by Joe Bollig
KANSAS — Father Prakash Rao Kola was in Coldwater, 30 miles east of Ashland, the afternoon of March 6 when he began to get frantic calls from parishioners:
High winds were driving a fire — a big one — swiftly toward town. . . . People were warned to evacuate.
Father Prakash, a Missionary of St. Francis de Sales, raced back to St. Joseph Parish in Ashland. As he got closer to town, he saw “miles and miles of smoke.”
In his native India, fires would burn a single house and, at most, affect a couple of families. This fire looked like it would consume the entire town. Nothing had prepared him for this.
Law enforcement officers were driving up and down the streets, announcing on loudspeakers: “Evacuate, evacuate. Move fast, move fast.”
“I didn’t know what to take,” said Father Prakash. “This was a first experience for me. I took my passport and main documents, and put everything in one suitcase. And then I took my car [back] to Coldwater.”
He had about 10 minutes to grab and go. All the while, he worried about his parishioners, some of them elderly. Would anyone help them? Later, he was relieved to learn that friends and neighbors took care of them.
Father Prakash spent the next two days in Coldwater, sleeping on the floor of Holy Spirit Church. He was fortunate. Although the fire advanced halfway across the cemetery, Ashland and St. Joseph Church were saved.
But some of his parishioners — farmers and ranchers, for the most part — lost everything. The largest prairie wildfire in the history of Kansas had transformed Clark County and Ashland into a land of ash.
Since all surrounding communities were likewise engaged, Ashland’s tiny volunteer fire department battled the monster blaze on its own, without outside help, for eight hours.
Would help come after the fire?
Pleas across the prairie
Amy Joyce tracked the progress of the southwestern Kansas prairie fires March 6-8 with heartbreak and distress.
The wind-whipped fires raced through the Texas panhandle, Oklahoma panhandle and Kansas. The largest — the Starbuck fire — left Ashland an unburned island in a sea of destruction. At least 75 percent of Clark County was burned.
To the rest of the world, the wildfires were a brief item in the news, noted and quickly forgotten.
Not for Amy. She could feel their heartache.
Marty and Amy Joyce, and their four children — Wade, 19; Emma, 17; Abby 15; and Sam, 11 — are sixth-generation family farmers and members of St. Benedict Parish in Bendena, which is 16 miles north of Atchison. Marty takes care of the crops and cows, while Amy is a fifth-grade teacher at St. Benedict School in Atchison.
“I follow some agriculture groups on Facebook,” said Amy. “The following days after I began reading pleas for help, I began seeing photos of the damage. There was this urge that just wouldn’t go away that we need to help, to do something.”
Initially, she dismissed this urge to help as impractical.
But it wouldn’t go away.
“It really touched my heart to hear how these people lost everything,” said Amy. “They lost their livestock, their homes, all their hay and grass, and thousands of miles of fences. Their animals died in the fire or were burned so badly that they had to put them down.”
The family knew that they possessed both the skills and the wherewithal to help. Wade, a freshman at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, Missouri, had worked all last summer with a fence-building crew. Amy made some calls and found someone who could hook them up with a local ranch family and lodging at a church camp.
The timing was right, too, because it was spring break for the schools.
Marty couldn’t go, so Amy and the four kids left on March 21 and drove to Wichita in three hours. They stayed there, got up early and arrived in Ashland at 8:30 a.m. By 9 a.m., they were assigned a rancher and were off to build and repair fences.
They drove 30 miles southwest to a 6,000-acre ranch that had burned in less than 15 minutes. There were 160 head of cattle on the ranch, and the cows survived because they were able to hide in a “mini-canyon” where the fire couldn’t go. Sadly, six calves that couldn’t follow their mothers died. Spring is calving season, and many cow-calf pairs perished in the fires.
“One day, I got into the truck with the rancher,” said Amy. “On the floorboard of the truck were all these empty rifle shells.
“The [rancher] told me he spent his time after the fire helping neighboring ranchers put down their cows because they couldn’t do it any more.”
“I can’t shoot another cow,” the rancher told her. “I just can’t do it.”
A land charred and scarred
It was a weird landscape. Open land to the horizons, a sea of black interspersed with blackened, skeletal trees. Cow or horse corpses. Remnants of homes and outbuildings.
“When we saw those cows lying there, all burned up, it was kind of sad,” said Wade.
