Ranchers plagued by the Anderson Creek wildfire last week will soon see federal dollars for their losses.
Adrian Polansky, state director of the Farm Service Agency, admitted he had heard the stories of the damage from the wildfires that spread across 400,000 acres from Oklahoma into southern Kansas.
But it wasn't until he had his boots on the battleground that he truly understood the magnitude of losses.
"It is shocking," said Polansky, who toured Barber County on Tuesday with other state and federal officials. "To see burned areas that did not have a fence line - to see remnants of the fence is rather dramatic."
In a meeting facilitated by the Kansas Farm Bureau, he met with a group of 30-some county officials, firefighters and producers Tuesday afternoon. He told them of three programs through the agency available for livestock and hay losses, along with an emergency conservation program that would pay for fencing and some building structure losses.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback last week issued a state of disaster emergency. Polansky said now they are awaiting a federal disaster declaration from Washington, which also would allow producers to apply for emergency loans.
That should happen in a matter of days, he said. Another meeting is slated for 1 p.m. April 6 at the Heritage Center near Medicine Lodge to answer questions and go over federal assistance.
Just how much has been lost is still unknown, said Polansky. State and federal agencies and organizations are collaborating to get accurate totals of livestock lost, hay losses and the miles of fence that will need to be repaired.
One rancher estimated last week that the bill for fencing alone could be upwards of $6 million.
Ranchers are still looking for cattle and scouting their fences, said Polansky. Some producers cut fences in an effort to save cattle.
As losses become realized, producers can go to their local FSA office to begin paperwork on assistance programs, he said.
Among the FSA programs available:
The Emergency Conservation Program, or ECP, is a cost-share program that pays up to 75 percent of the actual cost of fence replacement. Signup ends May 26.
Meanwhile, the livestock indemnity program is available for producers who lose livestock due to weather, which could include blizzards and floods as well as wildfires.
LIP payments are equal to 75 percent of the market value of the applicable livestock.
In 2015, according to the FSA fact sheet, the program would have paid about $1,500 a head for a beef cow.
Producers must submit LIP applications by the earlier of two events: 30 calendar days of when the loss of livestock is apparent to the producer, or 90 calendar days after the end of the calendar year in which the loss of livestock occurred.
Also, the Emergency Assistance for Livestock Program will provide benefits in terms of pasture losses and other items, such as loss of hay, Polansky said.
The 2014 Farm Bill authorizes up to $20 million in assistance in a fiscal year to producers due to weather, Polansky said.
ELAP covers losses not covered under other disaster assistance programs authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill, such as LIP.
Meanwhile, a total $125,000 annual limitation applies for payments under the Livestock Indemnity Program and the ELAP program, according to FSA documents.
Polansky said ranchers already were signing up for programs when he was in Medicine Lodge on Tuesday.
He stressed that producers should document everything or have third-party confirmation, such as from a veterinarian.
"The main thing we were very much emphasizing at our offices and at the meetings we participated in, we do need documentation," he said. "Maybe ranchers were able to take pictures."
According to FSA, besides dated pictures and third-party verification, confirmation could include contemporaneous producer records existing at the time of the wildfire, and brand inspection records.
Documentation also must be provided regarding feed losses. Producers could take pictures of the burned feed source or provide receipts of purchase, Polansky said.
While there is going to be some federal assistance, that aid has payment limitations. Also, some programs, such as LIP, don't cover the entire loss.
"Donations are still needed," said Polansky. "With the programs we have to offer - and even though it is significant and extremely helpful - donations for labor, materials or dollars that can be focused on the needs of the area" are still necessary, he said.
"There is no way people are going to end up whole out of this process," he said, noting the millions of dollars in losses that are still being tabulated.
"Ranchers lost genetics - years and generations of improving their herd," Polansky said. "The losses here are huge in terms of dollars and cents and huge in other ways."
The stories he heard from ranchers - and even the local FSA director who helped fight the fires - were eye-opening, he said.
"It is just a frightening emotional experience to go through something like this - with the waves of flames and the effort that went into fighting it," Polansky said, adding, "It is challenging to look through the ashes and know what to do next."
He said it was tough to hear the stories from producers of the animals that died, the ones that had to be put down because they were burned so badly, and the unknown herd health issues that could surface in coming weeks from breathing in the smoke and ash.
"From an emotional standpoint, that was what tugged me the most," he said - plus the "visual: looking at mile after mile after mile of everything being totally burned, fencing being totally gone."