Wind-driven Midwestern wildfires across Kansas, Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle killed seven people in March of this year. They also devoured homes and 80% of some ranchers’ cattle herds. In Oklahoma, a state of emergency was declared for 22 counties.
Ranching families are now left to deal with years of clean-up and crippling losses.
At Mark and Mary Kaltenbach’s ranch in Ashland, Kansas, dozens of their Angus cows lay dead on the scorched earth, their hooves jutting in the air. Others were being humanely put down by their owners every day.
“We did what had to be done,” Mr. Kaltenbach said. “They’re gentle. They know us. We know them. You just thought, ‘Wow, I am sorry.’”
“She’s out shooting cows.”
That’s what Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts heard his friend say when he asked about his wife. The wife was at the couple’s ranch performing a most difficult act of kindness and mercy: Shooting cattle mortally injured by the recent Midwestern wildfires.
These fires — the largest in Kansas state history — burned more than 400,000 acres in Clark County alone.
Ten days later, Garth Gardiner, owner of a 48,000-acre Angus beef ranch, was still burying cows.
The economic devastation to the area has been staggering. At about $10,000 per mile new fencing alone may cost Gardiner’s ranch about $2 million. His total losses could reach $5 million to $10 million.
Stories like his were being repeated across Oklahoma, Texas, and Colorado. Residents spoke about a wall of flames traveling at interstate speeds and leaving devastation and heartbreak in its wake.
“The flames were forty, fifty feet high, traveling at 80 to 90 miles an hour,” according to Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau.
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But he also went on to tell The Federalist about the “astonishing and heartwarming” response from fellow farmers and ranchers:
“Farmers are purchasing fencing materials and loading trucks for Kansas and points west…. Orphan calves are being adopted by 4-H clubs…. Farm organizations, churches, and civic clubs are raising money, purchasing replacement items, and doing what they can to help their fellow farmers and ranchers recover.”
In addition, the Department of Agriculture has allocated $6 million to help ranchers and farmers rebuild their fences and livestock, and restore the large swaths of devastated acreage.
Climatologists are warning that wildfires in the Midwest and Southern Plains may be more common as global warming continues.
According to a 2015 USDA report, “Over the last 15 years, the region has experienced an increasing frequency of some of the more extreme events central to agriculture, a direct result of more dynamic atmospheric behavior,” including “extensive, crippling periods of drought that ended with record-breaking downpours and flooding.”
And more droughts mean “more frequent fires,” the report adds. (See related article, “Wildfires and Climate Change: A Vicious Cycle.”)
In the meantime, decimated areas struggle to recover from the most recent spate of Midwestern wildfires.