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Devastation from Wildfires Still Burns Across TX, OK, KS

Some of the worst wildfires on record raged across the Texas panhandle, Kansas plains, and Oklahoma countryside in March. Although fires are contained, the effects are not as easily extinguished. 

Devastating. That’s how Danny Nusser, regional program leader for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service described the wildfires. 

Although the Lone Star State normally experiences annual wildfires due to dry conditions with low humidity, this year’s wildfires were unusually extreme. Thanks to plenty of forage, which is fuel for wildfires, Texas saw its third-largest fire in the history of Texas, covering four counties and 340,000 acres, according to Nusser.

In Texas alone, about .5 million acres were burned. Texas Animal Health Commission’s Region 1 office reported 2,500 cattle lost, approximately 1,900 swine lost, and an untold amount of wildlife lost. 

Meanwhile in Kansas, the Department of Agriculture estimates between 4,000 and 8,000 animals lost. Close to 650,000 acres were under flame across the state with the Starbuck fire breaking records as it burned around 400,000 acres. Of Kansas’s 105 counties, 22 were affected by wildfires.

In Oklahoma, the Oklahoma forestry services recorded about 400,000 acres that burned, killing hundreds of livestock. Combined, the wildfires scorched more acres than that of the Grand Canyon National Park.

For the farmers and ranchers who lost livestock to the fires, burial was the method of disposal used by most. Now, producers must keep their live cattle fed, a challenging task with so much pastureland burned to a crisp. 

In Kansas, the government has allowed large amounts of hay to cross state lines in order to keep cattle fed. A sales tax exemption bill was signed March 22 for those in need of fencing materials. 

The USDA announced $6 million in funding to help with recovery efforts of private farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners who were affected by the wildfires. The funding will assist producers as they begin to restore scorched grazing land, rebuild fences, protect damaged watersheds, and other efforts to reclaim losses.

Financially, the losses are huge. However, David Anderson, professor and Extension economist at Texas A&M, points out the staggering loss of infrastructure. He notes that replacing fencing is no cheap task.

“At a good $2 per foot, it’s over $10,000 per mile to replace fences, and a ranch may have miles of fences,” Anderson says.

Hundreds upon hundreds of miles of fencing must be replaced along with several houses and barns just in Texas, according to Nusser. In Ford County, Kansas, alone, nearly 50 miles of fencing must be replaced.

“This is pretty unprecedented. It will take a long time for grassland to recover. The immediate needs are significant but the long-term needs are pretty significant,” says Heather Lansdowne, communications director at the Kansas Department of Agriculture. “We’re focused on the next few months.”

The cleanup and support efforts won’t be a quick fix.

Support and Cleanup Efforts

Recovery efforts haven’t fully begun yet since many farmers and ranchers are still evaluating their losses and damages. Burned pastures will provide very limited grazing next year and will take years to fully recover. 

While the losses are huge, help has poured in from all over the country.

“We’ve just been overwhelmed by support with hay and feed,” says Andrea Burns, agriculture and natural resources agent with Kansas State. 

The wildfires burned up many acres of flourishing pastureland, potentially costing farmers and ranchers untold amounts to keep their livestock fed. However, generosity has overwhelmed farmers and ranchers in need. Numerous truckloads of hay have made their way to help keep livestock fed.

“Support is coming from everywhere, all over the state of Texas. Phone lines are busy with folks wanting to give us hay and feed,” says Nusser. “People have really opened up their hearts and supported these guys.”

As support continues to pour in, Burns reminds people that the effects of the wildfire won’t disappear anytime soon.

“The farmers and ranchers really appreciate all the support. They are just amazed. They’ll be the first ones to say that this won’t go away,” Burns says. “Hopefully people will remember that down the road.”

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