TOPEKA — U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran relied on Kansas farmers and ranchers who fought for their lives as spring wildfires swept across Clark County to help form the outline of proposals to speed economic recovery from the disaster through modification of federal aid programs.
Moran and U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, who serves the First District, introduced a package of four bills to better take into account losses related to livestock injured in the calamity and to improve financing to rebuild fence wiped out by fire.
Angus cattle producers Greg and Grant Gardiner, Ashland veterinarian John Kellenberger and Ashland Mayor Kendal Kay offered boots-on-the-ground explanations of what transpired in the March firestorm. They also reflected on the benefits of a change recommended by Marshall and Moran to the federal Livestock Indemnity Program and Emergency Conservation Program. The LIP and ECP are operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“It was a day, you know, sounds like a cliche, that started out like any other,” Grant Gardiner said. “The wind was excessively high that day, and there was a big, dark cloud off to the west. No one really knew where the fire was. Unbeknownst to me, and everyone at that point, it was much closer than anyone ever thought.”
Greg Gardiner said he lost sight of family members as flames raced closer and smoke rolled overhead.
“Ultimately, the good ending to the story, we did all make it out,” he said. “As a community, for as many close calls, God had his hand on all of our lives that day.”
“It’s hard to describe how Ashland is still standing,” Kay said. “The days that followed, there wasn’t one person that just stopped for a handout. It was just roll up your sleeves and get to work.”
Their insights into fires that blackened two-thirds of the county and the challenge of recovery from the disaster were captured on a YouTube video.
“Their stories are why we’ve developed legislation to assist with these federal programs to ease the burden for future disasters,” Moran said.
The lawmakers said they would welcome modification of the federal LIP to allow producers to receive partial payment in the event livestock severely were injured, but still sold to processors at a diminished price. This would remove an incentive to euthanize injured cattle to receive a disaster payment and encourage transfer of the injured livestock to market.
“In my opinion, we really need to reword the LIP so that there is not a financial advantage to euthanize animals,” said Kellenberger, the Ashland veterinarian.
The second LIP reform envisioned by Moran and Marshall would double the LIP payment limit to assist producers with massive livestock losses.
Grant Gardiner said the family business lost 600 Angus cattle in the fire. The current LIP maximum benefit of $125,000 covers less than 10 percent of that loss, he said.
“Let’s be conservative and say the average animal out here was going to sell for $3,000,” he said. “Well, that really doesn’t go that far when you lose 600 head at $3,000 — $1.8 million, approximately.”
The legislation offered by Moran and Marshall would alter the ECP to enable up-front payment for replacement of fencing by landowners. In the past, USDA has taken months to process ECP compensation.
“It takes awhile to get that repayment back,” said Kay, a banker and the Ashland mayor. “Oftentimes, their collateral is gone. It would be a great help if we could get some of that money up front.”
Hundreds of miles of fence was destroyed in the Clark County fire, and some estimates placed the cost of restoration at $10,000 per mile. The federal legislation would increase the ECP payment limit above the equivalent of 26 miles of fence.
Marshall said Kansans, who suffered record wildfires in 2016 and 2017, struggled with outdated regulations embedded in recovery programs.
“I came away inspired by the resilience of the folks who were impacted. I also left frustrated by the way red tape and outdated regulations can interfere with a recovery,” he said.