United Recovery

Town Bands Together to Help after Fire

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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Donated fencing supplies and hay sit at Ashland Feed and Seed in Ashland, Kansas, on May 17. This area was the main drop-off point in the town after the March 6 wildfires. (DTN photo by Russ Quinn)

ASHLAND, Kan. (DTN) -- The town of Ashland, Kansas, lies along what was once a military road from Fort Dodge (now Dodge City, Kansas) to the north and Fort Supply, Oklahoma, in the Indian Territory to the south. The town of 816 people sits along the road where soldiers and supplies moved nearly 150 years ago.

Ashland and Clark County were the center of March wildfires that burned 300,000 acres, or roughly 80% of the county. The same pathways that moved basic human supplies between the forts in the 1870s now saw a massive influx of supplies to sustain ranchers who lost everything in the fires -- including hay, feeds, fencing supplies, clothing, food, water and canned goods.

While they were not perfect, the small town's population did the best it could to manage these supplies as well as get them out to those who needed them most, while still trying to do their normal jobs. For months, many volunteers donated their own time often late into the night to help.

COMMUNITY PULLS TOGETHER

In the days following the March 6 fires, Ashland was faced with effects of the largest wildfire in the history of the state. While fire didn't burn the town itself, it did burn in every direction around the town. People lost homes, buildings, livestock and miles of fences.

Within days, calls came from people who wanted to donate supplies. Kendal Kay, president of Stockman's Bank in Ashland and the town's mayor, said a meeting was held quickly and a task force of 18 community members was formed to handle the aftermath of the fires.

"It was recommended that we pick 10 to 12 people but we couldn't narrow it down that much, so we went with 18 key players," Kay told DTN.

Each committee member was in charge of a certain aspect of relief efforts. The different areas included coordinating hay donations, food and water, cash donations and funding, governmental concerns and communications.

Brice Gibson, Kansas State Extension educator for Clark County, was appointed to the task force. He coordinated clothing and canned goods donations. These were stored in the 4-H building on the grounds of the Clark County Fairgrounds in Ashland.

"My first day in this job was Feb. 13, just a few weeks earlier, so it has been an eventful start to my career here," Gibson said.

The donated items were given out on a first-come, first-serve basis, he said.

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Those affected by the fires are proud, independent people who don't want to depend on others, but they really needed the items. Some people lost everything they had except for the clothes on their backs.

FUNDS ESTABLISHED

A fund was set up through the Kansas Livestock Association, a fund set up previously to help people affected by other fires in the state. Now the fund handles money donations for Ashland's recovery, to help fire victims. People needed to apply for the assistance. The Stockman's Bank contributed the first $25,000, Kay said.

"We are a community bank and so we kicked off the fund, Kay said.

In addition, the town of Ashland already had the Ashland Community Foundation in place for 20 years to help raise money for different projects. After this year's fires, the foundation took in money donated from all across the nation, he said.

The fire occurred as many ranchers were preparing to start another grazing season. As a result, hay was the item many other ranchers and farmers could donate easiest, Kay said. They had green grass growing, so donating at least some of their remaining hay was an easy decision.

"We had 50 loads of hay in one day a couple times," Kay said.

Ashland Feed and Seed, operated by Kay's parents, brother and sister, offered to coordinate donations of hay and fencing supplies. Kay's brother, Jeff, helped handle this aspect of the donations. His cell phone constantly rang for months after the fire.

Janell Smit, office manager of Ashland Feed and Seed and sister to Kendal Kay, said she posted a note on Facebook in the days after the fire saying how much help Ashland was going to need. The message spread across social media, as well as by word of mouth, and people called to ask how they could help.

"My dad, Neal, said it was because of me and my one post why we started to see the donations," Smit told DTN. "I don't know, though, there was a lot of people doing the same thing at the time."

A few days later the first loads of supplies arrived in the region. They worked closely with KLA to get the information out that Ashland Feed and Seed was the contact point for hay, feed and fencing supply donations.

TWEAKING THE SYSTEM

At first, hay donations were stacked in a lot on the south side of Ashland Feed and Seed. After seeing how the loading and unloading process was hard on the bales, coordinators decided instead to lead loaded hay trucks directly to ranches that needed hay.

Kay said the tweak helped the hay donation plan become more efficient. He estimated about 80% of the hay was handled in this fashion.

Donations also included pallets of milk replacer and bags of feed. These items had to be stored inside the business.

Smit said March is a typically slower month for the business so they could continue to focus on their business and also work on the relief efforts. However, this still made for some long days for volunteers.

"For about four or five weeks there we were working until 9 p.m. to midnight, every night, seven days a week," Smit said. "A lot of times I just had to leave the office and the calls would go to voicemail and we would get to them the next morning."

Donations slowed considerably by mid-May and the region is slowly returning to normal. Cattle are grazing again and fences are being rebuilt. Kay called it a "new normal."

Smit said some hay and fencing supplies still sit in their lot, and some pallets of feed and milk replacer remain in their building. Both will be cleared this summer before the sorghum harvest begins.

Ashland Feed and Seed still occasionally receives phone calls from as far away as California, Florida and Rhode Island from people who called right after the fires to check on them to make sure they are still OK. The phone calls are much appreciated, she said.

"The support from people all over was amazing to see," she said. "In many cases, it was rural America pulling together to lend us a helping hand and I think we will all pay it forward someday."

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

(ES/CZ/TN/SK)

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Russ Quinn