The last thing Greg Gardiner saw before everything went black was his brother Mark heading to the horse barn.
Fire and smoke was spreading through Clark County from the southwest Monday afternoon. By 3 p.m., the ranch was in the war zone. An orange firewall was heading toward his brother’s home as Greg pulled up with a truck and trailer to help save three horses.
“I knew it was too late,” Greg said.
As he rolled in with his truck, he could feel the intense heat inside the cab as the head fire approached – winds reaching 60 to 80 mph. Mark’s wife, Eva, headed to the house for the family’s two dogs while Mark started for the horse barn.
Then Greg lost them in the darkness from the smoke and dirt. His own vision was clouded by it. The seriousness of the situation hit. If he didn’t get out of there – he might not make it out alive.
With the compass in his head telling him where he was, he fled. He began to try to drive out of the fire – through the flying embers and passing by the small pockets of flames. A shelter belt exploded as he was leaving.
His guilt was growing. He had left Mark and Eva behind.
“When I got out, the fireman thought I was the last man out,” Greg said. But he yelled through the noise of cracking flames.
“They are still down there. Mark and Eva – they are still down there.”
For 30 minutes, as he and others congregated in the safety of a green wheat field, he agonized. His brother is his best friend – the family leader. He couldn’t run the ranch without him.
“For a half hour, I thought I’d be going back to see their charred bodies in the yard,” Greg said, tears flowing at the thought of it. “The rest of this is nothing. I can’t go forward without Mark.”
Then, just out of the dark, in the smoke and fire, a fireman appeared, taking off his mask.
“It’s all clear,” the man said into his radio. “They all made it out.”
Clark County tradition
It’s day four of the Clark County fires – which burned about two-thirds of the 625,000-acre county that rests along the Oklahoma border.
Greg Gardiner pulled up from the pastures – a single-action Colt Peacemaker in one hand. He had been shooting burned cattle for the past two days. A dead pit already has been dug just to the north of Mark’s burned-out house.
“It’s grizzly out there,” he said as he stepped into the family’s purple shed. “It’s like a battlefield.”
He figures there are at least 500 head of dead cattle scattered on the 40,000 acres of prairie that burned. His brother Mark was flying a drone across their ranch to document the dead for insurance purposes.
This is their livelihood out there, Greg said. He and his brothers Mark and Garth are recognized national leaders in the Angus genetics business.
It’s also their heritage. The Gardiner family has been making a living on the southwestern Kansas landscape since 1885 when Henry Clay Gardiner traveled with his family by covered wagon to the newly organized town of Ashland, making a home in a dugout on their 160-acre homestead. A son, Ralph, was born in 1889.
The brothers’ father, Henry, was born in 1931. While Ralph had a few head of cattle, Henry loved Angus cattle and dedicated his life to perfecting the breed. It started with his home-raised Angus steer he showed at the Kansas State Fair.
Henry was revolutionary when it came to leading the way in the Angus industry. In the 1970s, he began selecting traits based on merits in an effort to provide the best seedstock to his customers. Henry died in January 2015, but his passion for breeding the best beef product continues on with his sons, who are using the latest technology and DNA testing to develop high-quality beef.
The brothers – and now with the help of their children – have grown Gardiner Angus Ranch into a 48,000-acre operation that includes three production sales a year – the latest scheduled for April 1. While Greg is the oldest, he credits his middle brother, Mark, for taking the ranch to the next level, calling him the ranch’s genetic genius.
While Native Americans used fire to burn the grasslands to attract buffalo, the brothers’ ancestors never experienced a fire like this one.
“I never thought I’d see this ranch burn – totally burn – from one end to the other,” Greg said. “All the grass, all the fences, are gone.”
The conditions were right for a wildfire. After a lengthy drought, rain began to fall in the area over the past two years. The good moisture meant good, thick grass.
The fire burned the grass to the sand, which is now blowing, gathering like snow against the feed bunks. It’s blowing enough it has partially buried the baby calves that succumbed to the fire.
Friends have offered to move cattle to their uncharred pastures. But the brothers’ answer to these offers is evident as Greg drives through the ranch – surveying the damages.
“There is nothing to move,” he said. “They’re dead.”
Every so often, another gunshot ripples through the horizon.
“There goes another one down,” said Greg.
Dealing with the dead is all that has been going on the past two days since the fires ceased. Greg has taken the brunt of the trigger pulling so the hired hands – some still in shock – won’t have to do it.
But as they scour the pastures, hired hand Eric Campbell came across a cow burned from the fire and possibly blind in one eye but moving around. He called Greg for guidance – not wanting to make a fatal decision if he didn’t have to.
Hold off for now, said Greg.
“I know this is a bad question – but do you have enough ammo?” Campbell asked Greg, who told him he is stocked up on 44-40 shells.
“I know it is a terrible job, if you get tired of shooting them, just call me,” Campbell added.
