Rancher Brian Alexander stepped over a tiny stream and into waist-high grasses, bushes, brambles and wildflowers.
“Six months ago, this was mostly bare dirt under a canopy of red cedars,” Alexander said. “This spring probably hasn’t run in the last 20 years because of all the cedars taking water.”
Rising from this small valley and neighboring prairie were the charred skeletons of cedars that would never sap water or growing space from the Red Hills again.
Alexander’s 7,000 acres were part of the estimated 390,000 acres burned in late March by the Anderson Creek Fire, which started in Oklahoma before moving north into Kansas. The horrific blaze was named for its ignition spot in Oklahoma.
It is the biggest wildfire in Kansas history.
Our ranch looked like the surface of the moon, only black. There was no noise. No birds singing. Nothing.
Rancher Dave Brass, talking about March’s wildfire
“Our ranch looked like the surface of the moon, only black,” rancher Dave Brass said of his 10,000-acre spread. “There was no noise. No birds singing. Nothing.
“It was almost eerie.”
The fire led to the deaths of hundreds of cattle, damaged or destroyed millions of dollars’ worth of fencing and torched several homes and other possessions.
But now ranchers are finding a silver lining in the massive fire.
It’s kind of the best of times coming out of the worst of times. We’ve got water in streams that haven’t run for years because the fire decimated so many cedars.
Rancher Mark Huddler
“It’s kind of the best of times coming out of the worst of times,” said Mark Huddler, a rancher who lost 27 miles of fence and several buildings. “We’ve got water in streams that haven’t run for years because the fire decimated so many cedars.”
An Oklahoma State University study says a 12-inch cedar tree can use up to 42 gallons of water per day. Many thousands of cedars died in the fire.
“The pastures look good, really good,” said David Johnson, who lost about 70 cattle, several buildings and vehicles. “In the long run, we’re going to be better off.” But Huddler, Johnson and other ranchers said they worry about the future.
“What’s been the worst fire is going to become the second-worst fire if we don’t pay attention to this,” said Ted Alexander, Brian’s father. “This will happen again.”
Controlled burning, proponents argue, is the only way to rid the prairie of cedar trees and other fuel and prevent another major wildfire.
“Prairie needs fire almost as much as it needs water if it’s going to stay healthy,” Ted Alexander said.
Worst fire in state history
As long as there has been lightning and grass, fire has been part of the Red Hills, a geographic region known for buttes, rugged canyons and great grazing about 90 miles southwest of Wichita.
Early people like the Comanche once burned the prairie so their horses could feed on the regrowth of tender grass.
But along with settlers came the fear of fire. Farmers and most ranchers did their best to quickly extinguish all blazes. That has become easier with the advent of better firefighting equipment, instant communications and access through maintained roads.
But the best gear was largely ineffective on the Anderson Creek blaze. Rick Wesley, Barber County rural fire chief, said he couldn’t have designed better conditions for such a blaze.
The past two summers had been exceedingly wet, so grasses were dense and tall. Humidity was almost non-existent when the fire started on March 22.
Winds blew at 40 mph – sometimes gusting higher – and changed direction as firefighters began to get some control.
But Wesley and others said it was the proliferation of cedar trees that repeatedly turned the battle in favor of the fire. Even live cedar trees are combustible and literally explode, sending embers into the air.
“We’d have had a chance if it wasn’t for the trees,” Brian Alexander said, “but with them, we had the fire jumping a quarter- to a half-mile at a time.”
Wesley said firefighters, mostly volunteers, from about 150 different fire departments came from three states to help. Aircraft dumping water from nearby lakes were eventually used.
A 4-inch snow that Sunday, Easter morning, pretty much ended the Anderson Creek ordeal.
Ranches owned by Brian Alexander, Brass, Huddler and Johnson – totaling nearly 32,000 acres – were at least 99 percent burned. Another ranch lost around 200 cattle.
