Clark County devastated by biggest wildfire ever, but residents aren’t giving up

Mar 16, 2017

An overturned and burned semi lies in a ditch along Highway 34 near Ashland as seen on Thursday, March 9, 2017. The driver of the truck died in the March 6 wildfire in Clark County.
Credit Lindsey Bauman / The Hutchinson News

You can hear the emotion in Ashland Mayor Kendal Kay's voice as he tells about the worn-out rancher who showed up Tuesday - his home destroyed and almost all his cattle dead. 

But he wanted to know, as wildfires still burned across Clark County, where he could help.

"They lose their home, their ranch burns, and they will still try to figure out a way to help others," said Kay, who also is president of the Stockgrowers State Bank in Ashland. 

That is what living in a close-knit community in rural America is all about, he said.

This is Clark County, Kansas, where the rugged Red Hills prairie were singed down to the bare earth. In fact, the county looks like a battleground. Burned pastures line about every county road here, along with destroyed fences, homes and dead cattle.

The fire that burned more than 500,000 acres across three counties - surpassing last year's Anderson Creek Fire - makes it the worst wildfire in Kansas history. In Clark County alone, the fires burned more than 400,000 acres.

Yet through the devastation, the county of just 2,200 - residents are lifting each other up and lending their hands. And no one has given up the fight.

"There is hope," said  Kay. "I haven't heard one time this week that we are done. This is going to be a major hurdle to overcome, but we will build back stronger than ever - and there has not been one hint of thinking otherwise."

Largest fire in state history

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Go back a year ago this month and no one in the state had experienced anything as bad as Anderson Creek. The fire spread across roughly 400,000 acres in Barber and Comanche counties - damaging homes, cattle and fence lines in its path. 

It was called the largest fire in Kansas' history. 

Not that anyone wanted to ever surpass that record, said rancher Greg Gardiner.

"You don't want to get into a measuring stick but this is bigger than that one," he said. "There are 625,000 acres in Clark County and 430,000 so far have been burned up."

Allison Kuhns, the county attorney who also is serving as the fire spokeswoman, said at last update, 625 square miles of Clark County had burned - or roughly two-thirds of the county.

"It is significant," she said.

The fire moved into the county just after noon Monday. On Thursday, the county was still working six active fires.

"At this point we are not dealing with any active fires," she said on Friday. "We are dealing with hot spots."

A Clark County deputy sheriff Thursday parked at the top of a rise, watching into the valley for anything burning.

He said the fires have taken a toll on everyone - but all have pitched in to help. He recalled a heroic moment from a wildlife official, who answered the call to save fire sight-seers at Clark County State Lake.

As of Friday, 34 buildings and 20 homes have been lost, Kuhns said. Eight of the homes were in Englewood - a town of about 75 people. 

Somehow, the fires missed Ashland. It got within a half-mile on almost all sides of town.

"How Ashland is still standing - two reasons," said Kay. "An outstanding fire department and the grace of God."

Working with ranch

Veterinarian Randall Spare's son showed up from veterinary school at 3 a.m. with a friend to help with the fight. His daughter came home from nursing school to help man the phones.

Spare lost his own cattle in the fire - about 40 to 45 head of cows. But the miracles continue, he added.

"I'm very fortunate and it will be OK," he said. "Some farmer drove through and saved my house, disked all around my house and saved it by 100 yards."

Others, however, lost homes. Rancher Mark Gardiner lost 500 head of cattle and his home on his family's ranch. Rancher Dave Bouziden lost 99 percent of his cattle, said Spare.

"He lost all but 13 adult cows," he said. "His cattle on wheat were safe, but he lost his adult cow herd."

Those are just a few stories, Spare added.

He doesn't want to appear too low or be too much of an alarmist, he said. But he estimates anywhere from 3,000 to 9,000 head of adult cattle died from the fire.

"And that doesn't count all the baby calves," he said.

About 750 to 800 cattle died in the Anderson Creek Fire, along with an estimated 2,700 miles of fence, according to Barber County Emergency Management.

With the fires now under control, Spare said part of his staff is staying in the office to deal with individual problems while others are heading to ranches to help with euthanasia and health issues. Veterinarians have helped - some coming from Kansas State University. Others have donated funds. He's been on the phone coordinating hay and supplies, as well as dealing with the state and livestock burial issues.

The emotional toll is high, Spare said. He recently called on a rancher asking how he was getting along. He told him fine - he had two loads of hay.

That would cover just eight days of feeding what cattle he had left, Spare said. The rancher began to sob.

He and Kay also have been working to contact lawmakers on funding. 

Most had property insurance, said Kay. However, like many Kansas ranchers, most didn't have insurance on their cattle.

The federal government's livestock assistance program is capped at $125,000. Fencing costs is capped at $200,000.

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"It's a drop in the bucket compared to what we are dealing with," said Kay, adding he talked with Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, on Friday about the issue. Roberts toured the wildfire area that day. "I am hopeful they will consider increasing it."

After all, Kay said, "Tens of millions of dollars have been lost."

It costs $10,000 to build a mile a fence, said Spare. 

"I just had one ranch request 80 miles of fence material," Spare said. "That is a million dollars in fence."

Kay said the Stockgrowers bank has been supporting cattle ranchers since it first opened in 1885. There have been challenges over the years, and the wildfire might be the biggest one to overcome. But as a community bank, he is backing his customers in good times and bad.

Ranching, after all, is the backbone of this community, he said.

"I don’t care where you turn," Kay added. "The stress level is off the radar."

