Counting cattle guards is how you pass the time and mark the distance from when you turn off the road to when you arrive at the main house on my cousin’s ranch. There are 13, and I always lose track around eight or nine.
The drive is familiar, but this time the view is alien.
It’s early April, two weeks after the Anderson Creek wildfire, the largest in state history, pretty much incinerated this section of the Gypsum Hills, southeast of Dodge City and west of Medicine Lodge.
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Tops of hedge posts, where the bases burned away, hang like ornaments on blackened barbed wire.
Charred cedar trunks in Dr. Seuss shapes dot the exposed red dirt.
Cattle, far more numerous than people in this country, are absent.
The inferno that started in Oklahoma and roared into Kansas on the wings of 50-mile-per-hour winds burned 367,000 acres and destroyed 19 homes.
In Oklahoma, 600 cattle were reported killed; as of May 25, no one has tabulated the cattle losses in Kansas, according to the Kansas Livestock Association. There’s no good mechanism for doing that, although it’s what all the reporters want to know, a harried spokesperson tells me.
Miraculously, no humans died.
My cousin Dave Brass, 57, is one of the last of a vanishing breed, a third-generation rancher who makes his living from the farm, living in the house his grandfather built.
I learned he had lost 10 calves, two cows, 50 miles of fence and all but 75 acres of the 10,000 acres of grass that his 500-head herd grazes on. But when he finally called me back, he assured me in his strong, ringing, upbeat voice that everything was eventually going to be fine.
And in the chronicles of what his family has weathered, it’s possible he’s right. Still, crisis tugs us on invisible strings back into the folds of family, so here I am.
The country life
As always, when the big white barn and the stucco house of Bar X Ranch on the bank of Mule Creek finally come into view, I see them with a 6-year-old’s eyes.
I let myself in the front door and see Dave’s wife, Mindy, pushing a lint roller around a white lampshade veiled in fine red red dust.
Since the fire, there’s no keeping the dust out, she explains.
Mindy, 51, is the latest in a line of Brass women who have imposed a refined, gracious standard of living in seeming defiance of the hostile, if gorgeous, natural surroundings.
The most extreme weather on the planet happens here. Blizzards, drought, tornadoes and wildfire are the subjects of offhand observations, not disaster stories, in these parts.
How Mindy describes damage to some deciduous trees by the creek: “The fire stripped the bark off. I’ve never seen that before except in tornadoes.”
Dave’s grandparents, Howard and Jeanne Brass, bought the place in 1931, just in time for a decade of Dust Bowl. They stayed anyway.
My widowed aunt, Carolyn Peterson Westrup, and Dave’s divorced father, Jim Brass, married in 1965, combining their five young children Brady Bunch-style into the funnest posse of country cousins for a city kid like me.
Dave and his two older brothers and two younger sisters drove vehicles from age 7, rode horses, shot guns, swam in creeks, burned stuff and practiced rodeo skills on an oil drum bull.
They let my sister, brother and I try those things, too, and were patient with our ignorance of all aspects of country life.
Dramatic stuff happened on the ranch. One year, we painted a hired man’s house only to watch it burn to the ground a few days later when it was struck by lightning.
Other times we put out pasture fires by beating wet burlap sacks at the edges of the flames.
In 2002, when Jim and Carolyn moved to town to retire, Dave and Mindy moved into the family place with their two young daughters, Hannah, now 24, and Victoria, now 23.
Mindy goes to put the lint roller away and the phone rings — again. It’s the florist. On top of everything else, Victoria is getting married in five weeks.
When I ask her the same question I asked Dave — how hard is this? — I get a clearer picture.
“We are used to hard work, but we had just gotten to the point where it was finally getting easier; we had finally gotten the herd to where Dave wanted it with the genetics, the fencing was almost done,” she says. “You always want it a little easier, and it just never happens in agriculture.”
To receive, instead of give
Fifty miles of barbed wire fence at the going rate of $10,000 per mile is half a million dollars. The USDA is offering 75 percent reimbursement for actual costs, but only up to $200,000 per person or entity.
As we drive around the ranch, Dave tells me a group of guys from Marion, Kan., came and built him half a mile of fence and also left $1,000 worth of steel posts and $500 worth of wood posts that people had donated.
“They had to talk us into some of this,” Dave says, shaking his head. “I feel guilty.”
Hay started coming in quickly; the first donor wanted to send a load while Dave’s land was still on fire.
“It got to the point where I spend a measurable amount of time turning down hay on my phone,” Dave says.
Normally, he feeds hay only when it snows, because he stocks only one cow-calf pair per 10 to 15 acres, so the animals can find enough to eat year round.
