Wildfires Rage Across Plains

Human Life, Livestock, Structure Losses Mounting

Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
The charred remains of a wooden fencepost continue to burn after wildfires swept through northeastern Colorado on Tuesday. Wildfires across the entire High Plains region destroyed homes, farm buildings, fences, crops and livestock, and also resulted in the loss of human lives. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Kanode of Haxtun, Colorado)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Debbie Robinson's family has farmed and ranched in the Buffalo, Oklahoma, area for generations. Located about 20 miles northwest of town, the family farmhouse was home to many family events over the years and lots of great memories.

On Monday, wildfires pushed through the area, burning everything in their path -- including the farmhouse that Robinson and her sister grew up in. While her nephew, who lived in the house, was not hurt, Robinson said the loss of buildings, livestock and fence was extremely overwhelming.

"We had a lot of good family memories there," she told DTN. "While I'm glad we didn't lose any lives, this is the most awful thing I have ever seen, and I was a nurse for many years."

Wildfires burned -- and continue to burn -- through parts of Kansas, Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle. Other areas farther north in eastern Colorado and western Nebraska also reported wildfires this week.

Ryan Kanode, a farmer from Haxtun in northeastern Colorado, said a fire started along a river by Crook, Colorado. It then jumped Interstate 76 and burned southeast to 5 miles north of Fleming, he said.

"About 1 on Tuesday afternoon, they evacuated the entire town of Fleming," Kanode said.

"Also around this time, the wind shifted to almost straight out of the west, and around 2 (p.m.), they evacuated the Haxtun schools as a precaution and had the town of Haxtun basically ready to evacuate."

Kanode said the fire jumped Highway 59 and continued east. Firefighters got it stopped going north of Paoli thanks to 15 different fire departments and multiple farmers with disks and using tenders to haul water.

The fire burned somewhere around 30,000-plus acres in Colorado on Tuesday in about eight hours, he said. Where the fire started was a lot of pasture and Conservation Reserve Program acres. Farther east was dryland wheat, and corn stalks and wheat stubble from last year, he said.

"From what I've heard, there were only three homes lost and there were multiple outbuildings lost," he said.

"The fire burned right up to several houses, but thankfully, for whatever reason, it didn't burn the houses."

FARMERS FACE LOSSES

Unfortunately, this was not the case for Robinson. In addition to the farmhouse she grew up in that her nephew currently lived in, several outbuildings on the farm place also burned down. Some cattle were also lost in the fire as well as several different fences on the farm.

Fires were in the area Monday, but then the winds shifted and the fire moved toward the farm, she said. All but about 30 acres of the farm were burned, Robinson said. Her nephew did manage to get a tractor and pickup out of a shed before the fire struck, thanks to help from neighbors.

"My husband had to put a few head of the cattle down, as they had all their hair burnt off," she said. "Even their eyelashes were gone, and the ear tags we put in their ears had melted away. It was just horrible."

Robinson said about 70,000 acres in Harper County, where Buffalo is located in northwestern Oklahoma, was affected by wildfires earlier this week. Reports from state agencies had about 400,000 acres in Oklahoma affected by the fires.

Robinson and her husband were on their way to town to purchase fencing supplies Wednesday morning to replace some of the fences they lost to the fires. She said they feel fortunate that most of the fence on the farm was still intact.

"You hear about people losing their lives in these fires, especially that young couple from Texas, and it is just heartbreaking," she said. "Yes we lost some possessions, but we are also lucky no one lost their lives."

The couple Robinson was referring to was 20-year-old Cody Crockett of Mclean, Texas, and his girlfriend, 23-year-old Sydney Wallace, who, along with a third person, 35-year-old Sloan Everett, who was helping them, died while trying to save cattle. One of the people died from smoke inhalation and two from burns, according to local media reports. Numerous tributes to the trio filled Facebook and Twitter feeds in the ranching and ag community this week.

Katie Horner, Kansas Department of Emergency Management spokesperson, told DTN late Tuesday afternoon that wildfires were burning all across Kansas but that most fires were located along the Kansas/Oklahoma border back to the Hutchinson area. Roughly 400,000 acres in Kansas were estimated to have been affected by fires this week, she said.

"This would be some rolling terrain with some caves and canyons, so firefighters on the ground have had issues reaching some areas, and it was so windy on Monday our helicopters helping to fight the fires had to be grounded because it was so windy," Horner said.

Ten different state agencies, including the Kansas National Guard, the department of agriculture and the department of forestry, have all come together to battle these wildfires, she said. Six Blackhawk helicopters have been used to fight the fires.

Horner said the small town of Protection, Kansas, was evacuated as fires approached the small Comanche County community. The north side of Hutchinson also saw a partial evacuation as fires came close to the area, she said.

WEATHER RIPE FOR FIRES

Weather conditions this late winter have made the High Plains region ripe for wildfires, according to Bryce Anderson, DTN senior ag meteorologist. Temperatures anywhere from 7 to 10 degrees warmer than normal, drought conditions and huge contrasting air masses that cause high winds have all come together to allow these fires to burn and spread.

"I know we saw some later-winter/early spring fire issues the last couple of years in this region, but it is kind of unusual this time of year," Anderson said. "Normally, you would see this issue later on, like at the end of March into April."

Anderson pointed out increasing drought in the High Plains this spring as the underlying reason for these fires. Last spring, there was no drought east of the Rocky Mountains. This spring, roughly 40% of the Southern Plains is in some kind of drought, he said.

TEXAS HELP

According to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, approximately 440,000 acres have burned in eight Texas Panhandle counties this week.

A&M said in a news release Wednesday the fire has burned hundreds of miles of fences and has led to "uncounted number of dead or injured animals."

As a result of the fires, A&M Extension said it is attempting to establish livestock supply points in Gray and Lipscomb counties to help producers suffering losses. The supply points would be in place to collect and disperse feed, hay, fencing and veterinarian supplies.

According to A&M Extension, there are two supply points in place. That includes one at 202 W. Main St. in Lipscomb, Texas, for the counties of Ochiltree, Lipscomb, Hemphill and Roberts. A second supply point is set up at 301 Bull Barn Drive in Pampa, Texas.

Steve Amosson, AgriLife Extension economist, said donations could help ranchers who face costly losses. For example, according to the A&M news release, it cost about $1,300 to replace a cow-calf pair.

It is estimated to cost $10,000 per mile for a four- to six-wire fence with steel posts.

For cattle or other livestock found with identification, contact the Texas Animal Health Commission at 512-719-0733 or 806-354-9335. Cattle found with a brand can be returned to their owners by contacting the Texas Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association at 817-332-7064.

A&M Extension said when cattle stray onto property in Texas, property owners are required to report them to local sheriff offices within five days be eligible for payment on maintenance or damages caused by livestock gone astray. Questions about carcass disposal should be directed to the Texas Commission on Environment Quality at 800-832-8224.

Find more information about how to donate to families affected by the wildfires here: http://bit.ly/…

DTN Staff Reporter Todd Neeley contributed to this story.

Russ Quinn can be reached at russ.quinn@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @RussQuinnDTN

(TN/AG/ES)