Monday and Tuesday an inferno of towering flames miles wide rolled across this countryside. Thousands of cattle were killed and homes turned to ash as the flames took generations worth of work and dreams when they passed.
Amid the loss, the giving began.
At first, it was mostly small things.
“A small bottle of eye wash seemed about as good as it could get,” Bill Neier, a volunteer firefighter from Ashland, said of a gift he got while fighting the fires. “I’m not sure anything has ever felt so good.”
As an initial spark grew into the gargantuan wildfire, locals have watched the kindness of others also grow and spread.
“Someone just called with 300 acres of good grass, with water on it,” Rhiannon Hazen, an assistant at Ashland Veterinary Center, said of someone offering the use of their pasture.
A feedlot in Cimarron had just offered to feed 1,000 head, for the cost of the feed.
While Hazen was on the phone with another person wanting to help, Jacob Kehler of El Dorado and a friend showed up at the veterinary office, asking directions to a ranch that needed help cleaning up dead and injured cattle. They both were prepared to put in a 14-hour day.
“We’re just trying to connect the dots, get these offers together with people who need them,” said veterinarian Randall Spare.
And so it went at many places in this community so small and so tight knit that people just list the last four digits when giving out their phone numbers.
At Spotts Lumber, a $50,000 gift from a local business owner had Sue Chester divvying up fencing material amid fire-stricken ranchers.
A few blocks south, father and son Neil and Jeff Kay spent most of the day on the phone.
“Yesterday I probably had 75 calls from people just wanting to donate hay to feed these ranchers’ cattle,” Jeff Kay said. “We’ve already had hay coming in from most parts of Kansas, South Dakota, Missouri, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Texas, and have loads coming from Cleveland, Ohio.”
Inside, his father was trying to match someone wanting to donate 1,000 bales of hay with someone who was volunteering the services of a trucking company.
“We’ve cried a million tears over this, and we’ll cry a million more,” Neil Kay said. “But it’s time to move forward, and thankfully people are wanting to help us move.”
Downtown, inside Stockgrowers State Bank, Kendal Kay, who is Ashland’s mayor as well as the bank president, stared through red eyes as he made phone calls and punched numbers into a computer. While some were fighting fires, he’d logged hours trying to find financial relief for his clients. His bank donated $25,000 to relief efforts, hoping to draw more funding from other financial institutions around the state.
He’d been up late, and then again early, looking for ways to free up money for loans to rebuild millions of dollars in fencing and to restock pastures. He worked to reassure burned-out clients that they’d find a way to deal with current loans.
“The main thing I know is that Ashland and Clark County will survive,” he said. “But what we don’t know is where we’re going to get enough money to do that.”
A federal relief program caps aid at around $125,000 per rancher. That’s not even enough to replace fencing on some large pastures. One ranch lost an estimated $1.56 million in calves.
“We’ve always believed that we can take care of ourselves, that we didn’t need anybody else to do it,” said Kendal Kay. “This is different. Now it’s going to be time for us to accept some help.”
While aid from state or federal sources could be months to years away, help from the ranchers and farmers was instantaneous.
Spare and Kendal and Neil Kay said the flames were still scorching their county when their phones started ringing with farmers and ranchers wanting to send some sort of aid. They weren’t surprised.
A year ago, Spare said Ashland ranchers immediately responded when they heard of the severity of the Anderson Creek Fire in Barber County.
The Gardiner Ranch, which lost about 500 cattle in Monday’s fire, had sent tons of hay last year to a charred ranch in nearby Comanche County. Spare said Clark County rancher Dave Bouziden, who lost his house and more than 200 head of cattle Monday, last spring had fed 130 head of cattle for a Barber County ranch, for free.
So it’s always gone in ranch country.
“That county line don’t mean anything. State lines don’t either,” Neil Kay said. “We’re pretty independent, but helping others is just what you do. You don’t think about it as being nothing special. You just do it.”
Shortly after lunch on Thursday, Brian Schmeeckle, a farmer from Pierceville, arrived with 30 huge bales of hay. The semi rig was his. The hay bales had been donated by a friend. He said they just both got busy when they heard of the fire.
“I told my wife I really didn’t have time to be doing this, but these ranchers didn’t have time for their herds and pastures to get all burned up, either,” he said. “If it had been our area that’d been hit, I can guarantee you, absolutely, these people over here would have been driving hay our way. It’s just the right thing to do.”
“Just the right thing” seems to be the theme of so much generosity from across the nation.
Bill Gourley doubts many of the ranchers in Kansas have heard of the town of Crane, where his family raises cattle in southern Missouri. All he knows is he has a lot of hay, and somebody else needs it.
“I have one bunch of 1,000 bales I can give, and I can give some more if I need to,” he said. “My family has always helped people when we could.” That “help” will amount to about 1.8 million pounds of forage he’s giving away to other cattle.
Gourley offered the hay on Facebook to anybody that would haul it. In less than 24 hours he thinks he has all of his bales heading to fire-stricken areas in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Many are being taken by a Baptist aid group out of Arkansas that quickly responded to the post.
“Right now we’re having to widen our driveway so we can get the bigger trucks in,” Gourley said Friday afternoon. “We may not have 20 trucks backed up waiting to get in, but then again, we might.”
Ranchers say with rain there could be enough grass regrown on the prairies within six weeks to start grazing some cattle. Even if that grass is there, the fences to keep cattle contained may not be. Fencing takes time to install, is expensive, and most ranches lost many miles of it.
“You’re looking at at least $8,000 per mile, and we have hundreds of miles to be replaced,” said Neil Kay. “That $50,000 that was donated to Spotts Lumber for fencing materials was gone almost instantly. They put a $2,500 cap per rancher on it. That’s not even a drop in the bucket, but it helps.”
He’s been helping people who wanted to donate money toward fencing materials. The store is selling material at cost.
But while ranchers, businesses, insurance adjusters and bankers try to figure out how to bring in the many millions of dollars needed to get the area headed in the right direction, the $20 donations, trailers loaded with hay, and other aid keeps rolling in.
Knowing it’s coming, and from so many people, is often more important to the community than the value of the gift.
Returning to his job at the bank Thursday morning, Neier, the volunteer firefighter, carefully carried a paper sack. On the sack, given to him for lunch the day before, was the crude, watercolor image of a fireman’s helmet with “Thank You” printed in large letters. First-graders at Fowler Grade School, about 40 miles away, had decorated dozens of bags for firefighters’ sack lunches.
Though he’d been exhausted and hungry, Neier said he stared at the sack a few seconds, and started sobbing.
“I was thinking of all those little kids, taking the time to do something like that for us. I’ve lost it a few times since just thinking about them doing that for us over here,” he said, having to catch his breath every few words. “I’m putting that sack up in my office, where I can look at it. You have no idea how much something like that means after something like this. You just can’t put a value on it.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Bill Neier's name.
How to help
The Kansas Livestock Foundation, 785-273-5115, is coordinating donations of hay and material. Checks may be mailed to the foundation at 6031 SW 37th St., Topeka, KS 66614. “Fire relief fund” should be written in the memo line. Online donations can be made at www.kla.org/donationform.aspx.
In Ashland, Jeff Kay, 620-635-0072, is coordinating donations of hay. Neil Kay, 620-635-5001, is collecting money for fencing materials.