LAKE CITY – On Dave and Patty Johnson’s charred open range, the cattle are hungry.
But help has come.
On this day, it’s Nick Minks of Stafford, who hauled in 34 round bales of hay from Ellsworth County ranchers, including his in-laws.
“People are doing exactly what you’d expect,” Minks, who works for Kanza Co-op, said of the rural Kansas mentality, adding it is his second trip in two days. “Everyone wants to help out in some way.”
The Gyp Hills prairie, whose rolling red grasses rise and fall across the southern Kansas horizon, was singed down to the bare earth. What is being called the worst wildfire in the past century burned nearly 400,000 acres – killing cattle, damaging fences and even destroying a few homes in its wake.
The aftermath, in fact, is visible on Deerhead Ranch. The bunkhouse burned, as well as a shed with the Johnsons’ truck and Jeep. David Johnson said his supply of hay – which was to last him all spring – is gone, too.
You can see the scorched hair on some of the cattle, which walk tenderfooted across the black ground, waiting for food. Meanwhile, about 50 cows and countless calves didn’t make it out of the fire’s way.
But just hours after the fire burned almost all his 9,000 acres of pasture and nearly took his home Wednesday, David Johnson’s phone was ringing. Trucks began showing up with hay. Friends stopped by to see how they could help.
As Minks’ truck pulled up Monday morning on Deerhead Ranch, the Johnsons’ daughter Lori could only smile, noting that farmers and ranchers are generous people.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “What an awesome community we live in.”
The Kansas way
In Barber County, there are more cattle than people. Chris Boyd, whose farm operation is on the Barber/Pratt county line, began lining up ways to feed the masses.
The news of the efforts spread in just a few hours. Boyd began getting calls Thursday afternoon, and by evening trucks were funneling into Barber County, loaded with hay.
It’s not surprising, though, he admitted. It’s just what folks do.
Boyd called it a bright spot amid the ashes. It has brought out the good in people. Neighbors are helping neighbors, competitors are becoming friends.
“It has been really remarkable, the outpouring,” Boyd said. “I was in tears to hear their stories of what they did. They dropped everything and got on the road to deliver hay.
“You can really see the big hearts of people,” Boyd said.
For now, the county has enough short-term hay supply, which was met by Friday, Boyd said. But he is still getting calls, including from as far away as North Carolina, where one farmer offered to ship 10 bales of hay.
Other efforts are occurring across the state. Near Goessel, farmer Matthew Voth began contacting fellow farmers on the various boards he serves, starting a Marion County drive for fence posts, barbed wire, calf starter and mineral, which he plans to haul to Medicine Lodge on Wednesday.
“We’re just doing the right thing,” he said, adding his family was on the receiving end in 1990, when the Hesston tornado leveled his grandparents’ farmhouse and killed his grandmother.
At the Merrill Ranch in Comanche County, ranch managers “Dee” and Phyllis Scherich found a group of volunteers at their doorstep this past weekend, ready to help build the ranch’s lost fence.
It will take weeks to repair and replace all 80 miles, said Dee, who noted that the group got about 5 miles completed over the weekend.
Here at the remote ranch, the help was a blessing, said Phyllis, who added the ranch has received several loads of hay as well.
“It’s just amazing how generous people have been,” she said as they sat at their dinner table, the burned prairie visible from the sliding glass door. “People are wanting to help where they can.”
The fires are still burning. Barber County Attorney Gaten Wood said in a release Monday that the fire, which started last Tuesday in Woods County, Oklahoma, is 81 percent contained. In all, nine structures have been destroyed.
For now, cattle losses are still being counted. Ranchers, including David and Patty Johnson, are surveying the charred prairie, looking for tracks in the ash as they search for missing calves.
David took the Deerhead firetruck to Oklahoma last Tuesday, fighting the fires there throughout the night. By Wednesday, he drove the firetruck to Sun City to help with the fires that were spreading there. At that time, crews didn’t think the fire would hit his ranch.
Things drastically changed, Patty said. Neighbors came and began disking around her home, as well as their daughter’s nearby home. They cut fences to let cattle into a neighboring pasture.
“They saved both homes,” said Patty, adding they weren’t able to save the Jeep she and David had bought shortly after they married in 1972.
“It’s not the Jeep,” she said, noting it can be replaced. “It’s just the memories” of the picnics and family outings they had with it.
On the night when the fires were finally contained and Patty fell into bed as daylight began to break, she couldn’t help but be thankful for a bed.
“There are little things you take for granted,” she said, mentioning the happy feeling she had as she drifted off to sleep, “just to know our bed was still there.”
Other blessings were more vivid, including the Easter snow that covered the ranch, said David. It knocked down the blowing ash and dust. But there are still concerns in coming weeks involving the stress the county’s cattle endured, including breathing the smoke into their lungs, which could lead to pneumonia.
It could mean more losses, David said. He has insurance on 27 of his 350 cows.
“We could still lose cattle,” he said.
Thankfully, he said, ranchers have responded. They don’t have to worry about how they are going to feed their cattle that remain after the fire burned up almost all the ranch’s grass and hay supply.
The Johnsons’ daughter Cindy Grady came from the Missouri ranch belonging to her and her husband to help her parents and her sister, Lori. Grady hauled donated hay to pastures throughout the morning, answering the call of the bawling cattle.
“I think they are happy for their meal,” she said with a smile, later adding the family is grateful for the hay. “It’s quite a deal for people to do this.”