware of the needs of Northwest Oklahoma.

To that end, Lehenbauer hopes to have help for ranchers here with emergency loans, which can only be used to repair or replace property damaged or lost as a direct result of a natural disaster. There could also be noninsured crop assistance programs and livestock forage disaster programs, which helps ranchers with the cost of feeding their livestock after pasture losses from a qualified disaster. Livestock indemnity programs can help ranchers with payments of up to 75 percent of each animal lost because of a qualifying disaster. Also possibly available, if federal assistance is granted, will be the emergency conservation program, which can help with the cost of rebuilding fences that were destroyed as a result of the qualifying disaster.

On Friday, Lehenbauer plans to meet in Woodward with U.S. Sens. James Lankford and Jim Inhofe for a tour of the burned areas and allow them to talk to affected ranchers and residents. He hopes to get their assistance in obtaining federal support for Northwest Oklahomans.

"I am really pushing this because we need this help," he said.

Finally, I think it needs to be mentioned that until Lankford and Inhofe agreed to come up here, really see the damage and actually talk to some ranchers, none of our state leaders have visited the area. I have not yet heard a comment from the Governor's office (other than to declare a state of emergency in the affected areas) and while I am aware that the Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture drove up here, it is my understanding from another interview I heard, that he did not make an attempt to stop and talk to a single rancher.

That information has had me sitting here trying to figure out what I will say next and frankly, I'm speechless.

The Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association has established a relief fund to help those in Beaver, Ellis, Harper, and Woodward counties. More information can be found at the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association website http://www.okcattlemen.org/.

Woodward News staff writer Rachael Van Horn lives in Rosston in Harper County.