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Southwestern Ranchers Start Anew Four Months After Devastating Wildfires

The once devastating scenes look much brighter.

Four months ago, things looked grim in western Oklahoma and Kansas as wildfires chewed up almost 1 million acres of land, taking human lives, killing livestock, and burning down fenceposts that had stood for generations.

Thanks to the helping hand of the agriculture community and some timely rains, things are returning to normal in this corner of the world where winter wheat farms and sprawling cattle ranches rule the landscape.

“We had very good rains in April and May, and a lot of land is covered again with the grass growing back,” said Tom Fanning, the manager of Buffalo Feeders, a 30,000-head cattle feedlot in northwestern Oklahoma. “I’d say we’re about 50% to 70% (back to normal), depending on the size of the ranch. A lot of fence is still being replaced – ranchers will be working on those fences for the next year.”

Three wildfires that were part of the so-called Northwest Oklahoma Complex fires were the main culprits in March that led to almost 1 million acres being burned in parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas.

The Starbuck Fire was by far the largest, burning 662,687 acres, while the 283 Fire took 69,395 acres, according to the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. The Selman Fire burned 47,289 acres.  

Conditions in March were ripe for wildfires thanks to a combination of hot weather, low humidity, and gusty winds throughout parts of southwestern Kansas and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles.

Long-dead grasses also provide kindling for the fires, which swept across the three states, killing at least seven people and thousands of head of livestock and burning thousands of miles of fences.

Strong winds, at the time, reportedly carried the flames at speeds up to 70 mph.

The scene in March was devastating with homes and farm structures burned, grasslands charred black, and the carcasses of livestock that couldn’t escape the fast-moving inferno, Fanning said.

In Oklahoma, there were 924 reported wildfires between January 1 and March 29. About 3,000 head of cattle, 6,500 hogs and 1,400 miles of fence were destroyed, the department said.

In Kansas, the Starbuck Fire destroyed about 400,000 acres of farmland, the Kansas Department of Agriculture reported. As many as 8,000 animals were killed as about 20% of the state’s counties were affected.

In Texas, about 500,000 acres were burned. The state Animal Health Commission’s Region 1 office reported at the time that 2,500 cattle, 1,900 swine, and an untold amount of wildlife were lost.

Today it’s a much brighter picture after clean-up efforts and the rains in April and May, Fanning said.

“I just drove through the area this afternoon that I hadn’t been through since back in April – I had pictures on my phone of dead cattle and burned houses, and you wouldn’t know they were there,” he said.

And while the rains were “significant” right after the wildfires raged, the grass came back quickly enough on the sandy soils to prevent erosion.

Fanning and Lane Broadbent, the president of KIS Futures in Oklahoma City, both said that while the fires were devastating, they took out many of the dead trees and much of the scrub brush, which is good for the land and will in the long run help grasslands thrive.

“If you get up into northwestern Oklahoma and the Flint Hills in southwestern Kansas, they burn their grass every year,” Broadbent said. “The old grass is dead and gone and out of the way. This was happening for 1,000 years before we got here – lightning would strike in Texas, and it’d burn all the way up to Nebraska.”

The most time-consuming and expensive problem with the recovery, he said, is replacing the thousands of miles of fenceline that was destroyed in the fire.

Helping mitigate losses from the fires, however, was the help of the ag community nationwide. Producers, companies, and individuals donated everything from hay to fenceposts to barbed wire.

Ranchers from Nebraska brought truckloads of fenceposts, growers in Iowa sent hay, and nearby churches and civic groups cooked meals for firefighters and producers who fought the fires.

Government programs are also helping, though in some cases the money hasn’t yet arrived despite the fact that producers had to pay out-of-pocket for supplies they needed immediately. In Harper County, officials requested $5 million to offset losses, but so far the money hasn’t been allocated, according to a government official.

Still, producers are managing four months after some of the most devastating wildfires in a generation.

The grasslands are again growing – in some areas better than they had been – livestock are being replaced, and fences are going up.

Fanning said he didn’t hear of any producers calling it quits after the fires despite some losing almost everything they had at the time. It’s a slow process, but ranchers are stubborn and will rebuild even if it’s one fencepost at a time, he said.

“Everybody is doing the best they can to recover and put their fences and property and lives and homes back together,” Fanning said. “For some it’s going to take longer than others.”

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