The warning sign pops up just inside the Clark County line on Kansas 34 south of Bucklin.
“Caution: Fire damage ahead.”
But nothing can really prepare you for the scene that soon unfolds. Charred land mars the rolling countryside as far as you can see. The only color is the green wheat fields occasionally interspersed between the blackened acreage, cattle grazing peacefully within their boundaries.
The acrid smell of smoke still fills the air. A bloated cow lies against a fence, one of thousands in the county that perished in the inferno.
In the past 1 1/2 weeks, grass fires have scorched about 75 percent of this county and caused severe damage in many others across Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. In Kansas alone, large wildfires in 20 counties devoured more than 651,000 acres — more than 1,000 square miles — and destroyed more than 40 homes and an unknown number of outbuildings.
More than 461,000 acres in Clark County have burned, making it the most widespread single fire on record for the state. Authorities say recovery efforts will take years and cost tens of millions of dollars.
Dozens not only suffered crushing blows to their livelihoods but also lost their homes and most of their possessions as the raging blazes, fueled by winds topping 60 mph, consumed their properties. One truck driver died of smoke inhalation after his tractor-trailer jackknifed while he was trying to back away from a fire.
Now, with the rebuilding efforts in full swing, stories of survival, dedication and strong community spirit are providing a bright spot in the midst of tragedy. From the scores of volunteer firefighters who streamed in from across Kansas and surrounding states; to the endless donations of giant round hay bales, food and clothing; to 4-H clubs caring for orphaned calves, the contributions couldn’t be more welcome, the recipients more grateful.
“And behind the scenes, there are all of these unsung heroes that we’ll never know of who did all that they could,” said Eva Gardiner of the Gardiner Angus Ranch, whose family lost their home and most of their possessions March 6.
‘We can’t stop it’
Last week on Monday morning, Gardiner was in her home about 10 miles southwest of Ashland, folding clothes she planned to donate to a shop in town and keeping an eye on the wildfire raging 15 to 20 miles to the west.
“We weren’t that concerned,” she said, “because the wind was blowing from the south.”
But after lunch, Gardiner got a call from a neighbor who was in town and had just been told the fire was 2 miles from her house.
Gardiner and her husband, Mark, went to check.
“We left, but we weren’t really that alarmed at that point,” she said. “Our banker called and said, ‘What do you think of the fire?’ Mark said it was west of us and headed north. But by then, the wind had changed directions. It was headed east, and we didn’t know it.”
Then she got a call from one of the volunteer firefighters.
“He said, ‘Evacuate your house. It’s headed right toward you, and we can’t stop it.’ We turned around, but it didn’t look any different. We never saw the fire until we got home. Then we saw it below our barn.”
Mark Gardiner’s brother Greg was there when they pulled up, wanting to know what he could do to help. Eva Gardiner asked him to get the pickup and trailer so they could load up their three horses. Fortunately, five other horses had been used around the ranch that day and weren’t in the fire’s path.
Greg Gardiner took off, and Eva Gardiner sprinted to the horse barn about 50 yards from the house.
“The mare was terrified, standing right at the gate, and I opened it and she ran up to the barn,” said Eva Gardiner, who is a veterinarian. “I looked back, and then I saw the fire.”
She rushed to the house to try to retrieve their two dogs — Talon, a blue heeler, and Yuma, a 70-pound yellow lab who belonged to their son Quanah, a high school senior.
They realized time was running out.
“Mark was trying to find his passport and some other things,” Eva said. “He grabbed some of the boys’ baby pictures on our dresser. I grabbed my purse and I tried to get the dogs but they wouldn’t come. I heard Mark calling for me, but it was really dark in there and was getting smoky.
“I tried again to get Quanah’s dog and I couldn’t, he was so scared. I looked out the back window and I could see the flames between the house and the barn. And something told me I had to go.”
She climbed into the pickup and, just as she took off, everything turned black.
“The lights of the pickup didn’t even seem like they were on,” she said. “I was driving blindly.”
She thought her husband was behind her but couldn’t see him. He had tried one last time to coax the dogs out.
Her cellphone rang. It was her son Ransom, who with his twin brother, Cole, graduated from Kansas State University last May and returned to work on the ranch.
“He said, ‘Mom, where are you?’ I said, ‘I can’t see, and Dad’s behind me but I can’t see him.’ He said, ‘Get to the wheat field.’ When I got there, the firefighters came up and said, ‘Eva, I’m so sorry. We just couldn’t get there.’ ”
As she anxiously waited for her husband, a fire erupted in the bed of her pickup and the firefighters quickly extinguished it. Soon, Ransom Gardiner called and said Mark Gardiner was safe with him.
“He had taken a different way out,” Eva Gardiner said. “It was a while before I saw him, but I finally knew he was OK.”
Greg Gardiner was overcome with relief when he learned they’d made it out. When he’d gone to get the horse trailer, the fire had advanced so fast that he couldn’t get back to their house. He said his heart sank as he watched his younger brother and sister-in-law disappear behind a wall of fire, driven by almost gale-force winds.
