On the morning of March 6, 2017, rancher Bernie Smith was in a hurry.
Smith and one of his sons were moving cattle from one wheat pasture to another along the Kansas-Oklahoma border. But the spring chore was happening on one of those days that keeps Smith, also the Englewood, Kansas, fire chief, on alert. The sprawling prairie hadn’t received moisture since an ice storm in January. The grass was dry. Wind gusts of up to 60 mph were expected along with 80-degree Fahrenheit temperatures—nearly 25 degrees above normal.
The humidity was low enough, he said in a serious tone, “you could even burn water.”
Smith, whose headquarters are two miles into Oklahoma near the town of Gate, had been watching the forecast. The day before, he had one of his volunteers start all the fire trucks at the station.
All it would take on a red flag day like this, he knew, was just a few sparks.
Little did he know, he would spend the next two sleepless days and nights fighting what would become not only Kansas’ largest wildfire but also the nation’s largest on private land in the past 50 years.
A year later, it’s hard not to go a day without a reminder of the Starbuck Fire, which burned more than 800,000 acres in Kansas and Oklahoma. Skeletons of trees are what remains of windbreaks. Some of the cows that survived on Smith’s own ranch still have burn scars.
“And, when you are out in the pastures and stir the dirt, you can smell the fire,” he said. “That’s very apparent to the people who went through it.”
But ranchers like Smith are moving forward.
“Life isn’t back to normal,” he said. “But we’ve reached a new normal.”
Nothing like this one
At age 73, Allen Barby has seen his share of wildfires.
“But nothing like this one,” he said as he drove his pickup along the Cimarron River in southern Clark County, Kansas.
Young calves ran in front of the pickup as he and his daughter, Kristen Carmen, 37, surveyed their Kansas pasture. New fence lines the perimeter.
Shortly after the fire, in mid-March, spring rains came and turned the charred area into a lush green blanket.
But Barby, a third-generation rancher from Laverne, Oklahoma, noted there hasn’t been measurable rain since the summer. When a wildfire was reported earlier this month near Freedom, Oklahoma, he grew uneasy.
“I thought ‘oh my God, there are people getting hurt again,’” Barby said.
Conditions this spring are ripe for another fire. Everyone is on edge, said Smith. When a fire broke out in late February in nearby Comanche County, several rural firefighters showed up to quickly put it out.
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“Everyone is set on go,” said Smith. “If there is smoke, people go to the firehouse—they don’t wait on a page.”
Smith and the volunteer crew of 17 Englewood-area rancher firefighters were just as prepared for a high-fire day on March 6, 2017.
“But that was an overwhelming fire,” Smith said. “On a normal day, if that was the only fire in the area, we would have had 30 trucks from the edge of Oklahoma helping us. But they were all working on their own fire.”
Kendal Kay, mayor in the Clark County seat of Ashland and president of the Stockgrowers State Bank, called Starbuck a 100-year fire. Like Barby, no one in their lifetime had ever experienced anything like it. And they hope it is generations down the road before it happens again.
More than 500,000 acres burned in Kansas, surpassing Barber County’s Anderson Creek Fire that set Kansas’ largest wildfire record in 2016. Starbuck hit Clark County the hardest, burning 80 to 85 percent of the 625,000-acre county, said Millie Fudge, emergency preparedness coordinator.
Between Kansas and Oklahoma, the Barby family had 12,000 acres of pasture burn. About 30 calves didn’t make it, along with a few of the cows. And daughter Carmen, nine months pregnant at the time and just a few days from giving birth, stayed at home, anxious as her father and her husband, Beau, were out battling the blaze.
The fire started mid-morning in Beaver County, Oklahoma. There was no way to stop it, said Clark County rancher Greg Gardiner, whose family had 43,000 acres burn.
The fire spread quickly into Kansas, burning across the southeast corner of Meade County, then into Clark County, which was the hardest hit. When Smith made it to Englewood, the trucks were gone. The rancher, from his pickup, began going from farmstead to farmstead, evacuating residents.
“We knew we were in trouble,” Smith said. “The fire was southwest of us and the wind was out of the southwest.”
The crew moved into structure protection mode. By 3 p.m. Smith and other firefighters were racing to the Gardiner Ranch.
The Gardiners have weathered a few storms in their 130 years in Clark County, including tough economic times, blizzards and drought. Through it all, brothers Greg, Mark and Garth, have grown Gardiner Angus Ranch into a 48,000-acre operation that includes top genetics and four production sales a year.
Nothing compares to March 6, 2017, Greg Gardiner said.
For 30 minutes, Greg thought he lost Mark and his wife, Eva, who were trying to save horses and their dogs at the couple’s ranch house, which would soon succumb to the flames.
