ASHLAND -- Driving south on Kansas Highway 34 into Clark County, travelers can begin to see burnt tree stumps and charred fence posts lining the roadway.

Signs of the Starbuck Fire that burned two-thirds of Clark County’s 625,000 acres can be seen all the way to the Gardiner Angus Ranch just southwest of Ashland. The Gardiners -- Greg, Mark and Garth -- lost Mark’s home and 600 cattle to the fire, which burned 43,000 of the 48,000-acre ranch in March 2017.

According to predictions and conditions reports from the U.S. Drought Monitor, Kansas State University and other organizations, it could happen again.

“Our last rain was September 25,” Greg Gardiner said, looking out across the ranch, which was covered by a thin sheet of ice from freezing drizzle. “We didn’t break the drought with this little bit.”

Drought was only one factor that pushed forward the largest fire in state history. It also was fueled by sustained winds of 60 to 80 miles per hour, and a thick supply of vegetation -- propped up by heavy rains over the previous two years.

Learning from the past, looking to the future

About three weeks after the Starbuck fire, it started raining again.

“That rain was a blessing. It healed the sand hills and regrew vegetation to seal the land,” Greg said. “But the flip side to that is now there’s just as much fuel out there for a fire of the same magnitude.”

The Gardiners and others in Clark County kept that in mind when rebuilding.

“One main thing we’ve done differently -- most of the line fences were original fences, probably 85 years old,” Greg said. “The only way you could find them after the fire was seeing the wire on the ground stretched off into the distance.”

His grandfather homesteaded 160 acres outside of Ashland in 1885. As the ranch grew, most fences were built using hedge or creosote posts. After the fire, the Gardiner’s rebuilt many of those fences using metal “ring posts” and steel t-posts.

“There will be another fire -- heck, there was two this last week, one near Freedom, Oklahoma, and another south of Protection,” he said. “But hopefully when the next one comes, the metal fences will help it blow through and minimize as much damage as we can.”

Before the Starbuck fire, there was the Anderson Creek fire in Barber County. Anderson Creek remained the largest fire in state history for about one year before the Starbuck erupted in Northern Oklahoma and moved into Kansas.

Those in southern Kansas used the Anderson Creek fire as a learning experience and continued gaining information through the Starbuck fire.

“The hedge burnt,” Greg said. “But the creosote not so bad. So some replaced their hedge with creosote.”

The Gardiners went with metal posts because, at the time, they were only four dollars more per post over creosote.

“We got them on a deal in a ‘fire sale,’” Greg laughed.

With 4,100 miles of fence burnt in Clark County alone, and the estimated cost of replacement at more than $7,000 per mile using wood posts, Gardiner said folks had to do what they could to rebuild.

“People went back with what they saw fit, and what they could, for their operation,” Greg said. “The biggest thing that helps us -- our business and our family -- is that we’ve had tremendous teachers in our parents and grandparents. They gave us a roadmap and a plan for every day of our lives.”

Having a plan is what kept them moving. Greg said that is one of the most important things in the wake of disaster: having a plan.

“Once the fire started it was over for all of us. There was no stopping it; you had to just get out of the way,” he said. “But because of how we were taught, it didn’t paralyze us into inactivity. We had a plan and kept moving forward.”

Others in the area came with plans, too, and help from outside flooded in. The conference room in the Gardiner Angus Ranch marketing center became a meeting place for the Clark County task force, and the local Ashland Feed and Seed served as a drop off point for hay, feed, fencing supplies, cash and more coming in from around the nation.

“That morning of March 7, looking at the landscape of death and destruction, you just think ‘how can we rebuild what took generations to build the first time,’” Greg said. “But one of the beauties of this fire was the kindness of man.”

With assistance from around the nation and the work of those locally, Clark County estimates it is 94 percent rebuilt from fire destruction. They imagined the task would take two to three years.

Saving the genetic line

After the Gardiner family settled near Ashland, Henry Gardiner, Greg’s father, was born in 1931. He grew to love the Angus breed and dedicated his life to improving it. Henry began selective breeding for traits in the 1970s. He died Jan. 2015, but his sons have continued his work. They use the latest information on DNA and technology to continually improve the Angus genes.

Losing 600 head of cattle in the Starbuck fire threatened that genetic line. The family could have lost what took decades to create. However, most of the cows lost were “recipient cows,” which carry embryos taken from “donor cattle” that carry the desired genes.

“Our donor cows were captured in our facility, not out on pasture,” Greg said. “So most of what we lost were recipient cows.”

But the Gardiners also lost a round of calves scheduled to be born last fall.

“Two weeks after the fire, we were scheduled to take another round of embryos from our donors,” Greg said. “We were able to purchase some recipient cattle to use, and they’ll begin calving in the next couple weeks.

Henry Gardiner’s work continues -- with only a six-month gap.

Moving forward

Mark Gardiner’s home is not yet rebuilt. He is living in apartments above the marketing center. The Giles sisters in northern Clark County -- who lost about 30,000 acres and three houses -- are rebuilding. Kendal Kay, Ashland mayor and president of the local bank, supports regrowth with emergency, low-interest loans, and his father, Neil Kay, used his business, Ashland Feed and Seed, to gather resources.

Since the Starbuck wildfire, Clark County has continued to move forward.

Industry awards, passages about the family and even Henry Gardiner’s saddle cover the foyer of the Gardiner Angus Ranch marketing center -- all reminders of the decades through which they’ve seen triumph and hardships.

Now the fire is part of that history, as is the rebuild and recovery.

“For better or worse, the fire is part of our history now,” Greg said. “It’s part of us.”

Chance Hoener’s agriculture roots started on farms and ranches in Southeast Kansas. Now he covers Kansas agriculture as the Kansas Agland editor. Email him with news, photos and other information at choener@hutchnews.com or by calling (620) 694-5700, ext. 320.