Alva Review-Courier -

By Amy Bickel
Hutchinson News 

Gyp Hills shows revival after wildfire


March 24, 2017

GYP HILLS, Kan. (AP) — As his mud-covered pickup comes over a rise on a recent morning, mist blankets the horizon of Gyp Hills grass.

Rancher Dave Johnson is out feeding his pregnant cows like he does several days a week during the winter. They follow behind his pickup as he drops them cake — or high-protein supplement pellets. They eat it up as if it were candy as Johnson drives through another gate, preparing to feed another herd.

As spring sets in, the pastures are awakening with green grass and colorful wildflowers. Young wobbly-legged calves frolic beside their mothers.

Life is returning to normal — but the scars of the Anderson Creek wildfire are still evident.

In the canyons are charred carcasses — the remains of the lifeless red cedar trees that will never suck water or choke out grasses again. For ranchers like Johnson, that sight couldn't be more beautiful.

"Look, there is lots of dead trees down there," said Johnson, pointing to a draw in the middle of his pasture. "And they aren't using water."

The Hutchinson News ( ) reports that a year ago, the Gyp Hills prairie was singed down to the bare earth. Nearly 400,000 acres burned in the Anderson Creek Fire, which, at that time, was the largest wildfire in state history. The fire started in late March of 2016 in Woods County, Oklahoma, before moving into Comanche and Barber counties in Kansas.

Nearly 850 cattle died. At least 2,700 miles of fence — worth $27 million — were destroyed. About 230 firefighters each day were on the fire lines. In all, it cost Barber County $1.5 million in suppression costs, said Jerry McNamar, the county's emergency management director. Also, more than a dozen outbuildings were destroyed.

The Johnsons, thanks to the help of neighbors, saved their homes, but nearly all of their 9,000 acres of pastures burned. They lost 35 cows and 40 calves that weren't able to get out of the fire's way, along with a bunkhouse and the garage where a Jeep that Dave and his wife, Patty, got shortly after they married in 1972, was stored.

Now the Jeep, sitting just off their long rural drive, is a burned piece of steel - just another reminder of the fire.

"It used to be orange," he said.

Now, a year later, thanks to spring rains and plenty of fuel in the pastures — the Starbuck wildfire, which burned 500,000 acres through Clark, Comanche and Meade counties, is the largest fire in state history — killing somewhere between 3,000 to 9,000 head of cattle in Clark County alone, along with destroying more than 30 homes and 100 outbuildings.

Yet, as ranchers in these latest fires begin to pick up the pieces, ranchers like Johnson are seeing hope.

Grass is growing. The springs are flowing. And the cedar trees — the bane in ranchers' sides for decades — are almost all dead in the area that burned.

Where there was once destruction, there is now rebirth.

"There are less cedar trees than there have been here in scores — 100 years maybe," said Dave Brass, a Comanche County rancher whose family has been battling cedar trees since the 1970s. "There is no question, in the long term this was beneficial. This was beneficial for the range, beneficial for everything for the control of invasive species."

The Gyp Hills of Kansas easily dispel any misconception that the state is completely flat. Much of the area has never seen a plow. It is where the cowboy way still lives. It is where good roads mean taking dirt paths through a fence and crossing a grate into an open cattle range.

It's how you get to the Brass ranch, which lies just inside of Comanche County. Dave Brass is a third-generation rancher who tends to nearly 10,000 acres and a cowherd with his wife, Mindy.

Brass has seen wildfires before, but nothing like this.

Over the past several decades, trees had encroached on the land by the thousands. In some pastures they covered hilltops and filled canyons.

It's always been a fear — the trees. Without control, the cedars could turn valuable pastures into forests, each tree sapping up to 35 gallons a day of water from the ground. The mass of timber is also the perfect fuel for a wildfire.

It wasn't always this way, said Brass. There were a few cedars — which are native to the state — when his grandfather purchased the ranch in 1931. The old log cabin that sits feet from the Brasses' home is evidence. It was found abandoned in 1878 by the people Brass' grandfather purchased the property from. It's made of cedar heartwood - the strongest part of a cedar tree.

Tom Carr, who cares for his family's 1,000 acres off of Deerhead Road, said these hills were pristine when he was growing up. An empty prairie is what his ancestors discovered when they established the ranch in the 1880s.

Before settlement, lightning strikes burned the prairie, he said. Native Americans would burn, too, to attract buffalo.

"Dad would have to really hunt to find a cedar tree for Christmas," Carr said, adding that as more residents made a home in the red hills, "fire was a dirty word."

"As a kid growing up, we had very few cedars. But then because every rancher was scared to death of fire, you had no burning and these things have been growing up like weeds."

By the 1970s, ranchers began to see that something had to be done. Brass said his family had a battle on their hands. The Brasses and other ranchers began doing a concept not practiced much, if at all, in the Gyp Hills: They began cutting trees and burning pastures to help control the problem.

