Three years ago, at almost exactly this time of year, truckloads of hay and fencing supplies from farmers in Nebraska were rolling south on Kansas highways headed for Barber County, where the then-largest wildfire in in Kansas history, the Anderson Creek fire, had left hundreds of thousands of acres of rangeland charred and black.
Two years ago, they came again, bringing precious resources to the victims of the now-largest wildfire in Kansas history, the Starbuck fire.
On March 31, ten truckloads of hay and two pickups pulling trailers loaded with fencing supplies moved out of a truck stop in South Hutchinson and began rolling toward Pierce, Neb., to bring badly needed resources to ranchers there who have lost everything to the flooding that followed the “bomb cyclone.”
“There was never a question of if we would help. The only question was how much help can we send?” said Konnie Lukins, who with her husband, Dan, operates DK Angus, a seedstock operation located in Barber County.
She said the ranchers making the journey north are not exactly awash in hay. They are still recovering from wildfire, drought, and a long winter with deep cold and snow.
“But, knowing what these people are going through, it’s just how God is working. These is no way for us not to go,” she said. “We have grass that will be greening up pretty soon to feed our cows. Those poor people have no grass, no hay, nothing.”
‘So much worse’
Ben Foster, who got the ball rolling for the effort, said his friend John Coggins, who ranches near Kiowa, has family ties in Pierce County.
“He had hay to spare and wanted to take a load up there, but he didn’t have a truck,” Foster said. “I told him I could get the truck. I wasn’t sure about my trailer, so my dad let me borrow one from his work in Pratt. I posted something on Facebook about making the trip and my phone started ringing. Pretty soon we had 10 truckloads of hay. And more families wanted to help, so they donated money to buy fencing supplies and we loaded two trailers of those too.”
“I got to thinking and I realized that the fires were terrible and the losses and the suffering was immense,” he said. “But after the fire, we got snow and a little rain and the pastures came back pretty fast. We were out building fences in days and weeks. This is so, so much worse. All the debris. All the damage to roads and bridges and farmland. It’s going to take months, even years, to get back to normal.”
Larry Corr lost 2,500 of rangeland to the Anderson Creek fire that started in northern Oklahoma on March 22, 2016, and crossed the state line, pushed by strong south winds. By the time a layer of snow helped halt it on March 27, it had burned almost 620 square miles in Kansas and Oklahoma.
He said he and other ranchers in Barber County knew that some of the help they got in the aftermath came from Nebraska and they really wanted to respond.
Chris Boyd, who fielded hundreds of calls as an organizer of relief donations following the Anderson Creek fire. He volunteered to take a load of hay with the group.
An amazing trip
As much as the ranchers loved the organizing and the joy of knowing they were doing something to help, they said the delivery was even more inspiring than they anticipated.
“One of the coolest things that happened on the trip occurred in Belleville,” Boyd said. “I blew a tire on my trailer. I called the only tire shop in town, He wasn’t open on Sundays, but the good Lord had put him in his office and he took our call.”
He had the right size tire, but while he was changing it, he noticed that there was a second tire that might not make the trip, so Boyd told him to go ahead and change it.
“When we were cleaning up and getting ready to pay, Oscar Sheetz of Rocking Oz Tires told me to get out of here and get back on the road,” Boyd said. “He wouldn’t allow me to pay him for the tires or the labor.”
Boyd said Sheez told him conditions were really bad where they were headed and he’d like to do anything he could to help those people in their time of need.
“His was a truly remarkable gesture in our time of need while trying to help others in need,” Boyd said. “We had a tremendous amount of great people here in the Midwest playing multiple roles behind the scenes to help our neighbors.”
Foster said the convoy stopped for lunch in Strang, Neb.
“We were welcomed by what felt like the whole community. They wouldn’t let us pay for lunch. We got lucky that they had opened Highway 81 back up to truck traffic on Saturday night, just in time for us. That saved us a lot of miles and time,” he said.
He said the debris they encountered as they head toward Pierce was incredible.
“The water had gone down and just left a whole landscape of debris. We saw overturned shipping containers, dead cattle under the bridge, limbs and trash everywhere and fields covered in so much sand and silt that I don’t know how they will ever get them ready to farm again,” he said.
He said people were out in front of their homes in small towns as they passed through, holding signs and waving at them.
Foster said he wanted to emphasize that it was gratitude for help received and a deep desire to give back that motivated the group’s effort.
“We are not heroes and in the scope of the disaster, our little effort is literally just a drop in the bucket to the need,” Foster said. He said two truckloads of hay went to Coggins’ relatives and the rest to a drop off point outside of Pierce that the highway patrol provided them an escort to.
“There were trucks and pickups waiting and all of the supplies were unloaded and off to farms in two hours,” he said. “That alone tells you how badly folks need the help. It makes you want to do it again.”