For the farmers, ranchers and firefighters who live in Barber and Comanche counties, the possibility of another “living, breathing fire monster” is never far from their minds.
When they crawl into their pickups and head to town, many look back in the rear-view mirrors for signs of smoke. Nearly eight months after the fire, it’s dry, windy and residents of these two south-central Kansas counties believe it could happen again.
In case you’ve forgotten, back in late March and early April, nearly 500,000 acres of pasture and farmland burned in these two south-central Kansas counties. Fires roared out of control for nearly three weeks whipped by 40-50 mph winds.
Crowns from the grass were burnt to the roots and ranchers believe it may take years before the grass returns to the potential to feed cattle 100 percent.
While the fire caused tremendous damage and killed livestock, the life-giving rains that fell shortly after rejuvenated the grass and destroyed cedar trees.
“The grass greened up good,” says Dennis Rickie, Comanche County, who runs cattle and fought the fires. “In July and August we received some rains we normally don’t get but in August the water shut off.”
Moisture conditions have continued to deteriorate and it’s dry as a bone in mid-November.
“As far as subsoil moisture – there isn’t any,” Rickie says. “I have to pour water in holes to drill fence posts. Four feet down, you can take an old hand post-hole digger and you can’t bring the dust out of the ground it’s so dry.”
Rickie figures he still needs to finish a couple miles of fence. Some of his neighbors aren’t as lucky and must fix several miles of burnt fence.
Since the fire moved through Barber and Comanche counties, most farmer stockmen are working double time – regular chores plus building fence and feeding stock. And while cattle continue to gain and do well, ranchers like Rickie supplement their early morning feeding with protein cubes.
In some of his pastures spared by the fire, the Barber County cattleman feeds momma cows 20 percent cubes every other day.
This time of year, the grass dries up, Rickie explains. On his short pastures, he’s feeding stock big round bales too.
“I’ve got to finish rebuilding fence so I can move ‘em on to grass that hasn’t been grazed yet since the fire,” he says. “I’m worried we’re not out of this drought yet.”
Driving the back roads of the counties with Rickie, I saw some dry ponds. Evidence of what Rickie is talking about.
While his family cattle operation cut back on cattle numbers because of drought the last several years, he believes a “guy still has to be leery about restocking his herd.”
As the veteran cattleman ponders what tomorrow’s weather will bring, his thoughts return to the monster fire and all the help he and his neighbors received.
“It’s sort of mind blowing,” Rickie says. “While we fought the fire – loads of hay arrived from folks who knew our cattle needed food. Rickie says it wasn’t unusual to see a dozen semis, stacked high with hay, sitting waiting to be unloaded at daybreak. Friends, family, neighbors and others from miles around helped fix fence.
Help came from Nebraska and throughout the Midwest, he says.
“The support we received is overwhelming,” Rickie says clearing his throat. “We couldn’t have done it without them. Thanks to all.”
John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.