Two weeks ago, a massive wildfire spread into Kansas from northern Oklahoma. It left behind more than 600 square miles of blackened land in its wake.
Responders from dozens of state and local agencies battled the fire as it burned out of control for several days. Many of the emergency responders in Barber County, Kansas, were volunteers who were trying to protect their own homes, those of their neighbors, and their herds of cattle. KMUW’s Sean Sandefur toured some of the damage with a man who’s been fighting Kansas wildfires for 25 years.
On a dirt road just south of Medicine Lodge, Kansas, Dennis Ricke peers out of the broken windshield of his blue pick-up. He’s a cowboy who plays the part well, wearing a plaid shirt with pearl buttons. A can of dipping tobacco has worn its place into his breast pocket. He’s wiry, and has a full, salt-and-pepper mustache.
He points to an area that’s still scorched from the recent wildfire.
“That’s 10 miles away,” he says. "There’s [more] to the northwest of us. It just made a big circle.”
Charred earth can be seen all the way to the horizon.
What started as a small grassfire in Woods County, Oklahoma, turned into the largest recorded wildfire in Kansas history.
Ricke owns land out here. He’s a rancher and farmer, as well as a volunteer firefighter. He was among the first responders to help fight the massive fire. He describes it as a living, breathing animal.
“It takes oxygen, it takes fuel," he says. "Wherever it can get oxygen, wherever it can get fuel, that’s where it goes.”
From the view out of Ricke’s truck, it’s obvious why the fire spread so quickly. The landscape is dry. What grass is left is parched, and would be welcomed fuel for another fire. There’s incessant wind. The cedar trees, some of them badly scorched, still stand upright along the Gyp Hills—a series of valleys and mesas that would look at home in an old Western film.
“What a lot of people don’t know," Ricke says, "[is] you get these cedar trees, the chemicals get just right in them, and they’re like cans of gasoline sitting out there.”
Ricke says the heat from nearby flames is enough for the cedars to explode, something he witnessed for about four straight days. Working as long as 18 hours at a time, hundreds of firefighters piled into trucks rigged with water tanks and high-pressure sprayers. Day and night, they took turns driving into the thick smoke.
“You put your goggles on and you didn’t open your mouth much because of embers. There was just red embers flying at you," he says. "And, at night, it was so heavy with smoke—there was no moon— your headlights, ash and smoke absorbs them.”
Occasionally, Ricke and his crew would stumble upon a family house out in the smoke.
“One neighbor went into their old homestead. No one had lived there for years. But they wanted us to protect it. Well, we knew that there was more fire coming. I heard they’re a little upset with me, but I had to go down there and tell them, ‘You’re leaving right now.’ And they drove through smoke and fire," Ricke says. "It wasn’t a safe place for them to be.”
Ricke only lost a couple of cows from his ranch, and about a mile of his fence. Many others in this rural part of Kansas weren’t so lucky. In total, the flames destroyed nearly a dozen homes, killed hundreds of cattle, burned huge swaths of pastures and took down power lines and bridges.
But it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, thanks to people like Ricke, who understand that this kind of job comes with the territory out here: Just like one learns to raise cattle or plant crops, they have to learn how to protect them, too.
“We have a little bit of training," Ricke says. "But a lot of it is the old timers teaching the new guys. And now I’m one of the old guys.”
More than a hundred state and local agencies responded to the Anderson Creek Fire, named after its point of origin in Oklahoma. But volunteer firefighters like Ricke are often the first responders, and in smaller fires, sometimes the only one. He’s in his 60s, and a lot of the people fighting fires along side him are approaching that age, too. With a population of just over 2,000 people, there’s not exactly an endless supply of young people near Medicine Lodge. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in Ricke’s eyes.
“Young guys, I don’t like to have them, because I’ve known them since they were kids," he says.
Meaning, he doesn’t like the idea of sending them into a 30-foot wall of fire.
But Ricke says it’s silly to worry, because the people in Barber County know how to take care of one another. Over the past few weeks, there’s been an outpouring of support: water, tools, hay to help with lost pastures, and food for families.
“I had a lot of ham and cheese and bread sandwiches," he says. "Out in the heat, they don’t want to put mayonnaise on them because it’d go bad. But it sure tasted good when you got 'em.”
As Ricke drives across mile after mile of burned up land, he says he becomes more and more amazed at what the fire touched, and what it spared. He thinks back to a wooden gazebo that sat untouched near a smoldering, caved-in home.
After nearly two weeks, he says the adrenaline has finally worn off. He’s had time to think.
“You try not to get emotional, but it is. Maybe now it’s finally setting in on me. I dunno…" he says, trailing off.
Despite the widespread damage, Ricke knows there’s still plenty of grass in Barber County that’s ready to go up with the smallest spark. And with little rain and high winds, reports of wildfires in Oklahoma and Kansas seem to roll in each day.
Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter @SeanSandefur.
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