That is why ranches in western Kansas are larger than ranches in eastern Kansas and smaller than ranches in Texas. The drier the land, the more acreage you need to have an economically viable number of cattle.
Ranchers who stock more densely have to provide their herd with supplemental food.
Now that Dave’s grass is gone, his cattle also need hay.
But in our family, not only is it better to give than to receive, it is morally suspect to receive.
Dave continues listing off charity that has come his way: a pallet of wire from a woman he doesn’t know, a $2,000 bottle of medicine, 8 tons (negotiated down from 10) of high-protein supplemental pellets called “cake” donated to the co-op in Medicine Lodge.
“It’s almost embarrassing. We’re not cut this way. We’re not expecting handouts. We don’t want sympathy,” he says.
Down the road, he points to another section of fence a quarter-mile long. “We’re not going to attempt any cost share on that, because that was not good fence to begin with,” he says.
He put that rule in place for himself; the federal reimbursement program does not consider the previous condition of the fence.
Dave doesn’t carry insurance on fence or livestock, like many ranchers, because it isn’t cost-effective. Insurance premiums could mean the difference between making profit or not.
Dave estimates it will take him three years to rebuild his fence, longer to remove the carcasses of the burned cedars.
Cedar is shallow rooted, Dave explains, so the root structure will decay in four or five years, and the charred trunks will fall over.
“That will be kind of a pain in the neck out there in the pasture,” Dave explains. “We’ll have to do controlled burns to get rid of them.”
Back in the yard in front of the house, we stop at the log cabin between the house and the barn. It’s the oldest remaining structure in Comanche County.
No one knows how old it is, but when the people Dave’s grandparents bought the property from settled in 1878, it was already abandoned.
This is a key fact, because the cabin is made of large logs of cedar heart wood.
Red cedar and the failure to control it in the Gypsum Hills has been blamed for the Anderson Creek fire.
But the cabin and historical passages referencing cedar in the book “When Kansas Was Young” are evidence that the tree has been in this part of Kansas a long time, even though it has become exponentially more invasive.
Suggestions have been made that more aggressive controlled burning, as is done in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas, would have prevented the fire from getting so big. But that ignores conditions that make any fire in the Gyp Hills, as locals call them, more difficult to control: lower humidity, less moisture in the soil, fewer roads to act as natural barriers, more rugged terrain that spray rigs can’t get into and higher wind speeds.
In the long run, with regard to the grass, Dave is quick to point out, “This country has never been cleaner.”
But that cleansing came at a high cost to wildlife, livestock and incomes already stressed by a record drought in 2012 and slumping cattle prices.
Fighting fire with fire
The 40-mile-long, 30-foot-high fire galloped across the Bar X Ranch twice, torching a third of it late Tuesday night, March 22, then curling back from two directions for the rest the next afternoon.
Hannah was in Lawrence, where she is a third-year law student at the University of Kansas, nervously reading group family texts while trying to study.
Victoria, a volunteer firefighter, was fighting the fire near the Oklahoma line and anxious about her family. They were familiar with fire and level-headed, which made it harder to get the point across that what was coming their way was like no fire they’d ever seen.
The head fire was generating fire tornadoes that jumped half a mile in seconds. Burning branches floated in the sky.
“In a few seconds they could be trapped,” Victoria says.
Her texts to Mindy became increasingly panicked when she learned they had evacuated a carload of possessions to a high hill but then returned to water down the house, barn and log cabin.
Her texts began to take on urgency after 10:45 p.m.: “It’s hit Merrill (the neighboring ranch)”; “Are you ready??”; “Mom!!!”; “Please leave!!!”
And then, thinking about her upcoming honeymoon: “Don’t forget my passport.”
That night, from just before midnight till after 4 in the morning, Mindy sat alone on the hill (Dave and a few family members who had come to help ended up on a different hill), watching the fire swell from Oklahoma, 8 miles to the south, up through Comanche County and into Barber County.
The next morning, when they got word the fire was circling back, Dave decided to burn 100 yards from the house toward the direction of the approaching fire. Victoria knew 100 yards was sorely inadequate for this historic inferno.
Yet, after the fire had left the creek bed glowing like a gas log, the hollowed out trees smoking like chimneys, and the blackened ground steaming, the house, barn and log cabin were still standing.
“It’s impossible it didn’t burn the way the fire was jumping everything in its path. Only God could have prevented it from burning,” Victoria says.
The family had taken refuge in a hunting cabin not far from the main house — Hannah had returned home from Lawrence. She remembers meeting her dad on the road. Fires were still burning in the canyons, and he was on his phone lining up fencing crews.
“He’s very logical. We’re all pretty level-headed, but that doesn’t make it less scary,” she says.
