Called the “ashes to ashes” project, ranchers still recovering from massive southwest Kansas fires in March have been sending and delivering hay to ranches recently burned in Montana and ranches needing food for cattle in drought-stricken areas in South Dakota. Courtesy photo
Called the “ashes to ashes” project, ranchers still recovering from massive southwest Kansas fires in March have been sending and delivering hay to ranches recently burned in Montana and ranches needing food for cattle in drought-stricken areas in South Dakota. Courtesy photo

State

After devastating wildfires, Kansas ranchers hay it forward

By Michael Pearce

mpearce@wichitaeagle.com

August 11, 2017 12:16 PM

UPDATED August 11, 2017 01:18 PM

Time and money are tight for southwest Kansas rancher Bernie Smith. The March wildfires that burned more than 700,000 acre in Kansas killed more than 100 of his cattle and destroyed miles of fencing. He’s scrambling to get prepared for cold weather ahead.

“Grass is thin,” said Smith, who has put in before dawn to after dark days since the fire. “It’s going to be a long winter. We’re going to need to be feeding (hay bales) a lot.”

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But last weekend Smith and other fire-affected friends sent 32 tons of nutritious hay they could have fed their own cattle to a rancher in Montana who’d just been through July’s 270,000-acre Lodgepole fire.

Roughly 30 miles from Smith’s spread, near the town of Protection, Tyler Woolfolk and his family are mired in work trying to recover from the Starbuck fire, the worst disaster to hit the ranch that’s been his family for five generations. But the Woolfolk Ranch last week shipped a huge load of hay to a South Dakota farmer struggling to keep his herds fed going through one of the region’s worst-ever droughts.

The Smiths and Woolfolks are two of a growing number of people within the area torched by this spring’s flames giving money, food, supplies and time to help out-of-state ranchers in trouble. Smith calls the effort the “ashes to ashes” project. Woolfolk said despite all they’ve lost, ranchers who survived Kansas’ largest fire are the best equipped for offering assistance.

“Even though we’re still picking up our own pieces we should be the first to step up when somebody needs help,” Woolfolk said. “We know what it’s like face that kind of (disaster). We know just how much it means to know there are other people out there who want to help you when you’re at your lowest.”

That sentiment is not lost on the ranchers coping with disasters in the Dakotas and Montana.

“That guys like that, with that much to do, would just load up and bring hay to us is so amazing,” said Travis Brown, the Jordan, Mont. rancher who’d lost about 6,000 acres of grass in last month’s fire. “They knew the need was there, and they just came. Then when we started talking to them you realize they, especially, understand the challenge that are in front of us.”

No price for emotional support

Neil Kay, an Ashland business owner, isn’t surprised at the outpouring of local support for others suffering from fire or drought.

“It’s just what you do in ranching and farming,” Kay said. “You see somebody in need, and you share what you have, even if you don’t have a lot. You don’t really think about it. It’s just neighbor helping neighbor, even if the neighbor’s hundreds of miles away.”

You don’t really think about it. It’s just neighbor helping neighbor, even if the neighbor’s hundreds of miles away.

Neil Kay, Ashland business owner

It’s been like that in ranching and farming for generations.

No time in Kansas history has that probably been more evident than after this year’s fire that burned most of Clark County, much of Comanche County and down into Oklahoma. Thousands of cattle were killed and hundreds of miles of fencing destroyed, not to mention dozens of homes, barns and ranching equipment. Many ranchers face decades of work to get their operations back to pre-fire conditions.

Kay said “neighbor helping neighbor” began as the last of the Starbuck flames were being extinguished.

Kay, who eventually helped orchestrate the gathering and distribution of an estimated 800 semi-trailer loads of hay, said the first shipments arrived in the Ashland area the morning after the fire. So did pick-up loads of fencing material and cash donations. So many volunteers showed up that a church camp at the edge of town had to be opened to house them. Many local residents housed volunteers in their homes.

But such generosity is the equivalent of a few kernels of corn in a feed bucket for what it’s going to take for those Kansas ranchers to recover. Many say that people even bothered to give is the best gift of all.

“Financially so many people have been so generous,” said Garth Gardiner, whose family’s Angus ranch had more than $1 million worth of calves killed in the fire, plus about 250 miles of fences. “But you can’t put a price on what it does for you, psychologically, knowing there are so many good people in the world wanting to help you. It doesn’t make any difference if it’s a trailer load of hay, some stranger who shows up with just a pair of gloves and wants to work, or just a note somebody wrote and sent you. That they, people you’ve never met or heard of, are willing to give is what’s really important.”

That, Gardiner said, is why he and others have taken time from their monumental recovery tasks to help distressed ranchers in other states.

No group more qualified to help

The Woolfolks and Kay have been following the severe drought across the Dakotas for weeks and followed the impact of late July’s Lodgepole fire, which destroyed countless bales of hay and drought-stricken pastures many eastern Montana ranchers were depending on to get their herds through the winter.

Not long after that Montana fire was out, Kay’s phone began to ring as ranchers like the Woolfolks and Gardiner’s asked Kay to help them get involved. He located places in burned Montana and dry South Dakota where hay was needed. Kay found where he could buy hay in Nebraska to ship north and west.

As word of the “ashes to ashes” effort spread, more southwest Kansans and neighboring Oklahomans, asked to be involved. Kay said another Ashland business owner volunteered to pay the fuel for shipping hay to South Dakota. Smith said eight neighbors contributed to the 36 bales of hay they just shipped to Montana. Some gave hay they had baled the night before the trip, others loaned pick-ups, semi tractors or trailers.

Kay and Smith said since their shipments they’ve heard from others wanting to help with the project.

As well as money for fuel, Smith’s two sons Levi and Blake, and friends Kyle Terry and Joe Baker wanted to give their time to the project by hauling the hay to Montana.

They left Friday, Aug. 4, and returned from the 2,500-mile-round-trip at 4 a.m. on Monday. All made it to work on time that morning.

Those people had what I call the ‘thousand mile stare.’ The minute we pulled up there, we could tell they’d been through hell.

Levi Smith, rancher

“I had a pretty good idea what we’d find when we got up there, and those people had what I call the ‘thousand mile stare,’” said Levi Smith. “The minute we pulled up there, we could tell they’d been through hell. They needed people like us, who’d been there, to talk to. We unloaded the hay at 1 p.m. but just sat around and talked until 11 that night. They got to see that we’d been through the same thing, and we’re beginning to get back on our feet again. I’m pretty sure it helped them, talking to people who’d been through the same kind of thing.”

Brown, the Montana rancher, said the immense amount of support his area has received from across the nation has touched him and other ranchers, deeply. He also said there was a special connection with the four who’d just been through the Starbuck blaze.

“Their fire is still so fresh in their mind,” Brown said. “When they started talking about trying to save houses and then burying cattle and that kind of stuff you could tell they’d really been there and felt a lot of the same things.

“But then they also talked about what they’ve done that’s helping them come back. That meant a lot knowing where they are, now. All those things give you hope, and just really make me want to pay it forward, even more, when it’s my turn to help somebody else.”

Levi Smith said he, and the three who traveled with him, also experienced some healing knowing that their struggles after the fire is helping others. That makes all of the work in the past, and so much yet to come, a little less painful.

“I know we’ve got some new lifetime friends,” Smith said of the Montana couple. “These big fires, they change everybody that’s in them, but most of that change is for the better. We know we can help people better than ever, now.”

Michael Pearce: 316-268-6382, @PearceOutdoors