Six months ago, Clark County rancher Steve Hazen was on the receiving end as truckloads of hay and supplies came from all directions to his hometown of Ashland.
Now he and others along the southern Kansas border where more than 500,000 acres burned during the March Starbuck Fire are returning the kindness.
With fires still raging in Montana, Hazen and four others from the area drove a thousand miles to deliver alfalfa and wire to two ranches near Sand Springs, Montana - one hit by the wildfire, another hurt by severe drought.
“Pay it forward - that is exactly what we were doing,” said Hazen, who lost pasture and fencing in the Starbuck Fire that swept through the county March 6.
After all, he said, with all the help that America gave him and others in the wake of their own natural disaster, it is their turn to lend a hand.
The “ashes to ashes” project comes as ranchers in Meade, Clark and Comanche counties continue their efforts to rebuild, said Bernie Smith, a rancher from just across the Oklahoma border who lost 150 cows, 65 calves and miles of fences after Starbuck.
The project started when Smith’s two boys - Blake and Levi - took a load of hay to Montana in mid-August.
“We didn’t advertise it much at first, but when people found out what we had done, everyone wanted to help,” Smith said.
In all, nearly 40 people donated money and supplies for a second trip north. Friday morning, Levi and Blake, along with Mark Berends, Hoisington, and his father, Verlyn, of Buffalo, Oklahoma, loaded up two semis with alfalfa and a truck pulling a gooseneck trailer with wire. They met Hazen, who had picked up a truckload of hay in North Platte, Nebraska, and convoyed north.
American flags hung from the front of the semis. The rear had a banner telling of the trip from “Clark County Kansas to Montana.” Smith said his ranch received supplies in March from the same area they were helping.
While they organized the trip, “this really was a community effort to make it happen,” Smith said.
“Donations just flowed in,” he said. “People gave money to help out. It is a great area we live in.”
Kindness flowed along the trail, as well, Smith said.
Everyone who went up there said it was life-changing. Smith said, “They had people buying their meals, buying their fuel, giving them cash. It is just a really good feeling, kind of makes it full circle.”
Hazen said he stopped at one place to get fuel, and when they found out he was delivering hay, they said it was paid for. Another woman he met handed him $200.
“They were just thankful for what we were doing,” said Hazen.
Hazen said he took his load of round bales to the Weeding family ranch near the little town of Jordan, Montana. They lost all their winter pasture to a wildfire.
The crew didn’t see fire, but they did see smoke, Hazen said.
Smith, who also is the fire chief of Englewood and lives just across the Kansas line in Oklahoma, said the rebuilding continues on his own ranch. Three fencing crews are still working to construct fences. They have cattle they need to move off CRP.
But the landscape is green from rain. They’ve replaced some of the cows. They are continuing on.
“It is an uphill time, but we will make it. The people in this area are resilient,” he said.
There has been good come from the wildfire. That includes the bonds and the friendships that have developed.
“It has formed a good bond in the ag community,” he said, later adding, “it kind of got us on the heels a little bit, but we are all moving forward. But we had a lot of help from the United States of America.”