2017 Wildfire Patty Young
Wildfire consumed almost 2 million acres of rangeland in Colorado, Texas, Okalhoma and Kansas in March.

‘Wildfire relief effort not over’

Pennebaker and Hollaway agree that farm families do not hesitate to help others during disasters that hit agricultural areas. But when a massive disaster hits over a broad area, they need help from other regions. The response, they say, was overwhelming and gratifying.

The 2017 Southwest wildfire relief effort is not over. In fact, two months after deadly wildfires burned almost 2 million acres in West Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas, some ranchers have suffered additional losses from early spring blizzards and flooding.

That last-gasp of winter resulted in some livestock deaths as well as severe damage to forage and wheat crops some ranchers were looking to for much needed cash flow.

Melanie Pennebaker, an east Oklahoma rancher who has traveled across much of the wildfire-ravaged Southwest in recent weeks, says livestock losses from the fires are still being assessed but may total from 20,000 to 40,000 head.

“Many ranchers lost 80 percent of their herds,” Pennebaker says, “and that’s compounded for many by lost wheat crops.” A lot of wheat acreage was damaged by a February ice storm before the wildfire roared across the Southern Plains. An early May blizzard damaged more of the grain crop.In addition to lost livestock, thousands of miles of ruined fencing pushes financial losses well beyond what government aid or insurance will cover.

Pennebaker says fence replacement costs $10,000 per mile. “Thousands of miles of fencing have been lost across the four states.” She says government help is capped at $200,000.

Andy Holloway, county Extension agent in Hemphill County, Texas, says more than 2,500 head of cattle were lost in the county, and that figure could be low as some ranchers may not have reported totals yet.

PATIENCE IS ESSENTIAL

Holloway says the most expensive aspect of recovery may be lost time. “They need to be patient,” he says, before putting cattle back on burned rangeland. “It will take a long time for the land to recover, and ranchers need to give rangeland time to heal.”

He says rainfall has stimulated grass emergence, but the area now needs some warm weather.

Pennebaker says Medicine Lodge, Kansas, was not affected by the 2017 wildfire but did lose a lot of grassland in 2016. “Much of that rangeland has not recovered a year later,” she says.

Holloway says much of the grassland in Hemphill County is tall grass, big and little blue stem, among other types. “We have good soils, although it’s a bit sandy. Still, it will take time to recover.

“We’re seeing a lot of greenup now and it’s pretty. A lot of weeds, sages, forbs and some grasses are coming back following recent rains, and we need that—something to keep the sand from blowing. If everything stays ideal, we can probably start grazing in late fall—if it doesn’t turn hot and dry.”

He adds that less productive soils will take longer to reestablish grazing. Grass management before the fire also plays a role. “If it was well managed, grass roots will extend 12 to 14 feet deep. If it was overgrazed, roots will go down only three or four feet. Overgrazed grass will take longer to recover.

“That’s why we preach a grass and animal management system,” he says. “We expect drought, so we have to prepare and manage for it.”

MASSIVE RELIEF EFFORT

Pennebaker says the wildfires were so widespread that they overwhelmed the region’s ability to manage recovery efforts. “Some of the fires were blazing to 20 or 40 feet high,” she says, “and with 70 mile per hour winds the situation could have been much worse.”

She says some towns “barely escaped being destroyed. And a lot of ranchers barely escaped with their lives.”

Many ranchers had too little or no insurance on their livestock, and some had none on barns or their homes.

They were also isolated from immediate assistance.

“The Panhandle area is very rural,” she says. “It’s a long way to a fast food place or a Walmart, so folks had few emergency resources. And the damage was so widespread that farmers and ranchers could not help each other; they had to take care of themselves.”

She explains that when isolated disaster hits a farming community, nearby farmers and ranchers rally to provide whatever help is necessary. A disaster as widespread as the 2017 wildfire required outside assistance. “A massive relief effort has saved a lot of people,” she says. And help came from across the country.

Holloway says the disaster was a two-sided coin. “The first side is the tragedy,” he says. “The flip side is the outpouring of generosity that gives me a lot of hope for our country.”

He says donated hay came from everywhere. “We have hay from Nebraska, New Mexico, Kansas, Tennessee, Louisiana and South Texas, among other places. We’ve also received donations of feed, fencing and pipe. It has been amazing.”

INFORMATION HUB

Pennebaker began collecting and disseminating information about relief needs and opportunities for volunteers as she made a trip to deliver a donation she and her husband made.

“We had a horse that we were not using on our ranch,” she says. “We have 500 acres, and we work our cattle with dogs. We heard about the fires and thought that someone would need a ranch horse.”

She got the word out through social media, and a lot of folks expressed interest. They finally settled on a family from Kansas that had lost their ranch horse to burn injuries. They loaded the horse on the trailer along with other needed items, including a horse another rancher donated, and took it all to Kansas. During the trip, she stopped at drop points to see what was needed and found that relief efforts in some states were not running as smoothly as it needed to and that information was not always available.  She started gathering information and set up a Facebook page to help people find help and for others to identify where help was needed. She created the 2017 Wildfire Relief page on Facebook to help get information out. “We have 1,000 members,” she says at http://bit.ly/2paSAL4 . The page provides updates, helpful information, statistics, information sources, and possibly as important as anything, encouragement and support.

Pennebaker adds that other states and entities have developed wildfire information services, and notes that Michigan has a large following.

“My goal has been to gather and share information,” Pennebaker says. “We want to identify areas with the most pressing needs.”

MORE THAN HAY NEEDED

She discovered early on that as hay, feedstuff and some fencing materials were coming in, the need for household goods was not being met. Items for children were also needed, so they made that information available and donations, including children’s toys, began coming in.”

She says another project that has found support through social media is barbed wire recycling. They collect tumbleweed-shaped rolls of discarded barbed wire and recycle them into craft pieces. The web page sows photos of crosses, lamps, and heart wreaths--all made from recycled burned barbed wire.They use proceeds from the sale of the old barbed wire to purchase new barbed wire.

Pennebaker says the Texas wildfire relief effort was the most organized. “Within 24 hours they had drop points established and help available,” she says. “Other states were less organized.” That's why she and others began setting up relief pages on Facebook and other social media outlets.

She says the massive support across the region depended on thousands of volunteers. “The relief effort would not have been possible without volunteer truck drivers,” she adds.

“The need is not over,” she says. “A number of camps are still set up to accept and disburse donations and to give truckers a place to rest; convoys are still moving donations, and people are still in need.”

She says the late blizzard will extend those needs, especially in Central Kansas. “Ranchers there need hay now,” she says, “and they will need hay well into the summer. On top of the fire, we’ve also had cold weather and heavy rains that caused flooding.”

Pennebaker and Holloway agree that farm families do not hesitate to help others during disasters that hit agricultural areas. But when a massive disaster hits over a broad area, they need help from other regions. The response, they say, was overwhelming and gratifying. “I know that it could have been us,” Pennebaker says. “Next time, it might be our ranch.”

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