By DAVE BERGMEIER
High Plains Journal
Farmers and ranchers are continuing cleanup work from a Dec. 15 windstorm that led to a wildfire scorching nearly 163,000 acres in central Kansas. That fire is now known as the Four County Fire as the epicenter was in Ellis, Russell, Rooks and Osborne counties.
The Kansas Forest Service originally reported nearly 400,000 acres burned in a preliminary report but revised it downward as it worked with the National Interagency Fire Coordination Center to get additional information. Wind speeds exceeded 80 mph during the peak of the storm in the afternoon, according to the National Weather Service in Dodge City.
The wind and fire impact was felt in and around the region. The body of Derrick Kelley, 36, Hays, was found near his burned vehicle in rural Ellis County. Farmer and rancher Richard Shimanek, 84, Leoti, Kansas, died from injuries he sustained while trying to put out a fire at his home. The windstorm was also the cause of an eight-vehicle accident that claimed the lives of two western Kansas men well known and respected in the agricultural sector. Thomas W. Peterson, 55, of Cimarron, and Doyle E. Kauk, 78, of Hoxie, died while trying to help accident victims along U.S. Highway 160 in rural Grant County.
Generous contributors from across the country continue to donate funds for wildfire and severe storm relief to the Kansas Livestock Foundation. As of Dec. 21, the foundation collected or had commitments for $507,748. All the proceeds will be used to help producers affected by recent wildfires and severe weather.
Large contributions or commitments to KLF relief efforts have been from Cargill at $100,000; Tyson at $100,000 and an online stallion auction that raised $47,485. In addition, four Farm Credit Associations of Kansas, Oklahoma Ag Credit, Premier Farm Credit, Farm Credit of Southern Colorado and CoBank are donating a total of $141,000 to KLF.
Donations still are welcome and encouraged to help producers rebuild. To donate, go to www.kla.org/affiliates/kansas-livestock-foundation/donations. Checks can be sent to KLF, 6031 SW 37th Street, Topeka, KS 66614. Please put wildfire relief in the memo line.
For hay and fencing supply donations, Heartland Regional Stockyards at Plainville and the Russell County Fairgrounds in Russell are serving as collection and distribution sites. Contact the auction market at 785-688-4080 and the Extension office at 785-483-3157.
Top ag officials tour
Secretary of Agriculture Mike Beam and Animal Health Commissioner Dr. Justin Smith, DVM, visited local officials, farmers and ranchers in several of the Kansas communities which are working to recover from the wildfires and storm that raged through the area.
There has been an outpouring of support from near and far, offering everything from clothing and food to labor and use of large equipment for recovery efforts.
Local services—including local emergency management offices, Extension offices, veterinarians, churches and others—have been instrumental in providing the help that the families in that area need right now. They know the communities and the people involved, and have been able to work on specific needs of the individual families who were impacted, ensuring that they have safe places to stay and support as they move forward.
“Kansans—and farmers and ranchers in particular—are resilient,” said Secretary Beam. “Even in the best of times, they endure under forces they can’t control and keep working day-in and day-out to care for their livestock and to harvest their crops.”
He noted that many of the ranchers focused their most immediate attention, after the fires were extinguished, to care for their livestock and help their neighbors, even before considering their own personal needs. “This disaster will certainly test that resilience to the limit, but the communities which surround these individuals will continue to support them and will help them persevere.”
The total impact of the storm is difficult to quantify, partly due to the many layers of the disaster. Clearly, the Four County Fire, which burned over a 100,000 acres, had the largest immediate impact. But there were several other smaller fires across the state as well, which affected Kansans in other communities, Beam said.
The extreme high winds caused damage to many agricultural entities statewide, especially those with greenhouses and high tunnel growing systems, Beam said. In addition, the wind, dust and ash may have caused damage to crops in the ground, like the winter wheat crop, that will not be known for several months.
What is known is that dozens of homes were reported to be destroyed or heavily damaged, over 1,000 cattle were lost, and thousands more cattle survived but are displaced because of the loss of grassland to sustain them, the state secretary of agriculture said.
“Ranchers are now focused on the health and welfare of the cattle who have survived,” said Smith. “They may still see health decline due to exposure to smoke and heat, but most should recover. The majority of those cattle will need to move to other locations, though, because the grazing land destroyed in the fire won’t grow back for several months.”
This recovery can take a significant physical and emotional toll on the individuals who have experienced these losses. Resources are available to help those who need this support and can be found at KansasAgStress.org.
Other information about recovery efforts and lists of resources available to those who have suffered damage from the storm can be found at KDA’s Recovery Resources webpage at agriculture.ks.gov/Recovery. That page also includes ways to make a donation to help with recovery efforts.
Dave Bergmeier can be reached at 620-227-1822 or [email protected].