Tiffany Vincent came to Kansas to burn prairie grass. But much of this week she’s been taking a chain saw to huge trees.
“Sometimes tornadoes happen,” said Vincent, an Iowa Conservation Corps member working at the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.
Her six-person crew spent much of Saturday night in a cramped, above-ground shelter as two tornadoes cut paths up to a half-mile wide through the refuge.
“It kind of puts the wild into (a) wildlife refuge,” deputy refuge manager Steve Karel said of dealing with storm damage.
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It’s thought to be the first significant tornado damage in the refuge’s 50-plus-year history.
Karel and David Farmer, a wildlife refuge specialist, said many roads through the refuge’s 22,000 acres were impassable Sunday morning because of downed power lines and/or fallen trees.
Some signs were destroyed, as were several windmills and lots of barbed-wire fencing. On a Monday airboat survey, Karel found sizable debris in one of the marshes. A large livestock feed bunk, from who knows where, sits in a field.
And while the refuge’s lone bald eagle nest is intact in a mighty cottonwood, Farmer said the staff fears its valuable contents may have been killed.
Lately only one adult bald eagle has been seen at the nest. Last week there were two that often showed behavior that indicated they were feeding young.
Farmer said staff members “aren’t optimistic of any hatchling survival.”
Though the tornado damage is obvious and widespread, Karel said things could have been much worse.
None of the refuge’s facilities were damaged. Saturday night his biggest concern was the mid-refuge bunkhouse and education center where the Conservation Corps crew and a volunteer were staying.
The crew was in the middle of a two-week stretch of work at Quivira.
Erik Lindsay, crew leader, said the team of 20-somethings spent much of Saturday watching the skies and television reports and listening to radios. All said they were in danger. Luckily the specially made storm shelter was just a few yards away.
“When we heard the warnings for Stafford County, we went into the shelter,” he said. “We stayed about an hour. Later that night we went back when the straight-line winds got so high.”
The worst of the storms passed about a half-mile north of the shelter and bunkhouse.
The team is one of several formed within most Midwestern states. Lindsay said their main job this year is to work on prescribed burnings in about six states, including three national refuges in Kansas.
“Luckily we had some disaster training,” he said of the cleanup work they’ve been done this week. “It’s come in handy.”
Karel said having the crew at Quivira for about a week after the damage is handy for the refuge, too.
Lindsay, from Nebraska, and Vincent, from Michigan, said they signed on with the Conservation Corps because of a love of working outdoors, the chance to see so many public lands and to meet assorted staffs.
Lindsay said many corps members hope it helps lead them to a natural resources career.
Dealing with the storm damage is giving the crew appreciated experience. Cutting up Quivira’s storm-damaged cottonwood and locust trees isn’t just another day in the timber.
“You get trees that are blown down and lying on top of each other so you have to be careful,” Lindsay said, “and the wood’s really twisted so you don’t know how it will react.”
Karel said having the crew on the refuge wasn’t the only good timing for which he’s thankful.
None of the damaged fences or windmills are where cattle are currently grazing.
He doesn’t think the storms caused serious damage or leaking at the oil wells and tanks that are on the refuge.
Wildlife populations are currently fairly low, too. All of the endangered whooping cranes that used the refuge during this spring’s migrations had already gone north.
And the scores of huge cottonwoods destroyed are not a loss since the refuge has been working to remove trees and restore prairie to most of the area.
“There’s never a good time for something like this,” Karel said, “but the timing is better now than it probably ever could have been.”