Wildfires in Western Kansas


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Dad has called three times today. “If you want a story…,” he begins.

He tells me about the people traveling toward them to deliver much-needed supplies for the surviving cattle and ranches. Hay, milk for calves, fence posts. The list goes on. The latest group, in particular, is leading a convoy from Michigan and Ohio.

Today, he’s unloaded at least three loads of bales from friends in Northeast Kansas. All are tucked delicately at the edge of the highway where locals in need snag them at feeding times. “Somebody got those,” he says with relief as he counts the emptied spaces while driving down the road.

A couple of days ago, we met two trucks sent from Baldwin City, Kansas. They promised more were on the way.

The compassion comes from every angle and the impact is truly incredible. Somehow your heart finds a guilt-ridden happiness at a time when it is easy to hurt. For most of them, it does hurt. Deeply. But, the stories that fuel that pain are not mine to tell. Those belong to the farms and the people that have built them.

The chaos caused by the fires is still there – slowly fading into the background. Entire farms reduced to dust. Ash lingering in the air. The smell. The thick, dry feel of it settling on your skin, in your eyes, up your nose and in your ears. Charred hair dots the backs of the cattle. Melted ear tags tell an eerie tale of close calls and amazing escapes. Bottle calves squeal for feeding time as ranchers collect the burnt remains of the cows that didn’t make it.

Blackened coils of barbed wire outline the prairie in near-perfect lines on the ground. Even they hold stories of their own – stories only the hands that built them would know to tell you. Stories with such emotion behind them.

That becomes the fundamental struggle of trying to tell you any of this at all. Peering at the dark devastation around me, I heard tale after tale of miracles, heroes, heartbreak, hope, panic and so much more. Coupled with the unique experience that comes with living in a close rural community – I can’t begin to do justice to any aspect of what happened there. Every bit of what they’ve spent lifetimes and generations building disappeared in an instant. It all burned.

Twenty-foot flames flew across the area in a matter of minutes.

Some lost everything.

Some push through with what’s left.

In the aftermath of it all, a sea of black paints a curious picture of what happened. Stories from each rancher, farmer and family slowly piece together the madness of the evening that raged around them. Miracles dotted with mysteries and surrounded by tragedy.

Days after, the tears are farther between. Tired faces are locked in stoic preparation to tackle the seemingly impossible. The town’s days-old bar has become a welcomed gathering ground for friends and families to check in on each other. The social obligation of admitting your terror, relief and gratefulness is a needed therapy greeted with hugs and support.

All-the-while, more trucks roll in – never noticing the burnt asphalt they drive over. More bales are unloaded. More hands are shaken and more hearts are filled.

Tomorrow, the sunrise will creep in on another day. As the ashy sky mutes the early light, herds will thrive on donated bales from across the nation. Donated posts will fall into place – rebuilding the fences and returning the remaining cattle to their pastures. New calves will guzzle donated milk from bottles as 4H-ers give time and care to the animals. The black ground will slowly fade to a lighter shade. Rubble will be hauled away leaving holes in the horizon where homes and barns used to be.

In their vacancy, green will eventually consume the land. Then, even that will slowly dissolve back into the dry, beige prairie that once was. Someday, only the charred planks hidden in the top of the barn or the blackened bases of steel fence posts will tell you the story of the flames.

And that will, forever, be their story to tell.

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Not interested in a print? You can donate any amount directly to the Kansas Livestock Foundation via their online form.

© Laura Noll. All rights reserved. Do not alter or reproduce photographs. Contact Laura for media use and licensing.

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  1. Pingback: Kansas Wildfire Relief (Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado Too) – How and Where to Help – Laura Noll

One Comment

  1. Donna Reynolds Weber Reply

    Thank you for writing this story and bringing attention to the plight of the farmers in Southeast Kansas. I have lived in Pennsylvania for 32 years, but KANSAS will always be HOME.

    1. Laura Post author Reply

      More than happy to do what I can, Donna. The sight was a sad one – I just hope that, by sharing, we can get them some much-needed help!

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