The fires may still be blazing, but ranchers are paying it forward

Hay is one of the miracles seen in the Oklahoma fires

A year ago, Gate, Oklahoma, rancher Bernie Smith was on the receiving end for hay.

The Starbuck fire burned across his pastures, killing dozens of cattle.

Now, as flames still blaze on the Oklahoma prairie, he and other ranchers are paying it forward.

“That’s what we do to help them survive,” said Smith, who has been fighting the fires as the Englewood, Kansas, fire chief, since Friday, April 13. “We help our neighbor pay it forward.

“We might need help again, sooner or later,” he added.

Hay and other materials are already making their way down U.S. roadways to Oklahoma. Smith sent his own load and is helping coordinate three more loads from eastern Montana ranchers affected by wildfires last year.

“We took them hay, and now they are repaying the favor,” Smith said of an effort he helped lead with Ashland, Kansas, ranchers this past August.

Smith is coordinating hay deliveries with Lori White, who has a Red Angus ranch near Putnam, Oklahoma, with her husband, Benji.

White said they were in Montana picking up cattle when news of the fire reached them. Benji flew back to Oklahoma and White arrived with the cattle Sunday.

It was tough, she said. She saw pictures of the fire nearing their home as she drove back to the ranch. Her husband and friends began creating fire guards around farmsteads in the area. The wind kept changing directions, causing what had not been scorched the first time to burn. One neighbor battled fire three separate times. Their home was saved.

Friends helped move 300 of their cattle to wheat pasture.

“They pulled the cattle out of the gate on the south end while the flames were on the north end a half mile away,” White said.

Smith said while the acreage isn’t as large as the Starbuck fire, the conditions are just as bad. Homes and cattle have been lost, he said.

Smith said for volunteer firefighters, many of them ranchers who experienced Starbuck, the emotions from last year’s fires are resurfacing.

“It just brings back a lot of old feelings for the firefighters,” he said. “We have people calling for houses and there are no trucks to send.”

Smith said they have saved several homes. He added the canyon terrain and trees have made fighting the fire difficult.

“They have a lot of (firefighters) down there, but it is going to burn a while because of the cedar trees,” he said.

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White said about a third of her ranch’s pastures burned. Her husband and crew finally had a break Wednesday, getting home mid-afternoon from battling the Rhea fire.

She is helping where she is needed, including feeding firefighters and working at the command location. Earlier in the week, she assisted in rescuing a couple of volunteer firefighters whose truck had stalled in the smoke and then burned.

“Fighting fires is horrible,” she said, adding it is a good reminder that people need to support their local fire department.

Donations are coming, she said. 

On Thursday, she was coordinating some of Smith’s hay to area ranchers who need it.

Meanwhile, she remains hopeful about a 100 percent chance of rain Saturday, White said.

“We are all going to be mad at the weathermen if they are wrong,” she said.

There have been miracle stories, she said. One rancher who was sure he lost everything took his gun and bullets to the pasture.

“He was ready to start shooting cattle, and he got there and the cattle were standing there perfectly fine. They lost all their grass, but they didn’t lose any cattle.”

As she traveled home with the load of Montana cattle through Kansas Sunday, she recalled how a friend warned her about the destruction from the fires near her home.

“Prepare yourself,” she told White.

But as White came through Bucklin, she saw the new fences and grasses and how beautiful the area looked after being scorched from the March 2017 Starbuck fire.

“To someone who hasn’t seen the devastation here, they would never know what happened,” she said. “God showed me the outcome of how it will come to be before he showed me the devastation.”

Amy Bickel can be reached at 620-860-9433 or [email protected].