Greg Gardiner is a cowboy. His wide-brimmed hat carries a band darkened by years of sweat and dust. Decades of 100-degree sun, 10-below cold and wicked winds from every direction have left his face as leathery as an old baseball glove. Below his lip is a small goatee and above it a wide trademark mustache.
Several days after the biggest fire in the state’s history swept through Clark County, Gardiner slowly drove along some of his family’s 48,000 acres. Occasional tears left trails through the dust on his face, and he wondered whether he was witnessing the biggest natural disaster his family had seen since they’d arrived by covered wagon in 1885.
Mixed in with the sorrow, though, were tears of happiness.
“I still can’t believe we didn’t get anybody hurt or killed,” he said. “My brother and his wife probably shouldn’t be alive today, but they are.”
He found few signs of life in four hours of checking pastures.
“I know how it sounds, but it’s literally worse than I ever could have imagined,” Gardiner said as he slowly drove by some of the estimated 500 cattle that had died in Monday’s massive wildfire. “They never stood a chance in a lot of these pastures, the fire was so fast.”
Calculating financial losses was nearly as upsetting as the sight of so many dead, bloated cattle.
“You look at all of these fences, and most of them are going to have to be replaced,” Gardiner said. Fencing costs about $10,000 per mile.
His ranch is one of the largest, and most respected, in southwest Kansas. The quality of the family’s Angus cattle has been a source of pride, and national acclaim, for at least 50 years.
Among those 500 dead cows, Gardiner estimated, were probably 300 unborn calves of some of their finest stock.
“You can figure they’d probably averaged about $5,500 apiece at a sale for their (breeding) potential,” Gardiner said. “This isn’t the first catastrophe we’ve faced, but I think it’s going to be the biggest speed bump we’ve run into for the ranch.”
Like others, the Gardiners have endured plenty of bumps over five generations of ranching here. The drought and dust of the 1930s was tough, as was even drier times in the 1950s and about five years ago. His family once lost 2,000 acres when they couldn’t make a payment at a bank. Blizzards in 1992 killed a lot of cattle.
Two wet summers made for great grazing and weight gains in cattle and provided the fuel for flames that 60-mph gusts of wind pushed across the county on Monday. The dead cattle on the ranch will leave an economic impact for several years. He’s thankful that about 1,500 cattle survived in areas that didn’t burn.
While driving the pastures last week, he noticed the prairie grass had reached the mirror on his four-wheel-drive pickup. This week, the pastures were nothing but bare dirt. Strong winds had already swept the ashes away.
Dunes and drifts were gathering where winds deposited blowing sand.
“If the wind gets to blowing, it could cover up some of the little calves that died,” he said. “It’ll at least make them hard to see.” Finding the dead cattle is almost as important as finding the few that are still alive.
Gardiner figures the ranch he shares with two brothers and a combined three sons will qualify for some federal disaster relief. Their cattle were not insured because of high premiums and low payouts.
But they have to go through the usual federal process to get any assistance.
The dead cattle have to be gathered and counted by accredited experts. He’s hoping to use a local veterinarian.
“I guess I don’t know what a dead cow looks like,” Gardiner said during one of many times of light laughter and dark humor. He’s hoping a drone can help locate dead animals.
The ranch also has to follow strict government guidelines because of pollution concerns on what it can do with what will be a mountain of carcasses.
“Normally when you have something like this, you just let these guys clean it up,” he said, looking at the charred remains of a coyote. “But we don’t have any of these to do the cleanup.”
The ashes had barely settled when his family started the recovery program. That included spending hours shooting fatally maimed cattle. Collecting the live cattle he described as “salvageable” wasn’t easy with no fences or corrals to corner the animals so they could be loaded onto trailers.
“My hats off to them,” he said of a young ranching intern and cowboy that gathered a few living cows in one pasture on Tuesday, penning them in the burned, dilapidated remains of what was once a nice corral in the pasture. “I don’t know how they did it, but at times like this, you just have to make do.”
On Wednesday, he found six live cattle and phoned to arrange to get them gathered and moved to some place where they could be fed some hay, though the fires had destroyed most of the bales of hay in the county.
More hay is on the way, and the process of rebuilding fences will begin, hopefully, within a few weeks.
Gardiner said word was sent that Mennonite relief teams from two eastern states were on call to come work on fences, with no charge for labor. Truckloads of hay are already rolling in. Many are coming from ranchers who’ve bought livestock from the Gardiners in the past.
Randall Spare, the family’s veterinarian, said the Gardiners have long been known for taking exceptional care of their customers.
“Now it’s their turn to repay them,” Spare said of the customers. “The Gardiners are the cream of the crop, like their cattle. I’m not surprised so many people are wanting to help them.”
At least a dozen times Gardiner answered his cellphone as his pickup slowly rolled across a landscape that looked barren. Many were clients who called to ask what they could send or bring and to ask how the Gardiners were holding up.
“It’s really something, when you hear a pause on the end of the line, and you know it’s because they’re crying, because they care that much,” Gardiner said. “It gets like that with ranching. It’s like we’re all family.”
But it’s the fact that all of his family is still alive that causes the weathered, 58-year-old to stop the truck, think for a bit and sob. On Monday afternoon, he watched his brother Mark and his wife, Eva, disappear behind a wall of fire as they tried to save their horses and dogs at their home, which was destroyed by the fire.
“I had no choice but to turn around and drive away, with the fire all around me,” he said softly and slowly. “For a half-hour I didn’t know if my brother and his wife were dead or alive. I really didn’t.”
He and some firefighters gathered in the middle of a field of wheat, so short and green it wouldn’t burn.
“It was so smoky I didn’t even know exactly where we were at,” he said. “But then a firefighter came driving by and told us everybody made it out. That’s when I knew Mark and his wife were alive. That’s when I knew everything would eventually be all right. I’m telling you, that’s when you learn what’s really important.”