MEDICINE LODGE - Peering in the distance, Jim Cooper watched as a plume of smoke began to rise from the southern horizon.
“There she just blew up again,” he said.
The 70-year-old area farmer had gotten only seven hours of sleep since Tuesday, helping his friends fight a wildfire that was threatening their pastures and their homes. He stood outside his pickup at the Alexander Ranch on Thursday afternoon, prepared to help again.
In the Gyp Hills of Kansas, where the rolling red buttes are most suitable for grazing, there have been wildfires over the years, he said. There was even a memorable wildfire that rolled through Barber County in 2008.
This one, however, was different.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. “And others I have talked to have never seen anything like this, either.”
Nearly 400,000 acres of charred land stretched from Oklahoma into Comanche and Barber counties. It burned trees and electric polls. It burned miles of wood fence posts. At least two homes were destroyed - if not more - and it burned several farmstead outbuildings.
On Thursday night, the fire, which had started about noon Tuesday in Woods County, Oklahoma, was still burning.
Forest Service spokeswoman Darcy Golliher said the fire line was “being maintained,” but it was only about 15 percent contained.
Land in the fire’s destructive path included Ted Turner’s 38,000-acre Z Bar Ranch, which raises buffalo and lost the home of caretakers Keith and Eva Yearout.
Ranchers have also lost cattle.
Cooper likened the wildfire to the prairie fires of the late 1880s.
“That is how Mother Nature cleansed the prairie some 100 to 150 years ago,” he said.
Comparable to western wildfires
Shawna Hartman, public information officer with the Kansas Forestry Service, said the fire was a Type 1 wildfire – the most intense rating – containing the same complexity as forest fires more common to the western United States.
She said it was the biggest wildfire in Kansas in at least recent history.
The burned area surrounded Medicine Lodge on the north, west and south.
Firefighters were working south of town on Thursday. Sitting in his truck on a dirt road, Len Bell and a friend watched the smoke in the distance. His farm is between Medicine Lodge and Kiowa. He moved his horses to wheat pasture as a precaution.
“I’m making sure it doesn’t get to me,” he said.
Gaten Wood, Barber County Attorney, said during a press briefing Thursday morning that many firefighters from other counties had come to help, but he wasn’t sure how many.
Also, said Hartman, at least 30 Hutchinson Community College fire science students assisted in fire containment efforts, each one working with an experienced firefighter. The students had planned to assist with controlled burns near Cottonwood Hills and Sandhills State Park, but high winds prevented the exercise and instead created a real-world training opportunity.
“It was the perfect storm,” she said of the high winds that gusted to 40-plus mph, the low humidity and the higher temperatures.
Gaten said several firefighters were taken to a local hospital where they were treated for smoke inhalation or exhaustion. All were later released.
Two or three rural bridges burned in the blaze, said Larry Conner, a Barber County employee who was working on putting pipes down at one of the burned-up bridges to help with water flow. He hadn’t slept since Tuesday night, he said, noting he spent the hours runnign a dozer creating firebreaks and roadways for fire trucks.
A fire was smoldering in the nearby creek, but Conner wasn’t worried as he gestured to the black landscape.
“At this point, there is nothing left for it to burn,” he said.
Looking for rain
Teri Bugbee watched from her neighbor’s pickup Thursday morning as a cold wind blew dust from the newly burned pastures surrounding her house along Twin Peaks Road.
Bugbee’s husband, Rex, a pickup man for rodeo companies, wasn’t home. Friend Richard Houlton, a local farmer, helped her water down the home and move three of their horses as the billowing fire neared.
She tried to come back to the residence around 5 p.m. and firefighters told her it wasn’t safe.
By 10 p.m. her home was safe, with the charred ground reaching within 10 to 15 yards of the house.
“The firefighters saved the day,” Bugbee said of the blessing.
But as she watched the blowing dust left by the fire and continued high winds, “Right now, we’re just praying for rain.”
Assessing the damage
After surveying his fences, rancher Brian Alexander estimated $5 million to $6 million worth of fencing across the entire wildfire area was destroyed.
Alexander spent all night Tuesday into Wednesday morning fighting the blaze, keeping it from taking over the ranch headquarters where his father, Ted, lives. Still, he said, as he stood at the headquarters Thursday afternoon, almost 100 percent of his pastures are burned.
Ted Alexander noted it is a telling reminder why prescribed burning in the Gyp Hills is important, working to kill the red cedars that have overtaken the pastures. The cedars create a hot fuel load as well as suck up gallons of water and choke out pasture grasses.
He was one of the first in the area to burn his pastures to control cedars, beginning in 1984, he said.
But now, said Brian Alexander, the family’s entire burning plan for the next six years is complete.
“Nobody has ever seen anything like this,” he said. “It’s the worst wildfire we have had in this place of the world since anyone has kept records.”
But as the fire burns out, said Brian Alexander, he and his neighbors need help.
They need labor to rebuild fence. One friend lost a season or two of hay.
Moreover, he said, he needs rain.
With rain, the pastures will be reborn – the green grass growing again.
But it’s dry. The pastures are blowing. His income comes from managing cattle herds for ranchers across the state each summer. He hopes to have enough grass to at least feed 250 head, keeping the relationship with a long-term rancher in Larned.
This area doesn’t just need any rain, said Cooper:
“We need a good soaking rain over three or four days.”
Related: Relief Effort Under Way To Help Ranchers Affected by Wildfire