"We weren't very good at it at first," Brass said of burning. But over the years, the process became part of the region's rite of spring.

For the next several decades, the war on cedars continued. The ranchers formed the Gyp Hills Prescribed Burn Association, of which Carr is now president. Each year they meet, drawing up a plan of the spring's burns. Burns are scheduled through March and April, with the organization's rancher members coming together for each burn.

Carr and his wife, Jo, returned to Kansas in 2010 after he retired from the University of Illinois, where he was a meat science professor. They began cutting trees down by hand, as well as doing prescribed burns.

"It is hard to imagine that in 2010 there were cedars all over this," said Carr as he drove through the prairie. "But it is very clean now."

But not every rancher is as dedicated to controlling red cedars. And even those who are — including Carr — still had a hard time killing the cedars in the deep canyon and ravines where the fire wouldn't reach.

The thousands of cedars, along with the thick grass from the past few of years of wet weather, made the perfect kindling on March 22, 2016.

"All these ranchers know how to fight a fire," said Dave Brass, adding most everyone has fire equipment on their ranch. "There wasn't much fighting on this — it was so intense. There wasn't much stopping it."

The land was a charcoal black after the fire, said Brass. The wind would blow the ash, along with the dirt and sand, because there was little grass holding it down.

Brass, too, lost 10 to 15 head of cattle. If the fire had come any later, the ranch would have had more calves in the fire's path. Calves were coming quickly just days after the fire. Some mothers tried to have calves on the hay that Brass had put out for the cattle to eat in the wake of the fire - hay that was donated from ranchers across the state.

"A lot of them had calves on the charred grass," he said, adding that they lost a few more calves than normal. "A mother lies down and has a calf in the ash and dirt. It's just not a very good spot."

Fences might have been the biggest expense for ranchers, which average $10,000 a mile, Brass said, adding he lost about 6 miles of fence. Meanwhile, many are still waiting for government funding to help cover costs.

There is a 20 to 25 percent reduction in grass in some areas, Brass said. The prairie had burned down to the dirt. But the grass was in good condition before the fire. With good management, it will come back and spread.

The prairie is resilient, Brass said. It adapts to the cold and heat, the drought and the fire.

Moreover, he said, fire is cleansing. That includes purging the grasslands of cedars.

"It was a better burn than we can ever do because it burned so hot," said Dave's wife, Mindy, noting that more water is flowing in some streams than there has been in the past. "We can see the bottom of canyons that we have never seen before."

During prescribed burning, it can be hard to get a burn that hot in tough areas like canyons.

But a wildfire is different than a prescribed burn, said Jess Crockford, southwest regional coordinator with the Kansas Prescribed Fire Council. It burns hotter and faster. The conditions the Anderson Creek Fire burned in — low humidity and high winds — are much different than during a planned burn.

"The wildfire increased people's awareness and people's concern of the cedar tree invasion," said Crockford. "Fires will be easier to control now because of the reduced fuel load. They don't have the big trees to battle and it is easier to fight a grass fire than a forest fire."

However, ranchers now have another issue to battle: the tree carcasses, said Crockford. It could take several years and a lot of money to remove the dead trees, which are now brittle and not easy to burn. Also, cattle don't like to walk among the trees because they poke and jab them.

The USDA announced in January that ranchers will benefit from $2 million in funding over four years to help remove the cedars. That will help a lot, said Crockford. But no one knows how far that will go or what the best way is to dispose of the trees.

Johnson said although the cedar carcasses aren't using water, they don't let the grass come in well. He's seeing weeds grow under them, too, which the cattle won't eat.

Another big issueis that birds sit on the dead cedars, squatting out the seeds of more cedar trees. Thus, the process starts over again.

"Those birds — maybe we should get rid of the birds," Johnson joked.

Many ranchers have finished building back fences. Some are still working on a few areas. Otherwise, life is seemingly back to normal.

But the war on cedars continues.

"Sure, a wildfire could happen again," said Carr. "But we have eliminated a lot of cedars, which really slows the intensity of the fire."

Meanwhile, ranchers are making plans for more prescribed burns. The burn association had planned to do 18 prescribed burns in 2016. The wildfire took care of 14 of the burns, said Carr. Plans are to burn pastures not affected by the fire this year and in coming years. Carr said he and other ranchers affected by the fire will tentatively look to burn their grasslands again in 2020 or 2021.

Johnson said the repair after the fire was hectic for a while. It was a lot of work and there were a lot of emotions as the weeks went by. But he will see the benefits of the fire for several years to come. New green grasses already are poking up out of the earth.

"It stressed us all right," he said. "But it ain't the end of the world."


Information from: The Hutchinson (Kan.) News,


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