Eva, Ransom and Mark Gardiner returned to their smoldering house as soon as they could. Mark Gardiner sprayed water on the barn to make sure it didn’t ignite.
“Ransom was determined to get the dogs out of the house,” Eva Gardiner said, even though they had died. “And he was able to find them.”
The next morning, the family went back to the property and dug a hole north of the house.
“Quanah picked a spot by a tree,” Eva Gardiner said, “and we buried them in a blanket together.”
Now, all that remains of their Southwestern-style home is a scorched shell, everything inside reduced to a tangled mass of rubble.
“I haven’t shed a tear over the house,” Eva Gardiner said Saturday, struggling to keep her composure. “But the dogs were just like family.”
Somehow, the horse barn, about 50 yards from the house, sustained only minor damage. The pregnant mare and two young horses survived.
As they begin to piece their lives back together, the Gardiners, like many other ranchers, face a multitude of challenges. The losses are staggering — the majority of their nearly 50,000 acres have been consumed, along with about 500 head of cattle, mile after mile of fence and all of their hay.
With ranches in the thick of calving season, many of the cows were pregnant, and others went into premature labor because of the stress. Ranch hands have been tracking down the calves that lost their mothers and bringing them in on horseback and even in the cabs of their pickups. The newborns will need to be bottle fed for weeks.
A large number of cattle were so badly injured they had to be put down. Ranch employees throughout the area are struggling to deal with the devastation, some traumatized by the gruesome sights.
As ranchers surveyed their land to assess the damage, something else quickly became apparent. It wasn’t just the livestock that was affected. Scattered throughout the charred ruins were dead and severely injured deer, coyotes, even jackrabbits, some roaming aimlessly because they had been blinded by the fire.
Before the fires had burned out, offers of help began streaming in.
“It has been far and wide,” said Ashland Mayor Kendal Kay. “I even had a guy call me who had two loads of hay from up by Columbus, Ohio, that’s coming this way.”
Kay, who also is president of Stockgrowers State Bank, described the situation as “one massive volunteer effort.”
“Now it’s getting ready to get real, because as people leave, it’s our challenge to handle,” he said. “Everybody’s rolling up their sleeves and asking, ‘How do we handle this?’ We had a meeting last night of volunteers and assigned tasks and coordinated the effort, because quite frankly, we’ve all got our day jobs, too.”
But Kay said he had “no doubt whatsoever” that the community would recover.
“I’ve talked to many producers and friends, and not one has said, ‘We’re done,’ ” he said. “We’re going to get through this. And we’ll be back stronger than ever.”
The town of 850, grateful to the scores of volunteer firefighters who helped protect the community, provided about 200 meals three times a day to the volunteers.
The high school served as a gathering center and was open around the clock, with volunteers even feeding firefighters when they came in from shifts in the middle of the night.
Truckloads of donated hay have been arriving at a steady pace. The Ashland Veterinary Center received a call from a cattlemen’s group in Kentucky that was sending 300 round bales of hay and fencing supplies to fire victims. The clinic also received a trailer load of dog and cat food, horse grain, protein tubs and bottled water from several businesses in Hoxie, Oakley and Grinnell in western Kansas.
The Four Leaf Clover 4-H Club from Meade County organized an effort to rescue orphaned calves and place them in good homes. The group’s leaders say 4-H clubs in several other towns have joined the effort. An FFA (formerly the Future Farmers of America) group out of the West Texas panhandle came and got 15.
As of last weekend, 85 orphaned calves had been placed. Once the calves are healthy and their producers have repaired their facilities, the calves will be returned.
The rescue group has started a Facebook page, Orphaned Calf Relief of SW Kansas, for those who want to help.
Randall Spare, a veterinarian with the Ashland Veterinary Center, estimated that 3,000 to 6,000 cattle were killed, with 90 percent of the losses confined to nine ranches.
“And the lion’s share were right in the middle of calving season,” he said.
About 95 percent of the dead cattle had been buried by Saturday night, Spare said.
In addition to the heroic efforts of the firefighters, Spare said another resident should be credited with helping save the town.
Mike Harden, he said, pulled a disc behind his tractor to break up the ground on the edges of town. That, and a green field of wheat that runs east to west along the north side of town, kept the fire from entering the city, he said.
“He literally saved my home,” Spare said, his voice quaking. “The fire was within 100 yards of my home, and he disked the ground around it to keep it from spreading. And then at 1 in the morning, his tractor broke down, so he went and got on his road grader and graded around a house southeast of town and saved it. Then he went out and graded a spot in a pasture to keep a fire contained.”
It’s that kind of spirit and selflessness, Spare said, that convinces him the community will recover.
“There’s been a banding together, a sense of camaraderie, a sense of looking out for your neighbor,” he said. “The resiliency of those affected and the sense of concern they have for one another, that’s what’s going to get us through.”
