Wildfires fueled by drought, dry vegetation, 100-year old cedar trees and high winds raged across thousands of acres of land in neighboring Oklahoma counties in April, consuming 286,196 acres in Dewey County on the Rhea Fire, and 62,432 acres on the 34 Complex Fire in Woodward County.
And while the fires are 100 percent contained, the ashes they left behind are something the people of Oklahoma will be sifting through for months.
Dewey County rancher Joe Farris found his 8,000-acre ranch in the middle of the Rhea Fire on April 19. “I got a call that there was a fire in Rhea. Our most westerly land we operate is just north of there a few miles on the north side of the South Canadian River. We knew if it crossed that river we would have cattle in harm's way, so I left here (Woodward) and headed for that property, cut the fence between me and the neighbor who had a green wheat field, and moved around 30 cows and calves into the wheat. From there, we went to numerous other pastures east of there, and started getting them into areas that had a short amount of fuel —short grasses or wheat or corrals,” says Farris, who partners with his son, Flint.
“By night, the fire jumped the river and came across. Much of the fire area has 100-year old growth of cedars and brush and a mixture of farm and ranchland, but primarily ranchland. And with the combination of the high winds in the low humidity, the fire was almost unfightable. Everyone was out trying to fight the fire; the producers were out trying to get their cattle safe and this continued for several days.”
Then the wind changed, and every pasture the Farris’s manage over a 20-mile radius burned. The father and son run between 300 to 400 mother cows along with yearlings and breeding heifers. They also sell bulls and replacement heifers. “We saved most of them,” says Farris, who is also senior vice president of Bank of Western Oklahoma at Woodward.
“We have one section with our red herd. We had moved them to a safe place but when the fire came, it was so intense, apparently, the heat scared them enough they left the safe area and went to the timber, and it got everyone of those except six —six calves got in the county road and went across and were not killed. We lost 52 out of that pasture.”
Justin Barr, chief of the Harmon, Okla., volunteer fire department firefighter, says in his 16 years of fighting fires, he’s never witnessed fire behavior like he did on the Rhea Fire. “I’ve been on a lot of fires. But I will tell you that Thursday afternoon throughout the night into Friday morning and into Friday, was as wild and as dangerous a situation of fire I’ve ever seen. It was scary. You couldn’t get in front of that one with a fire truck to do any good.
“The air temperature was 101 degrees with the relative humidity in the single digits and 50 mph winds. I know the fires last year were bad as well. But this cedar country just compounded things. I would say it was one of the worst, if not the worst, I’ve ever seen.”
Barr, who serves as the OSU Extension educator for Ellis County, also lost rangeland but saved his cattle. “I came out smelling like a rose compared to other people. I just lost grass.”
Losing cattle is like losing a part of the family, and while the monetary loss is steep, Farris says it’s the welfare of that animal that weighs on you the most. “We spent a lifetime raising those cattle and keeping the genetics and the best of the best. You don't just replace them. You've spent years putting those cattle together — you know them almost like family.
“You hate to see any live thing have to go through that pain, death and suffering. Some that were not killed we had to put out of their misery.”
Next, Farris says, decisions had to be made about the cattle that survived. “And that’s when the phone calls started coming in. ‘Joe, I’ve got a place you can move some of these cattle to.’ So, that’s what we did for the next few days, once we got past the fire.
“It wasn't just a one-day fire; it was three or four days with this intense wind, so even though the fire was gone, you're being blasted with this soot, all this black, and you're breathing it —I'm still coughing like crazy. Not only are you fighting fire around your son's house one day and then your house the next, but then you're back to cattle again and wondering where they are — we've got most of them but we've got some baby calves here or there we've got to find.”
Once their cattle were located, Farris says, people were on hand to help move them - some 30 miles away, some 50. “We’ve got them scattered with people we know are taking care of them for us.”
Now that his family is safe and his cattle are being cared for, Farris says the daunting task of fence repair awaits. “There's miles and miles of fence, even a lot of the fence that's up has fire damage, which takes the tensile out of the barbed wire, making it rust and break. Much of it has to be replaced, some of it can be repaired. Anywhere that there was wood it's gone.”
The electricity also went out, leaving cattlemen like Farris, who use an electric pump to water their cattle, scrambling for a way to water them. “Just those little things you were working with every day, you don’t have.
“I'm just one of many and I'm not whining about anything. I'm blessed, but it is sad to see my neighbors that have lost cattle and are hurting. And what's really sad is, maybe people that didn't have many cattle or anything but they did have a few or they lived out in the country and they lost their home.”
Not home free
North of Dewey County, on the 34 Complex Fire, cattleman Al Comstock and his wife Joann did just that — fire consumed their two-story farm house.
“We lost our house and garage shed but we saved the barn. We lost a few cows but most of our cows survived. We’re ok...everybody is ok,” says Al, who was headed to Stillwater with his wife when they got the call. “We arrived in Stillwater and they said the house was going to burn so we turned around and came back.