Ashes to Ashes convoy pays it forward

Ol’ Blue is a survivor. A wildfire survivor. And now it’s being used to repay the favor.

The rebuilt Peterbilt truck survived the 2017 Starbuck fire in Clark County, Kansas, and recently returned from a 500-mile trip delivering hay to farmers and ranchers in need following the devastating floods in Nebraska.

Bernie Smith, Gate, Oklahoma, rancher and volunteer fire chief at Englewood, Kansas, owns the truck. Smith and a group of volunteers called Ashes to Ashes were part of a truck convoy carrying donated hay and supplies to Verdigre, Nebraska, March 30 and 31.

Being able to use Ol’ Blue on this trip was nothing short of a miracle. During the Starbuck fire the truck was out of commission waiting on a new clutch. It sat out the fire inside Smith’s farm shop.

“The fire came through and burnt a lot of stuff in the shop and melted all the lights on the truck. It melted the dash and melted pretty much everything plastic,” Smith said. “I didn’t think that we would be able to get it up and running again.”

But with the help of his son and a niece’s husband, they went through the truck and got it back to working order. It was able to deliver hay to those in need in Oklahoma in 2018 and now it’s been to Nebraska. The blue Peterbilt will make another trip north at the end of April, Smith said. The truck is definitely a survivor.

“It is, you know, and I think we give those people hope,” Smith said. “Because we’ve been through it. Not a flood, but a fire. Each has its own good and bad. But it does show them that there is a tomorrow.”


Strength in numbers

The Ashes to Ashes group got its start in 2017 after the Starbuck fire, when Smith, along with many others, wanted to pay back the help they’d been given in their time of need. The non-profit group consists of ranchers, farmers, volunteer firefighters and truckers helping others in need.

“We received a lot of help and feed, hay, fencing from all over America,” Smith said about his own experience following the Starbuck fire, where his own place suffered losses because of the wildfire.

During the summer of 2017, the group took hay to those dealing with the Lodgepole fires in Montana, and last year with the fires in northwest Oklahoma. Now they’ve completed their first trip to Nebraska.

“When they had the flooding, we got requests to bring hay up there,” Smith said. “This is the largest group we’ve taken. We had eight semis and two pickups.”

The convoy consisted of Smith and his boys Levi and Blake, Steve Hazen, John Ellexon, Raymond Winkler, Christian Merriman, Mark Berends, Stan Hazen and Shawn Classen. Photographer Denise Clecker went along to document the trip. A few others rode along as well, including Brenda Winkler and Michelle Mayers.

For Smith, doing something like this was important to him.

“The satisfaction is paying it forward,” he said. “After we got help in our fire—because these people, they truly do need a lot of help.”

Seeing the devastation with his own two eyes, he believes they’re going to need a lot of help in the months, weeks and years to come. He knows how hard of a process it is to recover from a disaster.

“We could see they have a big need for fencing and hay, and we’ve actually got about 13 loads lined up to go back about the end of April,” Smith said.

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What they do

Ashes to Ashes is a volunteer group, with three board members. Smith, his son, Levi, and Steve Hazen sit on the board.

According to their Facebook page, the group discusses situations among members of when and where a delivery will be made when a disaster strikes.

“We carefully research the area we’re going and then discuss it amongst ourselves and then decide where we go, subject to change at any time during our trip,” Smith wrote.

Before going to Nebraska, Smith and others secured donated hay and supplies and lined up trucking. There was no shortage of supplies and they had zero trouble getting stuff donated. He’s been on the phone since before their last trip and after gathering donations and scheduling.

“We haven’t had a problem,” Smith said. “With the donations it seemed like when they find out how much you got—they’ve been great.”

Smith didn’t have a bale count, but they took eight semi loads this first trip and have nearly 15 more to go up later.

“Each time we go there’s more people want to go,” he said

And with the kind of people they’ve encountered in Nebraska, it’s hard to not want to go.

“People in Nebraska are great,” Smith said. “They are very appreciative of what we are doing.”

The first town on the route in Nebraska, Franklin, heard of the convoy coming through and essentially “shut the town down.” The fire department brought sack lunches to the Ashes to Ashes crew so they could keep on trucking.

“They knew we were needing to go on because we were trying to make Grand Island before dark with them wide loads,” he said. “We didn’t much more than just kind of slow down and roll through town and the firemen delivered us sandwiches and drinks and dessert.”

Smith called the goose bump-worthy encounter of the townspeople lining the streets of Franklin a “pretty neat thing.”

“There wasn’t a dry eye when we got through town,” Smith said.

Shocking to see

Smith was shocked at the devastation in Nebraska.

“It just kind of devastated the river areas,” Smith said.

From conversations with the people in Nebraska, Smith was told the frozen ground prevented 2 inches of rain and 12 inches of snow from going in the soil

“It all ran off and into the river, in the ponds and creeks and flooded,” Smith said.

And they only saw a portion of it, as they were on the western edge of the flooding damage.

Smith was surprised at the amount of ice still left in Nebraska. Verdigre is south of the Missouri River where several creeks and rivers all come together.

“There’s chunks of ice that are 4- to 6-inches or more thick and as big as a pickup, all mixed in with tree limbs and debris and it’s probably a mile wide,” Smith said. “We never did see the end of it. Goes on forever. It’s going to take a long time to clean it up.”

Those in the flood zone are still in the early stages of recovery, and trying to get organized.

“They’re doing a great job of it, but, after our fire, I can tell you it takes time to figure out what the next step is,” he said. “We just keep moving forward. Just one day at a time.”

Still work to do

Smith said before their trip they put out a call for donations on their Facebook page. This trip they had enough funds to cover fuel and expenses.

“We had so much food sent with us to eat, we didn’t have to really buy anything,” he said. “But it’s great for the people. We’ve had donations from Arizona, from New Jersey and from Tennessee. And then all our local donations.”

Smith and his crew are very appreciative of all that’s been given so far. They’re in the process of setting up a 501(c)3 so contributions can be tax deductible. That’s going to take some time.

“I’d like to thank all the donors,” Smith said. “The people that give the hay and people that give us money to buy fuel. The truck drivers and everybody that makes this thing work because it truly is a team effort. Our team changes every time we go it seems like.”

They’ve had hay donated from Dodge City, Kansas, and as far south to Oklahoma City. Some of the people they helped in Jordan, Montana, helped with hay donations the following year as well.

“It is a team effort from the whole community,” Smith said. “So I think as time goes on it will get a lot bigger because people that had it happen, the next time there’s a disaster they want to help.”

Smith remains in contact with people who helped them following the Starbuck fire from Michigan and Ohio.

“We all work together as a group trying to spread the hay around that we take into these areas and it’s just a volunteer network,” Smith said. “We don’t wait on the government. We don’t. When there’s a need we go to Facebook and find out some contacts. So far it’s worked real well.”

For more information about Ashes to Ashes, visit their Facebook page at

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].