State

Sisters give each other strength to rebuild after wildfires

From left, Molly Beckford, Jenny Betschart and Katie Shaw, known as the “Giles sisters,” sit on the porch at their parents’ home on their ranch north of Ashland. All three sisters lost their homes in the wildfires that swept through Clark County.
From left, Molly Beckford, Jenny Betschart and Katie Shaw, known as the “Giles sisters,” sit on the porch at their parents’ home on their ranch north of Ashland. All three sisters lost their homes in the wildfires that swept through Clark County. The Wichita Eagle

“I’m really glad their houses burned down with mine,” Katie Shaw said as her sisters broke out in laughter. “I’m just kidding. I’m just kidding.”

But they’ll build it back together, said Jenny Betschart, the oldest of the three women whom many in the Ashland area still refer to by their maiden name as the “Giles sisters.”

“We’ll make it through this,” Shaw agreed.

The sisters are moving on from a terrifying night when fire separated them from each other and destroyed their homes. They are relying on each other and the strength of family.

The three have divided up ranch tasks. Shaw has taken control of hay and feed, Betschart has dealt with the dead cattle and now government relations, and the third sister, Molly Beckford, is in charge of the living cattle.

“Everybody has their area, and we work together well,” Betschart said. “The divide and conquer – we were able to get a lot done in a few days.”

The sisters grew up on the ranch, their grandparents taking them along as they worked. It was a childhood that Betschart described as “perfect.” In the end, they married and built homes on the ranch.

Now, driving across the ranch, they see reminders of the night that could have separated the sisters forever.

When the fires started last week, family members began to move cattle to green wheat pastures.

After Shaw saw her two children and her sisters’ children safely into a car with her mother and husband, she took a trailer to her father’s house, trying to rescue the family horses.

By the time she called Betschart, she was trapped in a wheat field, alone.

“I could see fireballs,” Shaw said. “They would come and hit the truck and make the truck rock back and forth. You could feel the heat. And then I didn’t know – either I’d get burned up or I’d die of smoke inhalation, one or the other.”

All she could think of was getting back to her children, ages 4 and 2.

“That was the scariest part of the night, talking to her on the phone,” Betschart said. Betschart stayed on the phone with her sister, praying as they waited for the flames to pass.

Beckford was also on her own, driving on a different part of the ranch than the rest of the family.

“That was such a sickening feeling, knowing everyone was back this way,” Beckford said. “And it was scary knowing – when you’re scared you want to go home to what you know, and we were just driving.”

She called a fourth sister, who lives in Texas, and stayed on the phone with her.

Some of the family were able to evacuate to Protection, then to Coldwater. They later tried to go back to the ranch but had to seek safety in a green wheat field as a second fire came through.

Beckford’s husband and a ranch employee waited out the fire in a hay shed, putting out fires with minerals or by beating back the flames. A wheat field is just yards from the shed, but the smoke was too thick for them to find it.

In the end, the family survived. Now, aunts, uncles and cousins have poured into the area, eager to help. Their fourth sister has also joined them, helping to rebuild the ranch.

People donated thousands of tons of hay to Kansas fire victims from many states. Editor's note: Brad Zollinger's name is misspelled in the video. (video by Michael Pearce)

After the fire, the losses are great.

Out of five houses on the Giles Ranch, only two made were unscathed: a guest house and the house belonging to the women’s parents.

Grass burned to within a few feet of the sisters’ parents’ house. The house survived because friends stayed, putting fires out with garden hoses.

Betschart estimates they lost about 500 cows and 500 calves, burying about $1 million worth of cattle.

All of the ranch’s pasture land burned, leaving field after field of barren ground. The only green on the ranch is the occasional wheat field, fields that saved about 1,000 cattle from the flames. Another 600 to 800 cattle were in a feed yard and also survived.

A twisted heap of metal is all that’s left of the ranch’s machine shop.

“Mom, what’s that?” asked Hayden Shaw, 2.

“It’s gone – it’s the machine shed,” Shaw told her son.

“Machine shed,” Hayden said, looking out the window of his aunt’s work truck at the heap of metal. “Machine shed.”

In the days since the fire, the “Giles sisters” feel as if they’ve hardly had time to spend with each other, they’ve been so busy.

They’ll eventually think about rebuilding their homes on the ranch. Now, thinking about things like fencing, hay and insurance takes top priority.

Beckford said she’s been amazed by the support of strangers who’ve offered their help.

It’s family, however, who have acted as each other’s rocks.

“I wouldn’t want to be doing it with anyone else,” Betschart said, looking at Shaw and Beckford. “They are amazing. Our husbands are amazing. Our parents are wonderful, and our aunts and uncles that are here and our cousins that have come – it’s family. We couldn’t do it without our family.”

Firefighters from across the state battle wildfires Monday night and Tuesday morning near the towns of Protection and Ashland. Thousands of acres were burned by wind driven fires. (video by Bo Rader / kansas.com / March 6, 2017)

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @KathsBurgess

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