State

Everywhere was burning, so he had to become his own firefighter

Drone video captures wildfire-ravaged Kansas landscape

A drone captures stark images of the scarred Kansas land near Coldwater and Greensburg on March 8, 2017. (Courtesy of Jonah Sowa/Kiowa County Media Center)
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A drone captures stark images of the scarred Kansas land near Coldwater and Greensburg on March 8, 2017. (Courtesy of Jonah Sowa/Kiowa County Media Center)

Wildfires aren’t that unusual, according to Bill Barby, 63, who has spent his whole life working on his 3,700-acre ranch that spreads across Clark and Comanche counties.

About every 10 years a wildfire will spring up on the ranch. But in the past, volunteer firefighters would rush in from neighboring towns and counties.

Greg Gardiner's family has been ranching in Clark County for five generations, having homesteaded in 1885. This week's fires are their ranch's worst natural disaster, killing about 500 cattle. (Video and Photos by Mike Pearce / The Wichita Eagle)

Not this time, as about 712,000 acres were set aflame across the state. Separate fires caused evacuations as far north as Wilson, 130 miles away, and 140 miles to the east near Hutchinson.

And in Clark County, the largest fire, which had roared in from Oklahoma, to the west, took a turn on Monday night to the southeast and barreled down toward Barby’s ranch near the Oklahoma border.

The changing winds had turned this already massive fire into long fingers of fire, one of which burned off the eastern edge of his ranch in Comanche County.

This time he was alone. He took a truck with just 60 gallons of water on the back and headed out the headquarters of the ranch, where the barns and equipment were.

The rains had been plentiful this year, a welcome respite from a devastating drought in 2012 that he was still recovering from. But that meant that grass was especially high, so as drought conditions returned to southern Kansas in March, there was lots of grass around his barn to burn. And because of extremely low humidity, which left the grass dry and brittle, the fire eventually consumed all 3,700 acres on his ranch, including much of his fencing.

“I was out there fighting it all night long and no help came and it was just heartbreaking to watch it burn,” Barby said.

But Barby managed to spray just enough water, in just the right spots at the right time, to save his buildings and equipment.

Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Michael Racy updates the status of the Clark County fires from the command post in Ashland, Kansas. (March 7, 2017)

He looked over at his brother’s 6,000 unburned acres to the west, that night, and thought about how unlucky he was.

Until the next day when the winds changed again and destroyed all 6,000 acres of his brother’s ranch as well.

Barby only faced the most dangerous head-fire, which moves as fast as the wind and with smoke that will kill people and cattle, on the eastern part of his ranch. Most of his ranch burned slowly, as the side of the fire slowly burned its way across the rest of his ranch.

But his brother wasn’t so lucky: his ranch was wiped out quickly the next day, although the house and equipment was spared.

“When I drove out (my brother’s ranch) wasn’t even burned and I thought, ‘Man, mine is all gone.’ What I didn’t know at the time, God was sparing me because the next day it came back and burned all that too,” Barby said. “Nobody is safe when these fires are burning because the wind can change and do crazy things.”

Several of Barby’s friends have taken in some of his cattle, until the grass returns, and he’s paying to have some others boarded in Oklahoma. He’s feeding donated hay to 100 still on his property.

The big task on Friday was to rebuild the fencing in one pasture because, at the moment, his cows were wandering free.

Drone footage shows burned fields and a burned out barn and garage near Ashland, Kansas. After the fires swept through, winds started stripping away the topsoil, creating dust storms. (Courtesy video)

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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