No plans to leave
On Saturday, dozens showed up to help the Gardiners with cleanup at their ranch.
Among the volunteers were Quanah’s high school friends, members of the Kansas State University Collegiate Cattlemen’s Club, some of Ransom and Cole Gardiner’s FarmHouse Fraternity brothers, a K-State animal sciences and industry professor, and a rancher from Eureka, Kan.
The helpers fanned out with family members and ranch hands to mend fences, clear out debris and sift through the ashes at the house, looking for anything to salvage.
At lunchtime, Mark Gardiner expressed the family’s deep gratitude.
“You all are our family,” he said. “Watching you amazing people that God sent to help us has been tremendous. I’ve been practicing to not get emotional, but you all are amazing, Clark County is amazing.”
His voice broke as he prayed: “Heavenly father, thank you so much for the opportunity to live and work and be together with family and friends and neighbors. Thank you for this beautiful country, thank you for the many opportunities that you have given us. … We’ve never seen more evidence of your hand in things than we have this week.”
Ranching has been in the Gardiners’ blood for five generations. In 1885, Mark Gardiner’s great-grandparents came to the Ashland area in a covered wagon and lived in a dugout for nine years on 160 acres of homesteaded land. His grandfather Ralph was born there in 1889. During difficult times in the ’30s, he added thousands of ewes to the operation to try to generate enough money to keep the ranch afloat.
Mark Gardiner’s father, Henry, loved Angus cattle and developed a passion for genetically improving the breed, using cutting-edge technology and embryo transfer to raise high-quality beef products. He died in 2015, but his legacy lives on in his three sons — Greg, Mark and Garth — who, like their father, have become nationally recognized experts in the Angus genetics field.
The fires couldn’t have come at a worse time. The Gardiners are preparing for their 38th Annual Production Sale on April 1, a massive undertaking even under the best conditions. It will be at their spacious new marketing center just down the road from Mark and Eva Gardiner’s house. That facility survived the blaze.
The Gardiners didn’t think twice about going ahead with the sale.
At the end of an exhausting and emotional Saturday, Eva Gardiner — her face, like most of the workers, streaked with soot — talked about the land they love, where they built their home nearly two decades ago.
“Mark said right away he wanted to rebuild there,” she said. “When we built the house, he wanted it here, and he wanted it positioned so he could look out and see the corral that his granddad built.
“That whole area right there was not touched by the fire.”
The family has made it through hardships before, including the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. They are determined to survive this, too.
Eva Gardiner’s face lit up when one of the volunteers said they’d seen signs of grass already beginning to poke through the sandy soil.
“In a few weeks, the grass will start coming up,” she said. “And it won’t be long before things will be beautiful again.”
How to help
If you would like to contribute to the rebuilding efforts, here are some ways to do it:
Ashland Community Foundation
Contributions are tax deductible, and 100 percent of donated funds are distributed.
To contribute, go to AshlandCF.com, take checks to Stockgrowers State Bank in Ashland or mail donations to Ashland Community Foundation/Wildfire Relief Fund, P.O. Box 276, Ashland, KS 67831.
Please write “Wildfire Relief Fund” on the memo line.
Kansas Livestock Association
Funds generated through donations to the Kansas Livestock Foundation will be used to support ranchers affected by the fires. Contributions are tax deductible, and 100 percent of donated funds are distributed.
To contribute, go to KLA.org; take checks to the Stockgrowers State Bank in Ashland; or mail donations to Kansas Livestock Foundation/Wildfire Relief Fund, 6031 S.W. 37th St., Topeka, KS 66614.
Ashland Feed & Seed
Hundreds of thousands of acres of grasslands and hay resources have been burned.
For those wanting to donate hay, call Ashland Feed & Seed at 620-635-2856.
To donate directly to an individual or family, make checks payable directly to that person or family and mail to:
Stockgrowers State Bank, Wildfire Relief, P.O. Box 458, Ashland, KS 67831
Bank of Ashland, Wildfire Relief, P.O. Box 157, Ashland, KS 67831
Kansas Farm Bureau
Cash, donations of hay and fencing supplies, and volunteer hours are all part of the relief effort. KFB and the Kansas Livestock Association are cooperating to provide fire relief services.
To help orphaned calves
The Four Leaf Clover 4-H Club from Meade County has organized an effort to rescue orphaned calves and place them in good homes, and 4-H clubs in several other towns have joined the effort. Once they are healthy and their producers have repaired their facilities, the calves will be returned.
The group has started a Facebook page, Orphaned Calf Relief of SW Kansas, for those who want to help. Funds also have been set up at the Meade Co-Op and at Country Feeds in Montezuma. Those interested in donating money, supplies or other items can contact those businesses directly or call Rachelle Schlochtermeier, one of the organizers, at 785-483-0421.
About this report
Judy L. Thomas and her family are longtime friends of the Gardiners. They, along with many others, spent last weekend helping with the cleanup at their ranch.