Victoria remembers that there were no tears at the cabin, but it was stoically quiet.
From fire to snow
Thursday morning a cold north wind chilled the weird smoky scene. Everything close was black but some distant pastures looked their normal reddish-brown color, because a layer of red dirt had settled on top of the ash.
The silence was strange: Not a single bird or cow could be heard.
No one had any idea if the horses and cattle had survived.
Everyone was assigned tasks: assessing damage to the fences, finding the horses and cattle and feeding them.
The morning was full of happy and sad discoveries.
Victoria remembers riding around with her dad and her fiance, Ryan Selzer, and not seeing a single blade of grass or a single head of livestock.
“I couldn’t even imagine what was going on in my dad’s head. All I could do was look at him and try to read what was going on in his mind,” she says.
Hannah discovered a wooden feeder built by family members in the 1940s had burned, but an old barn built into a hillside was still there and — bonus! — 100 cattle were standing in front of it.
Ten dead baby calves and two dead cows were discovered. The cattle that survived seemed confused, Mindy says. One cow stood next to her dead calf for a long time, as if willing it to get up.
“It was so sad. You know all the animals,” Mindy says.
Her favorite thicket of sand plums in the creek bottom was gone, and it tugged at her heart to see dead field mice scattered on the ground.
All the possums, skunks and raccoons were missing, but the burrowing animals, such as badgers, had survived.
Dave found a dead roadrunner and saw a couple of badly burned coyotes.
Deer, turkeys and quail were wandering around the barren scene looking for food, so Dave put out a feeder.
Four wild cats that live in the log cabin survived the fire, but Charlotte, the friendliest one, was missing.
Victoria discovered a calf that was so badly burned it would not be able to survive with the herd, so Dave and Mindy found a young farm family in nearby Protection — Rustin and Lindsey Martin, whose son Callin is in 4-H — to take it.
“We knew it needed to go to a 4-H kid who would understand that it might die,” Dave says.
The Martins named the calf Anderson Burns.
Cattle showed up close to the house and stayed because the hay they got fed there was the only thing to eat for miles.
Dave spent most of Friday and Saturday assessing the massive fence damage.
He worried most about the perimeter, trying to prop some sections up as a “bluff” that would hopefully turn cattle back around when they saw it.
Sunday, Easter morning, the family rose to see a blanket of snow covering the land.
“Definitely a God thing,” Mindy says.
A couple of days later, Charlotte the cat limped home on burned paws. Her eyebrows and whiskers had burned off, and her black and white coat was black and yellow.
Dave pulled on leather gloves to hold her still to give her a shot of antibiotics, but she didn’t resist.
“It’s like she knew she needed help,” Mindy says.
The land returns
I want to see the cattle, so we pile into a truck.
Two weeks after the fire, it’s still touch-and-go with some of the injured cows.
The intense heat can melt a cow’s eyeball, and a couple are missing an eye. Others have singed udders or plastic ear tags that have melted.
Dave is feeding the animals medicated mineral cubes and has treated some of the toughest-looking cases with antibiotics delivered by dart gun.
But most of the herd, which numbered around 500 before the fire, survived without damage, and some of the calves turn to look at us and make small bleating sounds.
“We used to go out like this in the evenings when the moms pair up with their calves. That’s the fun part of having a cow-calf herd, is watching the baby calves,” Mindy says. “Now there is no time for that, because building fence is taking all the time.”
Dave is quiet for a minute, then points at a patch of ground in the creek bed where isolated blades of grass have pushed up.
“If you look close, that grass is 4 inches tall,” he says cheerfully. Then after a pause: “It’s a long way between sprigs, but it is growing.”
May has been a good month, Mindy tells me when we talk on the phone.
The wedding was beautiful, and an unheard-of 7 inches of rain have blanketed the pastures in a carpet of green.
Wildflowers, usually hidden by the previous year’s grass, are easily visible from the roads.
Crews have started the estimated three-year project of replacing fences.
The herds are still all mixed up, but they are able to find enough grass now that Dave has stopped giving them hay and protein pellets. Keeping them contained is a daily battle. They often walk through gaps in the fence or weak spots in the wire.
But no more cattle have died, and the calves are starting to play and buck and act like calves again.
Charlotte the cat has grown new whiskers and eyebrows, and Anderson Burns’ family recently posted an Instagram pic of the calf kissing Callin on the nose.
“He will probably never win a blue ribbon at the county fair,” Mindy says, “and his ears will always be tiny because the tips were burned off, and his lips and tongue burned so he’s a messy eater, but he’s a cutie, in spite of his injuries. I think he’s a survivor.”
It’s what you do after the fire.