Extreme Weather, Variability Preceded Southern Great Plains Wildfires
Devastating wildfires in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas have drawn relief support from around the country. Cattle ranchers deal with crippling losses.
The conditions that led to devastating wildfires in the Southern Great Plains are consistent with weather patterns highlighted in a 2015 USDA report that looked at how growing seasons and the predictability of weather are changing around the United States.
In Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, an unusual weather pattern led to fires that have ravaged land and destroyed thousands of cattle.
“There’s a cycle of wetter conditions followed by immediately drier conditions on the plains,” said Dr. Jean Steiner, who manages the USDA’s Grazinglands Research Laboratory in El Reno, Oklahoma.
“We had a wet summer that causes the fuel load to grow quickly, then drought. In the last month, there’s been extremely high winds combined with low pressure. It was a perfect storm of factors leading to a very large fire risk within the region. And those fires have been very difficult to contain.”
The USDA weather-trends report, part of USDA’s Climate Hub Program, documented the recent history of extreme weather, which has been on the increase, and extreme variability in weather, which has also been on the rise.
The fires in Kansas were called “the single largest fire in the state’s recorded history” by the Wichita Eagle, which has reported on the crisis extensively.
The New York Times called the Kansas fires the region’s “Hurricane Katrina,” reporting Monday that more than 1 million acres of grasslands have burned. The fires have caused wide-spread cattle deaths and millions of dollars of damage to farms.
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has marshalled the state’s resources to help douse the flames, calling up local National Guard members and equipment for support. Oklahoma and Texas are doing the same. The three states are tallying up losses, and petitioning the Federal Emergency Management Authority for a federal disaster order to help reimburse emergency management costs.
In addition to the state response, farmers and nonprofit organizations have taken action to support affected ranchers. Livestock feed, supplies and monetary donations are on the rise, helping to ease the pain of those on the ground while generating some hope for rebuilding efforts.
“When I saw what was happening, to the ranchers in the area, to our industry, I just had to do something,” said Tatum Lee. Lee, a recent hire at R-CALF USA, helped the organization establish the $50 Fence Fund. “We set up the $50 Fence Fund so that people can be sure 100% of their dollar goes to reach the impacted ranchers,” Lee said. “And fence is something tangible that ranchers need, that they might have trouble convincing their bankers to fund.”
She described grassroots relief efforts in Kansas and South Dakota to donate hay, seed, and supplies, Kansas farmers struck by the fires. “We’ve helped set up staging areas for ranchers that need to rebuild after the fires. Some places are already full, but that’s a good challenge to have really. There’s just so much need.”
In the Oklahama Panhandle, Lee connected with Linda Spurgeon-Marchel, who’s family has been raising cattle in the area for well over a century. Spurgeon Ranch saw significant damage from the wildfires, but Marchel describes the outpouring of support and donations to rebuild as “a show of shock and awe from people’s generosity. What else do you call it when people from Missouri, the Dakotas, Kentucky are opening up their hearts to help? My friend called to say she’s even seeing some donations from New Jersey and Florida to help us out.”
“We call this 39-mile-wide strip of land ‘no man’s land,’” says Marchel, outlining the region’s rugged history of vigilante justice against cattle rustlers. “That past is important, and we’re pretty much still no man’s land. We’re the last place that the politicians are going to look to provide any help or aid.”
Many have been critical of the lack of attention and response to the wildfire crisis from the federal government and USDA. Kansas rancher Garth Gardner told the New York Times, “this is the country that elected Donald Trump.” Gardner’s ranch lost about 500 cows in the fires. “I think he’d be doing himself a favor to come out and visit us.”
While USDA did announce several relief programs Tuesday, this lack of attention to the plight of ranchers in the Southern Great Plains comes on the heals of President Trump proposing a 21% cut to USDA discretionary programs just last week.
For now, ranchers in the area will continue to look inward for assistance. “This is an old-fashioned, grassroots effort at relief,” says R-CALF’s Lee. “It’s a tragedy, but it is showing the good in people. The fires, they burned a lot of valuable commodities. But in that chaos, you re-evaluate things. When you see people reach out, help other people re-build, that can be a great lesson.”