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Long road to recovery for Kansas ranchers after wildfires

December 27, 2021 GMT

PARADISE, Kan. (AP) — Ranchers in western Kansas have begun to recover from the deadly wildfires that torched their land earlier this month, but they acknowledge it will be a long process.

Two men died and the Kansas Forest Service estimates that around 163,000 acres of land were burned on Dec. 15 in fast-spreading fires driven by wind gusts of up to 100 mph.

Rich Koester, whose ranch ear the Russell County town of Paradise was among the many that were damaged, is typically busy caring for newborn calves or preparing his herd for winter this time of year. Instead, he’s been busy burying livestock.

“It was burning so fast that it just went over the top of everything. … A lot of the cattle didn’t have a chance,” Koester told KCUR-FM while fighting back tears. “I don’t know how any of mine survived.”

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The fire killed more than one-third of his 200-head herd and engulfed every bit of his roughly 800-acre pasture.

“As far as you can see around here, it’s burnt,” he said. “It took all of it.”

Near Koester’s ranch, other fields and rolling grassland hills are charred black. Ash gray tree stumps and scorched yucca stems poke out from mounds of dust. Half-burned wooden fence posts hang from barbed wire.

Shawna Hartman, a Kansas Forest Service spokeswoman, said the state’s usual wildfire season hits in the spring. But the abnormally dry conditions in western and central Kansas this fall — Kansas State University’s research center in Hays has recorded no rainfall in the area since Nov. 3 — left the region ripe for devastating wildfires.

“It was definitely a perfect storm,” she said. “These fires ran for 20-plus miles in an afternoon. … It’s very, very reminiscent of what you would see in California.”

People have come together to help each other. The 4-H building in Russell was set up to collect donations, everything from barbed wire and hay bales to winter clothing and phone chargers. GoFundMe pages for Kansans who lost their farms, ranches and homes drew tens of thousands of dollars in donations from around the U.S.

At Koester’s ranch, people showed up with horses and four-wheelers to help round up his surviving cattle, many of which escaped to neighboring land after the fences burned. On the day Koester buried some of his cattle, volunteers brought in Jeeps and ATVs from two counties away to help him gather carcasses.

Koester said his biggest immediate concern is deciding which of his remaining cattle need medicine for their burns and which should be put down.

But first, he stopped to check in on a neighbor who also lost his pasture to the fire.

“You help them, they’ll help you, and you just pass it on,” Koester said. “That’s the way it is out here.”