I know the feeling of watching the sky turn black, the acrid smell, seeing the smoke blanket the landscape and wondering why?
Those farmers and ranchers who continue to pick up the pieces of their broken lives know the feeling. They lived to tell about the wildfires that exploded March 6 and swept through an estimated 1.5 million acres in Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas. For them, the recovery has just begun.
“A lot of people say it looks like Mars — desolate,” according to veteran farmer and stockman Jim Harden, Clark County. “I’ve never been to Mars, but I can tell you this countryside is barren — completely burnt up as far as the eye can see.”
The only real color in this south-central Kansas county — other than black — is the green wheat fields. Because of the dry weather, they don’t look too green either.
“What we really need now is a slow, soaking rain of about 2 inches throughout a two-day period,” Harden says. “Heck, I’d even take a nice snow if it would lay flat and not blow off.”
Winds clocked at 76 mph fueled the grass fires that destroyed more than 461,000 acres in Clark County. Dozens of farm and ranch families lost their homes, out buildings and livestock. Countless wildlife fell prey to the fiery devastation, including dead and severely injured deer, coyotes and jackrabbits.
Harden, who farms with his brothers, consider themselves extremely fortunate. Their losses were small. A few head of stocker cattle, approximately 750 acres of grass, 10 miles of fence and the equipment they tore up fighting the fires and helping hard-hit neighbors.
Once local firemen and volunteers contained the fires, help began pouring in. Truckloads of hay arrive daily, along with fencing supplies. Fence-building crews are beginning to tackle the task of replacing miles and miles of damaged posts and wire.
Harden says a group of FFA youngsters from St. Francis helped clean up his burned-out fence posts.
“If we can get the fences rebuilt, that will make a big difference,” the Clark County stockman says. “I’m hopeful many of us will weather this tragedy.”
The outpouring of those wanting to help has been overwhelming. Friends helping friends. Neighbors helping neighbors. Everyone in the community and from across the country pitching in.
“It’s this kind of spirit and selflessness that convinces me Clark County and this region of our state will recover,” Harden says. “We appreciate all the help we’ve received.
While Harden doesn’t know if there will be federal money to help the firefighters, he encourages those who wish to donate to the fire relief effort consider contributions to rural fire departments in the burned region.
“Our firefighters need good, reliable equipment and training to continue battling wildfires,” Harden says. “We’ll need them to fight fires in the future. Believe me, this isn’t the last fire out here.”
Various programs are available to help those recovering from the devastating fires. Farmers and ranchers should contact their local service centers for more details.
For those who wish to donate money, Kansas Farm Bureau encourages people to contact the Kansas Livestock Association at (785) 273-5115. Checks can be mailed to the Kansas Livestock Foundation at 6031 S.W. 37th St., Topeka, KS 66614. “Fire relief fund” should be written in the memo line.
Cash donations can be made through the Kansas Livestock Foundation, KLA’s charitable arm, by going to www.kla.org/donationform.aspx.
Those who were affected by the fires are encouraged to seek help online at www.kfb.org/firerelief.
John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwest Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.