Supplies

Some folks have fought the fires. Some are fighting it with food - manning the school cafeteria where dinners are served for the community every day, said Kuhns.

But across the state, help is coming, as well. Spare, along with Jeff Kay, who operates his family business - Ashland Feed and Seed - have been coordinating relief efforts in the form of donations.

Jeff Kay, who is Kendal's brother, said they still need hay, fencing supplies and other items for the ranching community. Some have donated milk replacer, others bottles to feed calves.

"We need hay, fencing, rain and a lot of prayers," he said.

The outpouring so far has been a blessing, he said.

"We are a small rural community here absolute devastated," Jeff Kay said. "But you are seeing the farming small communities come together and we are here for each other."

He too, finds it amazing Ashland is still standing, noting the gusts of up to 70 mph that blew in, blasting sand and smoke and making it difficult to see. Owning the family business, he didn't evacuate with the other residents, instead working to stave off the fire.

"I have 50 employees that want to have jobs tomorrow," Kay said. "I wasn't leaving. I was out here with a wet gunny sack like back in the old days."

Now, he and others are asking for help.

"We are 60 miles from a Walmart store," Kay said. "We are out here in the middle of nowhere. We always thought we could survive anything and everything, but this time we need help and are asking for help.

"This is not an overnight fix," he said. "We need Mother Nature to come see us real bad. If it rains it could be a whole lot simpler problem."

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How to help

Organizers in Clark County are calling for help by the way of hay, fencing and other needs.

"Everyone has chipped in to do their part," Kay said. All these small communities come together in times like these," said Kendal Kay, president of the Stockgrowers Bank. "There is no way to prepare for a disaster like this - it is impossible. But I'm very proud of how everyone has come together to do what they can to support each other." 

Those wanting to donate can visit www.ClarkCountyProud.com to see what the needs are and where to donate. 

At present, Ashland Feed and Seed and Ashland Vet Center are coordinating hay and other supplies. To contact Jeff Kay, with the feed mill, call him at (620) 635-0072.

The Kansas Livestock Association is accepting donations of feed, fencing supplies and cash for the ranchers who've lost fencing, forage resources, harvested feed and an undetermined number of cattle in the blazes. To donate, visit www.kla.org/donationform.aspx.

Donations may be made by contacting the association, with cash contributions payout through the Kansas Livestock Foundation, the association's charitable arm.

Other monetary gifts can be made to the Ashland Community Foundation. Visit www.ashlandcf.com.

KDHE can assist farmers and ranchers who have lost livestock in fires

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment encourages farmers and ranchers who have lost livestock in the ongoing wildfires to contact the agency as soon as possible for assistance with disposing of dead livestock.

KDHE’s Bureau of Waste Management can help farmers and ranchers determine the safest and most effective means of livestock disposal. The agency works with the Kansas Department of Agriculture to help with disposal, including selecting and permitting locations for those who wish to bury dead livestock on-site.

Farmers and ranchers who have lost livestock in the fires should contact Ken Powell, Compliance and Enforcement, Waste Reduction and Assistance Section Chief for the Bureau of Waste Management, at (785) 296-1121 or Ken.Powell@ks.gov.

Roberts visits Clark County

ASHLAND – U.S. Senator Pat Roberts Friday surveyed damage from historical and unprecedented wildfires in Southwest Kansas.

“I met with Vice President Pence yesterday and briefed him on the unprecedented amount of destruction Kansans have suffered, especially our farmers and ranchers in Clark County,” Roberts said. “Today I am seeing the damage for myself in Englewood and Ashland. It tears at your heartstrings to meet with people who have lost their homes, ranches and farms. To see one of the most picturesque Kansas landscapes turn to black and dust is jolting.

“All of those I met with today in Clark County are thankful the lives of their friends and families were spared. The Kansas spirit as embodied by our motto, To the Stars through Difficulty – Ad astra per aspera -- is amazing.

“Kansans from Ashland told me it survived because of volunteer firefighters with a little luck and help from the Lord. There is lots of faith and courage to keep going here. So many will have to start over.”

As Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, Roberts received a firsthand look at the emergency response. He reassured farmers and ranchers that federal help would be available for many who suffered total losses of homes, property and livestock.

Clark County officials estimate 3,000-9,000 head of cattle are dead requiring a huge environmental and health clean-up effort. Clark County was hardest hit by the windblown fires with over 85 percent of land in the county consumed. Over 861 square miles of land was burned in Comanche and Clark counties alone. Fires were burning in 23 counties during this period. The previous record fire was last year’s Anderson Creek Fire, which burned 488 square miles.

Roberts toured the area with Sheriff John Ketron of Clark County and Major General Lee Tafanelli, the Adjutant General of Kansas.

“I have been in contact with producer groups in Kansas, such as the Kansas Livestock Association and Kansas Farm Bureau, who, along with state agencies, have been leading in the volunteer relief effort,” Roberts said. “I commend them for their efforts in collecting hay for cattle as well as monetary donations and volunteer coordination for repairs to property and fencing across the impacted area.

“We have also been in touch with USDA in regards to assistance that may be available to farmers and ranchers in the impacted counties that have suffered losses.”

Federal programs providing aid to those in need include the Emergency Conservation Program, the Livestock Indemnity Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Emergency Assistance for Livestock Program, and crop insurance.

“I will continue to monitor the recovery as more information regarding the extent of the damage is gathered,” Roberts said. “Rest assured, as Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, I am committed to making sure assistance programs will be available to those in need.”

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