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AN ACT OF GOD: From destruction, determination perseveres

Sarah Hussain / Red Dirt Report
A house stood here before the wildfires consumed it.
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The Panhandle wildfires slowed, did not stop farmers, ranchers

WOODWARD, Okla. – The smell of burnt, dead, buried and rotting cattle lingered in the air along U.S. Route 412 as we were stopped taking photos of a used-to-be house that the wildfires of the Panhandle consumed in early March.

By March 6 the fires traveled into the Panhandle which spanned from Texas to Kansas and lasted until March 14. Just a few weeks before, the Panhandle was hit with a record-breaking two-week long ice storm which killed many of its trees and bushes – that mixed with no rain and the usual high winds created the perfect recipe for disaster.

“Complete devastating destruction” was how Amber Jensen described the chaos that ensued.

Jensen was born and raised in Woodward. Her great-grandfather was a little boy when his dad was in the Land Run, and her great-grandmother was the first white baby girl born in No Man’s Land – what many referred to as the Panhandle in the late 1880s.

Her grandparents now run their family ranch where they grow alfalfa, feed and hay. They were not running cattle at the time of the wildfires.

An estimate of 3,000 cattle lost due to the fires was reported by the Ready Woodward Facebook page. They also estimate that well over 1,000 miles of fence will need replacing.

“It’s cost prohibitive to run cattle and insure your cattle,” Jensen explained. “My friend was out there with her parents shooting their cattle because the cattle are not insured and they’re sitting there bawling because they’re so burnt.

“I’m talking like run out of ammo type of shooting your cattle; that many cattle had to go. The vets came and said, ‘There’s nothing I can do. You need to shoot that cow, it’s just suffering.’ These are the creatures you birth and feed every day.”

Jensen went on to explain that it costs $10,000 per mile of fence to repair or replace, and that is what many in the area have already begun to do.

A piece of property that used to be lined with fencing.

Along with many losing cattle and fencing, eight houses burnt to the ground after many towns in the Panhandle were evacuated.

A lady who at the time was eight-and-a-half months pregnant and on bedrest was in her bedroom with her toddler when another woman came into the house saying, “Your house is about to burn down, there’s a fire 20 feet away, we gotta go.”

“So she grabbed her toddler and the diaper bag and that’s all they had, lost everything,” Jensen said.

When asked what these families are doing now to get by day to day, Jensen said some are trying to find jobs, “but they don’t have marketable skills, they are ranchers through and through.”

“Some of them have just said, ‘you know, I’m sending my wife and kids to her mother’s house and I’m going to go out and work on Joe Bob’s ranch because his didn’t burn and I’m going to try to make some money’ – whatever they can do to survive.”

People from outside the Panhandle provided many affected with hay and fencing supplies.

The Red Cross stepped in to provide temporary shelter and sleeping bags to those who lost everything, and U.S. Sens. James Lankford and Jim Inhofe along with some state representatives conducted a tour of the northwest Oklahoma fire complex.

They surveyed damaged areas to help assess needs and aid in expediting aid resources to suffering individuals and supporting firefighting efforts.

“I do have to give Lankford credit,” Jensen said. “He was literally going out to meet people that were affected and said, ‘Look, you have to get these forms in within 30 days, let me help you.’ He gave them the chance to get the federal grants that they could get to at least get a home. It’s not going to build them a home, but it will buy part of a home for them.

“The problem is with farming and ranching, when you lose all your cattle – each head is worth between $300 and $6,000 apiece. So you have all this invested and now all these cattle are gone so you have nothing to sell. Your crops just burnt, you can’t buy new cattle even if you have money in the bank because you don’t have fences to keep them in which is a public safety hazard. Have you ever hit a cow on the highway? Not a fun day. So their livelihood is gone.”

Nothing left to do but move on

On March 30 when Red Dirt Report was in the Panhandle, it was one of the first beautifully blue-skied days the area had seen in a while. Jensen said that over a two-day period she had nine inches of rain in her gauge.

Where there had once been scorched earth along U.S. Route 412, parts were now dusted in green with new growth already peeking through. Some fences were already on the mend as well, just weeks after so many burnt down.

Democrat and former state Sen. Connie Johnson of Oklahoma County and fourth generation Oklahoman Barbara Babcock visited the Panhandle just days after on April 7.

“Things are kind of settling out there,” Babcock said. “Those people are so tough, it’s amazing.”

She said the ranchers and farmers are slowly rebuilding their fences, and the fields that were burnt are all now an amazing spring green.

Jensen said she feels privileged to have grown up in a family that knows both sides of the coin.

“Toughness, determination and grit is what it takes.”

Photos by Red Dirt Report's Sarah Hussain.

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Sarah Hussain

Director of Communications

Virginia native, Sarah Hussain, has...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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