Another spring, another catastrophic wildfire season in the high plains. This year it was Oklahoma, where wind-driven flames consumed more than 350,000 acres of pasture, killing thousands of cows and destroying barns, homes and fences. New York Times reporter Mitch Smith described the scene around Vici, Oklahoma (population 700), a ranching community in the western part of the state:
“The fire’s timing was especially cruel, coming in the midst of an extreme drought. Dead cows appear along roadsides, hooves pointed to the sky. Driveways lead to piles of rubble. When the wind blows, it smells a bit like a campfire.”
Last year it was Kansas – 400,000 acres ruined, an area larger than metropolitan New York and Chicago combined, and the largest prairie wildfire in Kansas history. Eastern Montana and the Texas panhandle also experienced disastrous blazes in 2017 – a million acres consumed in all.
The Times’ Jack Healy described Angus cows “stagger(ing) around like broken toys, unable to see or breathe, their black fur and dark eyes burned, plastic identification tags melted to their ears. Young calves lay dying.”
Ranchers spent days shooting their stricken livestock and burying them in mass graves with a backhoe, heartbroken and facing financial ruin.
You can get to love cows when you know them, each with a personality as singular as any domestic animal’s. Having once had to shoot a horse to spare him needless suffering, I can’t even imagine euthanizing an entire herd.
It’s a bitter, hard thing.
Not to mention that every cow that goes into the ground represents a $1,500 to $2,000 loss, and a whole lot of labor. Rebuilding a herd takes years.
“This is our Hurricane Katrina,” one Kansas rancher told Healy. Yes, there’s insurance money and assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but it’s often too little and too late. What’s worse is that whether or not the region’s politicians – in thrall to energy producers and science-denying religious fundamentalists – choose to acknowledge it, global climate change is causing bigger and more frequent prairie wildfires all the time.
Ranchers tend to be fatalistic about the weather. You would be, too. Meanwhile, however, livestock producers are going to extraordinary lengths to help each other. Reporters described great convoys of trucks arriving at the Oklahoma scene last week from all over middle America, laden with tons of free, life-saving hay.
It’s a classic American story of ingenuity and self-reliance, powered by social media, word-of-mouth and a region-wide honor system. Reporter Mitch Smith interviewed two brothers named Levi and Blake Smith, who loaded a couple of semi-trailers with 64 round bales of hay – each weighing about 1,200 pounds and worth at least $2,000 altogether. The brothers drove 100 miles west and donated the whole load to rancher Rhett Smith, enough to feed his and his neighbors’ cows for several weeks until the pastures green up.
Assuming it rains, that is.
The Smiths are no kin and hadn’t previously met. The brothers explained that donated hay saved their ranch after the 2017 fire, and they felt compelled to pay it forward. It’s become a tradition throughout the high plains, along with thousands of volunteer firefighters who drive hundreds of miles and sleep in churches and school gymnasiums to save all they can from the flames.
There’s also a fair amount of grumbling about the inefficiency and uselessness of government in such emergencies. Coming from states that have elected Republican politicians who have cut taxes and reduced government services while promising magical economic growth that somehow never materializes, that may strike metropolitan readers as a bit rich.
“The people in this region would vote for Satan himself if there was an ‘R’ behind his name,” wrote one caustic commenter to the Times. “Reality bites.”
Having lived in cattle country the last decade, however, I’m inclined to cut the ranchers some slack. When I think Oklahoma, I think Garth Brooks, not Scott Pruitt. Also, it’s simply a fact that government can rarely act as efficiently and humanely as the brothers Smith.
Will the hay-donating system always work? Who knows? It’s working now. Somebody ought to make a movie.
In my experience, cattle and horse people are an admirable lot. Take my Perry County hay guy, C.J. Gunther. Once, a few years back, a terrible drought had Texans driving over to buy Arkansas hay, bidding it up to a rumored $100 a bale. So when I went to settle up for the winter, I braced myself.
How much did I owe him?
Same as last year, he said: $35 a bale. For this, I should add, he loaded my truck and trailer weekly, saving me the expense of a tractor. I said I knew he could easily have sold his high-quality, Bermuda grass hay for a lot more.
C.J. looked a little shocked.
“I reckon so,” he said. “But you’re my neighbor.”
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.