ASHLAND, Kan. — The pastures are eerily silent.
Normally, there would be dozens of bawling new calves with their mamas grazing the rolling Clark County landscape.
But on this July morning, Mark Gardiner gets out of his pickup and walks across a long mound of sand – one of two mass graves in this pasture where 78 Angus cows and 32 calves are buried.
“I can still see them laying out there,” said Mark’s brother, Greg of the bloated carcasses, which swelled up like popcorn. “They were literally cooked.”
It’s just one of the scars still evident here – four months after the state’s largest wildfire scorched more than 500,000 acres along the southern Kansas border to the bare, sandy earth. Skeletons of trees stand where a leafy windbreak should be. Burnt fencelines still dangle from barbed wire like Christmas ornaments. Homes still need rebuilt, The Hutchinson News (http://bit.ly/2u1smOV ) reports.
The financial burden is deep. The Gardiner family lost 262 miles of fence themselves, which costs around $10,000 a mile. About 600 head of cattle perished across the 42,000 acres of pastures that burned, worth several million.
Many were pregnant. None were insured.
Mark and his wife, Eva, also lost their home.
Yet, from the ashes, there is rebirth.
Mark drove to a rise on a pasture on the old Dunn Ranch, a rolling landscape of green growth sprinkled with wildflowers stretches as far as the eye can see. Not far away, the Cimarron River is flowing, thanks to the nearly 15 inches of rain that has fallen since March. A few cattle dot the acreage where fences have been fixed. Greg said more livestock will be put to pasture in the next few weeks.
This is their heritage, their livelihood. Greg and Mark, along with their brother, Garth, have grown Gardiner Angus Ranch into a 48,000-acre operation that includes top genetics and three production sales a year.
With the resiliency of their ancestors, and like all the ranches affected by March’s Starbuck fire, the Gardiners are moving forward.
“I haven’t heard of anyone getting out,” said Mark, adding, “It’s a million-dollar experience you wouldn’t do again for a nickel.”
The Gardiners have weathered through a few storms in their 130 years in Clark County.
Henry Clay Gardiner and his family traveled by covered wagon to the newly organized town of Ashland in 1885, making a home in a dugout on their 160-acre homestead. But by 1894, the family lost their original homestead. During the Great Depression, Henry’s son, Ralph, again lost a few thousands acres. The family couldn’t make a payment on the land after their wheat crop was hailed out just prior to foreclosure.
The family fought through every challenge, said Mark, including a blizzard that spanned from 1992 to 1993, leaving 61 inches and killing 68 of their calves and a couple of cows.
“From Halloween to March, we were covered in snow,” he said.
But nothing compares to March 6, 2017.
The story was written as soon as it happened, said Greg. As he tells it, loose power lines from a winter ice storm were blowing in the strong winds and sparked during a day when the humidity wasn’t much more than 5 percent.
Once the fire ignited, “it couldn’t be turned back,” Greg said. “You got these firemen – when it started 70 miles away in Oklahoma, they were already defeated.”
It had spread quickly into Kansas. By 3:15 p.m. that day, the wildfire hit the Gardiner Ranch.
For 30 minutes, Greg wondered if he lost his brother and his wife, who were trying to save horses and their dogs at their ranch house.
Somehow, said Mark, he managed to get out of the house with some family photos, his twin sons’ college diplomas and a box of love letters he and his wife wrote while they were dating. He opened the door of his truck to follow the gravel roadway out because the sky was pitch black from the smoke.
One person died in Kansas – a truck driver. Another six died in Oklahoma and Texas.
“That was one of the miracles, that there was no more loss of life,” their brother, Garth, said. “What saved people up here were the wheat pastures. “Down in McLean (Texas) where the young kids died, they didn’t have wheat pastures, and they couldn’t get away from it.”
Kindness of strangers
In Clark County, the carnage was cattle. Reports estimate 5,000 to 9,000 head died. Many ranchers, including the Gardiners, shot dozens of livestock for several days after the fire because they were too burned to survive.
A few cattle already out on the Dunn pasture still have raw, red burns on their bodies. Compared to the others they had to put down, these cows could eat and drink and walk and see, said Mark. He didn’t want to shoot them.
The cattle are healing fine.
“They made it through this – they have the right to live,” Mark said. “I have a special bond with them. They deserve an extra chance.”
The Gardiners have worked to replace cattle, thanks to the support of the local Stockgrowers State Bank. They located a herd in Nebraska to transfer 600 to 700 embryos.