Nonfarm people have no idea of the tens of thousands of miles of fences that surround farms and ranches. It’s a major investment. Some of the fences had been put up 50 years ago or more.
The Joyce family rolled up barbed wire and pulled up charred posts. In some places they put up new posts and hung wire, and in other places mended broken wire.
“There were wooden posts and metal T-posts,” said Amy. “If the T-posts were solid, we left them. Some needed to be repounded and the wire reattached . . . or the wires had to be replaced.
“We had a post-hole digger on a skid loader that Wade operated,” she continued. “He set all the wooden posts. Emma is a strong girl, so she set the T-posts with a driver.”
Sam put clips on the wooden posts to hang wire.
“I’ve done it before,” said Sam, a sixth-grade student at St. Benedict School. “It wasn’t that hard.”
On Thursday, the wind began to pick up again, just as it had during the fire. It was like a return to the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s.
“There’s no vegetation to hold the sand and dirt,” said Amy. “The winds were 60 to 70 miles an hour. You couldn’t see five feet in front of you, so we had to shut down.”
Wade kept working.
“It was terrible,” he said. “I had sunglasses on and a bandanna wrapped around [my mouth and nose] like a cowboy. I still got sand in my eyes and ears, and my throat and nose. I was sweating, so the sand would stick to me.”
Eventually, even he had to quit. When he returned the next day, he discovered the wind had filled all his post holes with sand, and he had to redig them.
The Joyce family worked three days, and then returned home.
“At first, I didn’t want to do it,” said Emma, a junior at Maur Hill-Mount Academy in Atchison. “I wanted to be on spring break, doing my own thing.
“But after seeing what all those people went through, I know it was the right thing for me to be there.”
“The people there are amazing,” she continued. “They’re so nice and appreciative. I thought it wouldn’t be worth it, and it totally was. It definitely changed my perspective, big time.”
The long road to recovery
Recovery will take a long time.
It will take years for the cattle herds to recover — not only in terms of numbers, but their genetic legacy as well.
The system of fences built up by generations of family ranchers will have to be rebuilt.
The rangelands will need at least a couple of years to regrow, so donated hay is still desperately needed.
The burned farm structures and machinery will have to be replaced — plus the homes and all of their contents.
Precious family heirlooms — those are simply gone.
More help is coming from a variety of sources.
St. Joseph Parish in Ashland, with 75 families, and Holy Spirit “quasi-parish” in Coldwater, with 20 families, offer what they can.
“Most of our parishioners are ranchers, so we have four or five families who have lost their homes,” said Trisha Elliott, St. Joseph parish council member and director of religious education.
Elliott didn’t evacuate Ashland. She handed out food, water and ice at the fire station while her volunteer firefighter husband Adam worked to save the town.
“We need to help them, but we don’t have an income because they don’t have an income,” said Elliott. “We don’t have any money, so it’s difficult to do things for them. We’re trying to provide meals to people who need them, and find out what they need.”
The Diocese of Dodge City, through Catholic Charities of Southwest Kansas, is gathering relief funds.
“The response from farmers and ranchers, and various organizations, has been tremendous,” said Debbie Snapp, executive director of Catholic Charities of Southwest Kansas.
“The people we are most concerned about are those who have no business or have a few acres with chickens and goats,” Snapp continued. “They’ve lost homes and are not in a position to get the same kind of assistance as the big farms and ranches prevalent in this part of the state.”
Catholic Charities is trying to assess needs and connect people with resources and donations they receive. They are concentrating on individual needs, like replacing hearing aids and eyeglasses, and temporary housing assistance.
“Our diocese is 28 counties, a fourth of the state,” said Snapp. “The fires were in maybe eight counties. There are more than 100 miles between communities affected by the fires. Trying to get to those communities, find the people and figure out their needs is a lot of the challenge as well.”
“That’s what the parishes have really helped us with,” she continued, “[identifying] those who have suffered loss and who in the communities are organizing things locally. We still have a lot to learn about the level of loss.”
The challenge is daunting, but these descendants of pioneers and Dust Bowl survivors are courageous and dogged. They won’t give up. And with help from the extended agriculture family and God, they’ll make good on their vows to rebuild.
Father Prakash can see God’s providence at work even now.
“God is really blessing us,” he said. “We’ve had good rains for the past two weeks and we can see the greenery — the grass is coming now. God never leaves us. Our prayers are heard, and he is blessing us with rains. We are happy God is blessing us.”