Wildfires that have been sweeping across the heart of cattle country since last weekend could decimate some ranchers’ herds. Fires have been reported in parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado.
The largest of the fires spread from the Oklahoma Panhandle into southwest Kansas, and has consumed more than 800,000 acres of prime grassland. Todd Domer, of the Kansas Livestock Association, says the losses have been devastating.
“Those in the hardest-hit areas have lost a considerable amount of fence, forage resources, harvested feed in terms of hay, and really an undetermined number of cattle at this point. And in addition to losing their livelihood in many of these cases, they’ve also lost their homes, outbuildings, and equipment,” says Domer.
Even the cattle that survived the fast-moving fire may have been so severely injured they will have to be euthanized.
“Some of those cattle are badly burned,” Domer says. “Some of them have taken in a large dose of smoke, which can have an impact on their breathing. They can also show external signs, whether it’s hair that’s been burned, or their feet, or in some cases cattle have been blinded by exposure to fire.”
The toll on farmers and ranchers is not only financial, but emotional too.
“We’re in the business to take care of these cattle to help them flourish, and to make them as productive as possible,” says Domer. “We’re not accustomed to being in these kind of situations, where these animals have been badly injured or killed.”
Domer says the misery is compounded by having to document the losses to qualify for disaster assistance programs, like the federal Livestock Indemnity Program. It compensates producers for livestock deaths beyond those normally expected due to weather events.
“So our members are, in addition to taking care of animals and surveying the damage, are also taking photographs and video, and maintaining veterinary records that can be used to document losses,” says Domer.
The extent of the losses cannot be tallied until the fires are out, according to Heather Lansdowne, of the Kansas Department of Agriculture. Eventually, she says, most of the recovery assistance will come from federal programs.
“We have already been in contact with our congressional delegation to determine what the appropriate requests would be, when those requests would take place, and that really can’t be determined until we’re able to assess the damage,” Lansdowne says.
Twenty-three Kansas counties have been affected by wildfire since March 4, and officials say fires are still burning in four of those counties. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback declared a state of disaster emergency March 5 because of the fires. The fire in Clark and Comanche counties is the largest wildfire on record in Kansas.