Wesley said at least 11 structures were destroyed, including four houses. Matt Teagarden of the Kansas Livestock Association said his group conservatively estimates 1,000 miles of fencing was destroyed or damaged. At an average of $10,000 per mile, fencing costs alone could total $10 million for the region.
Looking back, all agree it could have been much worse. Wesley said it was a “danged miracle, really” there was no loss of human life or serious injuries.
Had the fire come two weeks later, Brass said, he and many others would have been at the peak of calving season, and losses would have skyrocketed.
“We only had to buy time for 30 days until the grass was really growing again,” he added. “If this would have happened in December, we’d have had nothing for months. That would have been much more catastrophic.”
Rains bring recovery
Steady, timely rains came after the Easter snow. There were few heavy downpours, which could have led to erosion on the exposed ground.
Within four or five days, the first green sprouts began to appear.
Still, the fire has been a major financial hit for most ranchers.
Before the fire, Johnson said, he thought his ranch was well insured. The policy covered 27 head of lost cattle, paying $1,000 per producing cow.
Johnson said he lost nearly three times that number of cattle. Some of the cows were valued at more than $2,000 not long ago.
Huddler said his insurance policy didn’t cover half of the many miles of fence that need to be repaired or replaced.
“Basically it’s our savings account that’s getting our fence back up,” he said.
But there has been help.
The worst of times usually brings out the best in ranching people. Brass said the fire was still burning when he got his first phone call from someone wanting to send hay to his ranch.
We made it largely on the generosity of others. We were able to get hay in here very quickly. The offers just kept flooding in.
Rancher Dave Brass
“We made it largely on the generosity of others,” Brass said. “We were able to get hay in here very quickly. The offers just kept flooding in.
“We didn’t have to pay for it. For the first month, all I did was haul hay to our cattle.”
Teagarden said the KLA put out a call for donated hay. It didn’t need to ask again.
“Within 24 hours, we had more hay in place or on the road than they could distribute or store,” he said. “The support was pretty amazing.”
The livestock association set up a way for people to donate money to be distributed to ranchers. Teagarden hoped to raise $200,000.
“We ended up raising about $520,000,” he said. “We got donations from, I think, 30-plus states.
“It’s pretty cool, the outpouring that we saw.”
The funds were distributed in early August, through an application process, to ranchers with the most need.
Rod Winkler of the Kansas Farm Service Office said a little more than $7 million in cost-share funding has been provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The funds can be used for fencing and will pay 75 percent of the costs on approved projects.
Winkler said some landowners have already submitted the costs they’ve spent fixing their fences.
A few landowners from separate fires in Reno, Harvey and Comanche counties are also eligible.
Future fires needed
Some think the war on the trees must continue, no matter the current good news.
I can stand on my front porch and not see a live cedar tree. I never dreamed that would be a possibility.
Rancher Ted Alexander
“That fire put me 10 to 15 years ahead on taking out cedars,” Ted Alexander said. “That’s how long it would have taken us to remove that many trees.
“I can stand on my front porch and not see a live cedar tree. I never dreamed that would be a possibility.”
He and his son will keep up their regimented controlled burns and take out trees that fires can’t get by mechanical means.
It will be critical that other ranchers do the same, to stop the trees from taking over again.
All the ranchers said government agencies need to step up education efforts while memories of the Anderson Creek fire are fresh in the minds of local landowners.
Brian Alexander would like to see landowners required to remove all trees within 500 feet of sizable roads. Experienced grass firefighters, he said, can control grass-only fires at places like U.S. 160 if there are no embers blowing across the highway.
It would only be fair, Brian Alexander said, if ranchers got some financial assistance removing cedars from the Red Hills. Hiring specialized machinery can run more than $100 per hour.
“We’re talking about cedar trees, but what we’re really dealing with is water,” he said. “That’s the most valuable natural resource on the planet.
“This could be our chance to make a difference.”