It was the perfect storm.
“We had all the right ingredients that day for a really big fire,” says Brad Raven, Beaver County commissioner for District 1. “And that’s what we got.”
In March 2017, monstrous wildfires would burn for days across 318,025 acres in Oklahoma and 782,333 acres in Oklahoma and Kansas combined, according to the Oklahoma Forestry Services.
“That fire caused a lot of destruction,” Raven says.
Many fences have been replaced, but recover continues. Stocking rate is down and the state is in another drought. As of late March, areas of northwest Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Panhandle had gone more than 170 days with less than one-tenth of an inch of rainfall on any one day. “We’re in dangerous times again,” Raven says. “And we’re not ready for another fire.”
Since the March 2017 wildfires, ranchers have joined together with local government leaders and fire departments to discuss prevention and resources. In some cases, controlled burns, including strip burning, can help protect ranches from wildfires. In other counties, fire departments have sought more resources to help them be prepared for this type of event.
“We’re still learning from the fires and working together as ranchers to prepare ourselves if this happens again,” says Raven, who isn’t sure any amount of preparation could have changed the course of last year’s fire.
“The fire started so fast and moved so quickly that really nothing could’ve stopped it. We had 50 to 60 mph winds, and the direction of the wind was changing dramatically. It was jumping dirt roads 66 feet wide.”
Bernie Smith is a rancher in the Englewood, Kansas, area, just a few miles from the Oklahoma-Kansas state line. He has spent his entire life as a rancher and is the volunteer fire chief in Englewood, but he says nothing prepared him for March 6, 2017.
“We lost 10 houses in town and 15 in our area,” Smith says. “We’ve never lost a house to a grass fire before, and we lost them in about two hours.”
Smith lost hundreds of cattle and thousands of acres of grassland during the fires while he helped his neighbors evacuate their houses.
A year later, communities are recovering, and if anything, Smith says, this event has brought neighbors and fellow ranchers closer together.
“The response from people all over the country, especially in agriculture communities, was unlike anything I’ve seen. We all helped each other.”