They bought some cattle from a customer who had previously asked the family for help selling them.
“This is all attributed to the banking community,” said Mark of the dedicated support ranches are receiving to stay in business. “We can do this. We have more cattle today than we had before the fire.”
The Gardiners also credit folks from across America. As their story spread, truckloads of hay and fencing supplies began arriving. Letters with checks began pouring in, said Garth.
“I got a check from an immigrant whose family migrated here during the textile wars of the 1920s,” said Garth. “He is from Lithuania. His check came from the Army National Guard of Lithuania for $25.”
Another correspondence was from a Boston man who didn’t have a computer at his home to type a letter, so he walked a mile in the cold to the library.
“To reach out to someone you don’t know, to me, that just put a lump in my throat,” Garth said.
Mark said he’s had similar experiences from complete strangers.
“Who are they – they sent us a $1,000?” He asked his wife, Eva, as they were writing thank you notes.
“I thought you knew them,” she replied.
Volunteers showed up on their spring breaks to tear out fencing. People are still coming in to help tear out fence.
“People came from everywhere,” said Garth. “There was a family from Iowa who just showed up, didn’t know anyone here, a lady and her daughters who had gloves and wire pliers and said ‘what can we do to help.’ Just those stories – everyone has stories like that.”
Mark said everyone is thankful for the help that came from across America. It’s also humbling. The family has given supplies during disasters, including the 2016 Anderson Creek wildfire that burned nearly 400,000 acres across Barber County.
This experience has made him realize he wants to step up to the plate even more.
“We can do better,” he said. “I personally am working to do that – when the next tragedy happens to be there one way or another.”
It’s tough for farmers and ranchers to take handouts, said Mark. At first, he said, he gave his typical cowboy answer that everything was fine.
“We all say it, we are better givers than receivers,” said Mark. “But we have had to receive. It’s really not something agriculture people are comfortable with. But we had to humble ourselves and say yes, we do need help. And the Lord sent a lot of help.”
More help is needed
The Ashland Community Foundation is collecting funds, as is the Kansas Livestock Foundation. Meanwhile, Howard Buffett has pledged to match up to $1 million in funds raised through a campaign by Drover’s Journal. At present, the fund is at $700,000.
“None of us out here are turning it down,” said Greg.
Mark said the Ashland foundation has raised a tremendous amount of cash so far, with 121 ranchers applying for assistance, including their ranch.
Many ranchers had bank notes on the cattle lost, said Garth. The only way to pay those notes off is to sell those cattle.
“And they don’t have the cattle to sell,” said Garth.
Ranchers are also still working on replacing 4,000 miles of fence, worth $40 million, said Kendal Kay, Ashland’s mayor and the local banker.
His bank has been supportive, lowering interest rates and establishing a wildfire line of credit.
“That’s just what community banks do, work with their customers,” said Kay. “We’ve been here for a long time, since 1885. This isn’t the first challenge the bank has overcome in that time period, but it might be the biggest.”
It’s still going to be tough, he said. Ranchers don’t have the cash flow, especially with the loss of their commodity – baby calves that could have been sold this fall.
“It’s going to be thin,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t work through it.
“People are working and working pretty hard,” he said. “A lot has happened in four months time. That is just rural America. You roll up your sleeves and get after it.”
You can’t fix in a few months what took generations to build, said Greg.
There is still so much to do, he said from the sale arena at their ranch.
“We need to be weaning calves,” he said. “In 40 days, we are going to be calving again. We need to have these cows distributed into calving pastures.”
There is so much fencing to replace to be able to adequately get cattle on pasture. They’ve rebuilt roughly 60 miles of fence – about five miles a week. They still have 200 miles to go.
While the land has greened, weeds, including ragweed, have encroached where the bluestem, buffalo grass and blue grama, said Greg. Yet, it is keeping the soil from blowing.
“If it hadn’t rained, the sand would be like snowdrifts,” Greg said. “It allowed the grass to come back. And it allows the hills to recover.”
While the land is healing, the Gardiners are recovering, too.
Mark said he and Eva are thinking about making plans for a new house. For now, they live above their marketing center in an apartment. The home hasn’t been a top priority, compared to their cattle, their fences and their customers.
“We’ll be OK,” said Mark. “I’ve told lots of people if you can’t see God in all this, you can’t see.”
Information from: The Hutchinson (Kan.) News, http://www.hutchnews.com
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Hutchinson News.