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Wildfire on the Great Plains

March 20, 2017

The southern Great Plains endured an unusually wet summer last year, followed by a very dry winter this year. That combination is dangerous – the summer rains thicken the growth of prairie grass, which the winter dries to kindling. By January, Kansas had already endured three large wildfires – a “large” wildfire being one that burns at least 300 acres of grassland.

On March 4, the Lawrence, Kansas, Journal-World ran a prophetic Associated Press article describing fire officials’ worry that the potential for wildfire this year was worse than last year, which saw record wildfire destruction in Kansas. The volunteer fire chief of Marquette, Kansas, told the Associated Press, “It’s really, really getting dry out there, but holy cow, there’s so much fuel out there on some of these pastures it’s just unbelievable. If we get the wrong wind, we could have some big problems.”

The “wrong wind” came sooner than the fire chief might have hoped. The next day, March 5, gusting winds fed a number of wildfires across Kansas. Over the next few days, wildfires set new records for destruction: more than 1,500 square miles of grassland were burned across Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado, including the largest single wildfire in Kansas history – 861 square miles, versus the previous record of 488 square miles in 2016. Scores of homes and barns were lost, thousands of head of cattle killed, and seven people died – from the three Texas ranch hands who died from smoke inhalation and burns while trying to save their cattle, to the 63-year old Oklahoma woman who died from a heart attack while fighting the fire alongside her husband.

The worst devastation was concentrated in Clark County, Kansas. An estimated 85 percent of the county’s land was burned, and more than 3,500 head of  cattle were lost – first in the fire itself, then afterward as ranchers shot animals that were found alive but badly burned.

It is perhaps excusable, given all else that is going on just now – but still, perhaps not – that this story of devastation and loss has gotten so little attention in the national media. As far as I can tell from internet searches, the first national report of the wildfire came in today’s New York Times, two weeks after the fires raged through the plains.

But it’s not only the media who have paid little attention: the Trump Administration has been MIA. As lame as was George Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina, he did inspect the damage two days after the hurricane hit New Orleans. A Kansas State University agricultural agent put it this way: “This is our Hurricane Katrina.”

The governors of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas have declared states of emergency, but the federal government has not. Private aid has begun to flow, in forms from donations of hay to feed the cattle that survived the fire to donations of money to pay for the funerals of the dead ranch hands. But no federal aid has arrived.

The Times reports that devastated ranchers are eligible for assistance from the federal Department of Agriculture: up to $200,000 to replace a rancher’s burned fences; up to $125,000 for livestock losses. One Clark County rancher estimates that replacing 200 miles of burned fencing will cost him $2 million; the auction value of his lost cattle (that is, not including their breeding value) is another $1 million. “Like many ranchers,” the Times notes, this rancher insured his house and his ranch equipment, but not his livestock or his fence, because premiums would be “impossibly expensive.”

President Donald Trump’s budget outline for fiscal year 2018 calls for a 21 percent reduction in the Department of Agriculture budget. None of the aid programs that are now critical to southern plains ranchers are on the list of programs Trump proposes to eliminate, but they may well be on the list of programs Trump proposes to reduce.

Some of us believe in a vigorous federal government, not just in national defense and national security, but also in national health, education and welfare, and we’re willing to pay the taxes that are needed to sustain such a federal government. High on the list of the priorities of a vigorous federal government must always be disaster relief. When terrorists strike New York, when a hurricane devastates New Orleans, or when wildfires decimate Clark County, a vigorous federal government is quick to assist.

Even if the ranchers of Kansas can make good on their staggering financial losses, they are facing years of clean-up and restoration. Ranchers are facing what the Times called “an existential threat to a way of life that has sustained them since homesteading days” in the late 1800s.

It makes no difference that 83 percent of Clark County voters cast ballots for Trump. It is not relevant whether Clark County voters see a connection between a vigorous federal response to prairie fires and a vigorous federal response to urban problems. Ranchers on the Great Plains have suffered a terrible blow, and we should be able to count on our federal government to go to their aid.

Kansas ranchers are feeling forgotten by our federal government and by a president who ran on a campaign to remember our “forgotten men and women.” They’d like a little financial assistance, of course, but at this point even just a little recognition would be nice. Trump could pay a visit, one rancher suggested. Or he could mention the disaster in one of his tweets: “Two sentences would go a long way.”


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