Mark and Eva made it out just in time.
“God was with us, and He is still with us and He has done an amazing amount of things in our community,” Greg Gardiner said. “The fact we didn’t bury anyone—and when you start hearing all the stories in the aftermath, we could have buried easily 15 to 20 people.”
But not all were as lucky. One person died in Kansas—a truck driver. Another six died in Oklahoma and Texas.
Dozens of fires would end up breaking out on that March day. There were 20 in Kansas. In an area that stretched from Texas to Kansas, blazes burned more than a million acres.
Fudge said the fire destroyed 21 homes in Clark County, worth $1.28 million, along with 4,100 miles of fence, worth $41 million.
The most devastating loss was the cattle. Reports estimate 5,000 to 9,000 head died. Many ranchers, including the Gardiners, shot dozens of livestock for several days after the smoke cleared because they were too burned to survive.
“We probably shot cows for two weeks,” Smith said. “Some of those cows weren’t terrible the first day, but after the smoke got in them, they got worse.”
Smith had 136 cows and 65 calves that died. The family lost the home Smith’s father grew up in, along with a bunkhouse for hunters.
It’s been tough on everyone, he said, but no one has called it quits.
“My wife said what are we going to do,” Smith said. “And I said we are going to put our left foot in front of our right foot and keep moving.”
The new normal
“Normal is a setting on the dryer,” Mark Gardiner said.
Life isn’t the same. The shell of he and Eva’s burned out house still stands. They are looking at rebuilding later this spring. The family also lost 270 miles of fence, plus 600 head of cattle.
This is part of their history, Mark said, adding he and his brothers hold deep the virtues their father and mother, Henry and Nan, taught them.
Among them, said Mark, is how to move forward.
“We can’t bring those dead cattle back,” Greg said of monetary losses. “But we can make more cattle.”
Two days after the fire, they made a rebuilding plan, buying cattle to replace what they lost thanks to the support of Kay and the Stockgrowers State Bank. They located a recipient herd of 300 in Nebraska to transfer embryos.
Those cattle will calve in just a few weeks, Greg said.
It has meant taking on more debt, Mark said. But the family is fortunate to have product to sell.
Area ranchers wouldn’t have been able to go forward without the help of banking community, foundations, livestock associations and friends and customers, Mark said.
Meanwhile, volunteers poured in from everywhere to help rebuild fences. A community hay pile on the ranch sent from producers across the United States was just devoured last month.
“To see God’s hand in the deal, to reinforce our beliefs in humankind and the rest of the world, it is a pretty enlightening experience,” Greg said.
Rebirth continues at a fast pace. Ranchers have rebuilt homes. Ashland Mayor Kay said while they thought it would take several years to replace the fencing destroyed, by late February, 90 percent is completed.
On the Gardiner Ranch, crews finished fencing work by Christmas, which were built using pipe corners instead of wood posts, in preparation for the next fire.
“Lord have mercy, I hope we don’t see the next one,” Greg said, adding he has concerns with all the grass from the spring and summer moisture.
It’s drier than last year. According to the National Weather Service, it is the driest mid-October through mid-February on record since 1874.
The ranch hasn’t had a rain since late September, Greg said.
“People who live in this country have to be tough to weather all this stuff,” Barby said.
He drove by wheat pasture along the Cimarron River. He planted and fertilized it last fall. It never came up.
Drought is one issue. Coyotes are another. The fire killed small wildlife. But coyotes are prolific.
Barby showed a picture on his phone of a calf he found the day before. He’s lost two newborn calves to coyotes this year. Neighbors have lost some, too.
“We have an overabundance of coyotes with nothing to eat,” he said. “Where do you think they will get a hot meal? It’s the little back burger running around here.”
Yet, the family counts their blessings. Among them are the local fire departments and the help that came from across the country, including those bringing truckloads of hay.
On a hill in their pasture sits their yellow grader. Barby was on it when the fire rolled through southern Clark County on March 7. The previous day, he had been battling the blaze in Oklahoma.
“It was emotional,” his daughter Kristen Carmen said. “It was difficult to take it all in. But when the smoke cleared—everyone was OK.”
There is good that can come from a fire, she said. Fires get rid of brush and spurs new grass growth.
For Carmen, her husband Beau and their daughter Lucy, a new baby arrived in the middle of it all. Beau got home from fighting fires late March 7. Carmen was admitted to the hospital just five hours later.
Bodee Rein was born March 8, 2017.
“For us, it is a new calf crop, new fences and, for me, a new baby,” Carmen said.
Amy Bickel can be reached at [email protected].