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A Real Tragedy

Written by Dennis Sun

This past week I was reading about the range fires that started in Oklahoma and spread into Kansas. Some 360,000 acres of grasslands were affected, along with many cattle, horses, other livestock and wildlife. Some 16 houses, 25 other structures and many hundreds of miles of fencing. Thankfully, there were no human lives lost.

It does seem strange to be writing about range fires as I looked out my office window this morning at around five inches of fresh snow, with more predicted for the rest of the week. I have heard that central Wyoming is now over three inches of precipitation above the yearly normal, and I hope it is that way for everyone else, too.

The fire started in Oklahoma on March 22 and quickly blew into Kansas. It was the worst range fire in history and also the biggest for the two states. As bad as it was, it could have been a lot worse. A number of small towns were evacuated and were saved, along with many businesses. Worst of all, some hospitals and other medical facilities also had to be evacuated, but they were saved in the end.

With winds up to 50 miles per hour, firefighters were lucky to save anything. The fire took a horrible toll on livestock, both those in the pastures and trapped in pens. Small calves just lay down and tried to hide and were quickly engulfed by flames. Their mothers had burnt feet and udders or were just caught up in the flames. I’m not sure anyone yet knows the numbers that were killed. A lot of livestock need to be doctored for illnesses caused by the fire, from burns to respiratory illness. The smoke inhalation was horrible for both livestock and humans.

I’m not sure how the fire started in Oklahoma, but we all know that every spring they burn their pastures, especially around the Flint Hills region, the best grasslands in the United States. Those who graze in the Flint Hills have been fighting with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a number of years over violations of clean air regulations. The smoke has been hard on the big cities in the area including Wichita, Kan. Various other Kansas cities have violated clean-air limits on a handful of days in the past few Aprils when range fires are set. If, under the upcoming EPA rules, the daily violations grow frequent, they could cost the City of Wichita, its residents and businesses close to $10 million annually. The heat’s on, so to speak, and not to burn the pastures. Some environmentalists want the EPA to impose mandatory restrictions, claiming the ranchers only need to burn once every three years.

On the other hand, the ranchers claim that by not burning their pastures annually, grass growth would be stunted, so much so that the average yearling steer would gain around 32 fewer pounds during the summer grazing season. At current cattle prices, that means the fires boost the price that landowners can charge the cattle producers to graze by an average of $40 per head per month. The ranchers are working with online meteorological models to tell them on which days to burn to not only to meet the standards but to establish the days they can control their fires.

Fire is a great tool for managing rangelands, and we’ve used it for many years here in Wyoming, but whoever strikes the match has to be completely sure conditions are right.