Mile after mile, ragweed and other plants brushed the sides of Greg Gardiner’s pickup as he piloted pastures lined with sandy tracks engulfed in green. In places, jungles of wild sunflowers up to 5 feet tall grew where, three months ago, just sand and ash had stretched for as far as the eye could see.
“The first three weeks after the fire, it was a Sahara-looking mess,” Gardiner said of the massive wildfire that raged across parts of Kansas in March. “We had days it looked like the fire had started up again, because the blowing sand and dirt was as thick as smoke. But this is what 11 inches of rain, in about two months, will do for you. It looks so much better, but we’ve got such a long ways to go.”
The fire that started March 5 in Oklahoma and spread north at 50 mph burned 600,000 acres of Kansas, making it the largest wildfire in state history. In Kansas, it destroyed more than 20 homes, forced the evacuation of Ashland and Protection and claimed the life of a truck driver who was overcome by smoke.
Area ranchers lost 5,000 cattle and more than 1,000 miles of fencing. Most of the ranches suffered more than $1 million in damages, much of it uninsured.
Gardiner and his brothers Mark and Garth had nearly all of their 48,000-acre ranch charred by the Starbuck wildfire.
They lost more than 500 adult cows, most with calves either newly born or soon to be born, valued at several million dollars. It’s without question the largest natural disaster to befall the family, which has ranched and farmed in Clark County for more than 130 years.
But, like most of the many ranches that burned, the Gardiner spread is healing. A few black cattle dotted their pastures, and the vegetation is growing by the hour. Still, Gardiner admitted that sometimes the task at hand can be overwhelming.
“Sometimes it hits you that you can’t fix in six months what took generations to make,” he said. “You take it day by day, and if that’s hard, you take it sunrise until noon, and then noon until sunset. The next day, you start it all over again. You just keep working.”
Randall Spare, an Ashland veterinarian, said that’s the overriding attitude of the area. As well as the saver of herds, many ranchers see veterinarians as confidantes and counselors.
“People are working hard,” Spare said. “But it’s like Kendal Kay (president of a local bank) said, he’s yet to hear anybody even hint that they’re giving up. We all know this is going to take a lot of time and work.”
The Gardiner brothers are happy men. Despite harrowing experiences, they survived “the beast,” which is what oldest brother Greg repeatedly calls the fire whose flames often reached 50 feet into the air and spread at more than 50 mph.
“I had guys tell me they watched an entire section (one square mile) burn in just about a minute,” he said. “It’s amazing we didn’t get anybody killed or hurt.”
For 20 to 30 minutes, he feared he’d lost a brother when “the beast” engulfed the house and ranch yard where Mark and his wife, Eva, were working to save pets and livestock.
Though they’d lost millions of dollars’ worth of livestock and equipment, the Gardiners had a valuable herd slated for an April sale grazing on green wheat that did not burn the day of the fire. Some bulls, selected for a May sale, survived in dirt pens.
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The sale of those cattle, from the ranch’s nationally-renowned bloodline, brought money to rebuild.
During April and May, their ranch got rain. But green pastures don’t equate to profitable pastures after “the beast” so scarred the soil.
“You’ve heard of fool’s gold; well, this is kind of fool’s green,” Gardiner said as he kicked a mass of dense plants with the toe of his boot. “This is ragweed. It’s all over and knee-high in some places, but cattle won’t eat it. I wish they’d eat those tall sunflowers, but they won’t.”
Spare, the veterinarian, said weeds – the toughest plants on the prairie – are often the first to break through the charred soil.
“We’re going to be learning as we go, because there’s never been a fire this hot before,” Gardiner said. “Even if they were here, it wouldn’t do any good to ask our dad or our granddaddy for advice, because they never went through a fire like this their entire lives. Thing should get better after we get some cattle in here, but it’ll be a while before we can stock many cattle on these pastures.
“But the most important part is that we have something growing, something to hold the soil and give the grass a chance to get started and grow,” he said. “For so many days, it just blew and blew and nothing could get growing until we got those rains. That – that was pretty depressing. We started getting a lot more hope when it rained and things started turning green. The pastures still need time to heal, but they will. It’s going to be tougher, because these weeds have grown so fast they’re making a canopy which will make it harder for the good grass to get growing.”
He also wonders how long it will take to replace the groves of tall, old cottonwoods and elms their cows relied on for shade while having calves.
The job of replacing enough fence to stretch from Wichita to Topeka and back is also daunting.
“The good news is we’ve probably already gotten 25 to 30 miles of fence put back, but then you realize we’re replacing about 280 miles,” Gardiner said last week. “We’ve been working at this, really hard, since early March, and we still have so much more to go. It can be intimidating, but we put things into priorities and keep working at it.”
‘We owe it to them’
Gardiner knows the “working at it” may last beyond his lifetime, especially financially. But working for future generations is nothing new to ranching families like the Gardiners. Their stake in Clark County began when their great-grandparents lived in a cave dug into the side of a small hill in 1885 and began farming and ranching virgin prairie. The operation has grown through each of five generations to work the same lands and more.
Greg Gardiner has a son working on the ranch. Mark has two, and Garth may have one in the future.
“I guess maybe it’s just like a cycle, our turn to step up and perform,” Gardiner said. “You look at what people like our parents and grandparents went through and what they accomplished, making it during the Great Depression and surviving the Dust Bowl. This is tough, but it’s danged sure not comparable to storming the beaches at Normandy. We kind of owe it to them to step up to the plate and get this accomplished.”
Gardiner said the ranch has five employees that endured the dangers of the fire and have worked just as hard in the recovery. He and his brothers want to make sure they can continue to support those employees and their families.
Spare and Gardiner both said recovering ranchers also feel a need to succeed as a way of repaying thousands of strangers, scattered across the country, who showed their support.
Gardiner’s eyes moisten when he talks of convoy after convoy bringing hay to feed surviving cattle only hours after the fires were out. He’ll tell you that those who predicted the kindness would stop as soon as the media attention faded were wrong. New volunteers arrive weekly to replace fence and clean out destroyed homes.
Knowing they’ve had the support of American agriculture has meant even more than the gifts of time and materials.
“Some people may not believe it, but I know we could feel it when people were praying for us,” he said. “It’s real, and it sure helps. They’ve shown a lot of confidence that we’d make it through this, so we kind of have to.”
‘Always going to be a reality’
But no matter how much rain falls, how lush the grass grows or how quickly bank accounts are rebuilt, Gardiner and others know the carnage “the beast” left in its wake will will weigh on them forever.
Monday afternoon, Gardiner stopped his pickup near a pasture fence where he’d found dozens of dead, bloated cattle in March. All of those 78 cows and their calves have been buried in two long, mass graves clearly visible nearby. While out of sight, he said, the carnage would never be out of his mind.
“I can still see them laying there, right now,” he said, looking at where so many of the animals had perished. “I don’t think that will every really go away. It’s always going to be a reality for us, but we’ll make it.”