There are some cattle that might survive, said Greg. Those they bring to pens at the ranch headquarters so they can monitor them. Meanwhile, most of the cattle that were ready for the family’s April seedstock sale are all safe – placed in the pens near the family’s sale barn.
But those that survived the fire are few – the future production cycle that will put a hole in the Gardiner system in 2019. Greg pointed to a nearby pen of cattle.
“They gathered these off the Cimarron River the past two days,” he said. “They came out of a group of 300. There might be 20 left.”
Greg stopped the pickup near a fence where several head of dead bloated cattle appeared to try to get out of the fire’s way. However, it was apparent that even those that broke through the fence didn’t have anywhere to go.
Not far away a deer roams slowly across the scorched pasture – unaware anyone is watching.
“It’s blind,” Greg said.
He crossed the Cimarron River, just 3 miles from the Oklahoma state line.
“We shot these cattle yesterday,” he said as he pointed to a few dead cows in the river bed. “There is more underneath the bridge. Up and down the river, that is what we are finding.”
They had 5,000 round bales of hay scattered around the ranch – just to protect it from such a disaster. Nothing remains.
There are fences to repair. There could be federal assistance for fences and cattle – but with a funding cap, those programs don’t come near to covering the losses, which are in the millions.
“We can’t wait on government assistance, we have to go ahead and rebuild,” he said.
But there are success stories, he said as he drove down a road that borders the ranch.
“There were guys standing here that put the fire out here by hand with gunny sacks,” Greg said. “They were trying to keep it away from this house over here where our interns live. During the night – they held this.”
The fire also killed the invasive salt cedar, which lined the creeks and sucked up 300 to 500 gallons of water a day.
And the outpouring of help is a blessing, he said of the joy of seeing the cattle trucks with donated hay coming down the highway – the cavalry, as he calls it. Moreover, there are signs of rebirth – even just days after the fire. Green grass is budding up above the sand. He knows how other wildfire areas have come back lush with rain. He prays for a shower.
”The fire is pretty cleansing and it reveals a lot,” Greg said. “It reveals not only the land but your raw emotions. It also reveals the goodness of people and mankind.”
One miracle happened Tuesday, when another round of fires blew through.
Greg saw a wall of smoke and the neighbor’s steers pouring out of the smoke near the ranch.
“They saw me over on the road,” he said. “I honked my horn at the steers and they knew someone might feed them. So they came out of the smoke to me and I was able to open a gate right across the road. There was another open gate and I was able to drag them out across to another wheat pasture where they started grazing.”
Then he broke down.
“It was so nice to be able to save something,” he said.
Counting their blessings
Mark Gardiner, who was counting dead cattle on Thursday, said people have been amazing – calling, texting and offering to help.
For a cowboy like Mark, it’s tough to take a handout.
“We’re not good at accepting help,” he said. “But I told everyone we are going to have to and people have been pretty amazing. Thank you is all we can say.”
He and his wife lost their home. They lost their two dogs. But they still have their family, he said.
“The house is the lowest thing that matters,” he said. “It is just a building. We can replace that.
“We have our memories there. We have our family,” Mark said. “Nobody got hurt. That is what matters.”
It is how they all felt as they watched the house burn that night after the fires moved through – Mark, Eva and Greg.
“We stood there as a family and watched his house burn to the ground,” Greg said. “And for us, it didn’t mean anything because Mark and Eva are alive. And we were all three there together.”
Greg pulled into the same wheat field where he had taken refuge Monday – that wheat field where he waited for the news of Mark and Eva.
For two days, he felt the guilt of it all.
”I always tried to conduct myself to ride toward the sound of the guns and go to battle and if the fight is there the fight is there,” he said. “I felt so ashamed that I abandoned them – that I turned and I ran.”
Then God sent a good friend to visit him on Wednesday, he said.
”’God is the one that got you out of the way so Mark and Eva could get through,” his friend told him.
Greg had found out later that Eva, who couldn’t rouse the dogs, left right after him. She eventually found the wheat field, not knowing where her husband was. Mark never made it to the barn, instead turning back to the house – trying to coax the dogs out, but they wouldn’t come. When Mark realized through the smoke that Eva and Greg’s vehicles were gone, he left too – just in time.
A few hours later, Greg and Mark finally connected – Mark was back by his house, spraying down the barn, which, along with the horses, survived.
”Because of my self preservation that kicked in and God’s help, I know that is truly what He was doing – to get me out of the road so they could come out,” Greg said. Otherwise, “They wouldn’t have seen the truck, the truck would have blocked the exit, and we would have all died there.”
A weight has been lifted off his shoulders, he said.
It is heartbreaking to see the land burned, the cattle dead they had nurtured and his brother’s house destroyed.
“But everything you’ve seen today is piddling,” he said. “With Mark and Eva being alive, everything else is inconsequential.”
“He is my very best friend in life,” Greg said of Mark. “I can’t lose him. Until it is our time to walk away from it, I can’t do this without him.”