On Dec. 15, 2021, a severe storm that included high winds, tornadoes and hail spawned devastating wildfires across northwest Kansas. Named the Four County Fire, it consumed some 400,000 acres, burning homes, equipment, outbuildings and hundreds of animals. As disasters have a tendency to do, the fire elicited a swift and compassionate response from many far beyond the area’s burned borders. People donated a vast array of supplies, equipment, helping hands and even replacement livestock to help restore a sense of normalcy for those worst hit. Kristian Rennert, a rancher from southeastern Nebraska, was among the first to gather what he could and head to the heart of the devastation. Here is his account.
Kansas Four County Fire
By Kristian Rennert, Elm Creek
I had an eerie feeling all day Dec. 15, 2021. There was just something in the air that didn’t feel right. Weather forecasters had been warning for days of a band of severe storms that were going to hit the entire region from as far south as Texas and Oklahoma and north through Nebraska and into the Dakotas.
The morning weather was actually really pleasant as I did chores around our place at Elm Creek, Neb., where my wife, Becky, and I live and ranch with our 2-year-old son. That afternoon we had a band of heavy winds and rains around 3 o’clock, but the cold front blew right through. I figured it was over and went out to do evening chores around 4 o’clock. Another huge front of very heavy wind picked up and blew dust around, even bringing blizzard-like snow conditions, but then blew past. I felt a little at ease that we dodged what the weather experts were saying would be a bad event.
Little did I know what was happening just two hours south. Late in the evening, I checked Facebook and started seeing posts from friends of mine in Kansas from the Hays, Plainville, Natoma, Paradise and Russell areas.
The first post I saw was from Stephanie Stielow Dickerson and David Dickerson from Paradise, Kan. Their post began with this: “Thank you for the texts, calls and snaps. First, we are all safe, my family and my parents and brother. David and I lost our house (with my dogs inside), all our barns, all our show equipment, everything.”
The post went on to talk about their livestock and the loss of another house on the property. At that point they really didn’t know the extent of all the damage from the fire now known as the Four County Fire that burned more than 163,000 acres. There were 26 homes and farmsteads that burned to the ground. Thousands of cattle, horses, wildlife, fences and anything else in the path of the flames simply burnt to the ground.
I have family near Natoma, Kan., and have spent a lot of time in that area since I was a little boy. I’ve done business with many of those area ranchers when I was in the feed business, and now we have some bull customers there.
I reached out to my cousin, Dustin Stull of Stull Cattle Company, with whom we have partner cattle to see if he was affected by the fire. He said they had been hit hard south of town where the spring-calving cow herd normally winters but didn’t yet know the extent of how bad. It was dark and there were still many fires burning. I was also texting with David Dickerson from nearby Paradise. The last text I sent him was at about midnight. “Stay safe. Help will be coming,” I told him. I made plans to head to Kansas the next morning and offer some help.
I hardly slept at all that night, got up around 4 a.m., did chores and loaded up a few things like shovels, pitchforks, a couple guns and some other tools. I headed south down U.S. Hwy. 183 and stopped in Phillipsburg, Kan., at Dollar General to purchase things like toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, other toiletries, water, some food and anything else I thought they could use. I went to Orscheln Farm & Home store, asked for the manager and told her I was heading south to help the fire victims and that some friends of mine had lost their home and everything else. She was very understanding and offered a discount for all items. An older lady came up to me and asked if this was for the fire victims and I said yes. She dug out her wallet and handed me a $50 bill. I didn’t know what to say but I somehow mumbled “thank you” with tears in my eyes for this woman’s generosity. I gave this stranger a hug and told her how much what she did meant.
First, I headed to the Dickersons’ Bar S Ranch to drop off supplies. Bar S Ranch is a multigenerational family ranch owed by Stephanie’s father, Ken Stielow. Smoke was still in the air and I smelled the strong scent of burnt grass, hay, tires, plastic and wood. The fire damage started along Kansas Hwy. 18 and increased east of Natoma between there and Paradise. Bales of hay that were lined up along the side of the fields parallel to the highway were burned nearly to the ground and still smoldering. What was left of a few homesteads was still smoldering. At Paradise, population 29, the fire burned right up to the edge of town but did not seem to burn any of the houses.
I headed south of town toward the Dickersons and turned at a corner where the Pelton Ranch has pens, hay and livestock most of the time throughout the year. The Pelton place was badly burned and that was the first time I ran into dead and injured livestock. I thought I had prepared myself to see the worst, but this first sight proved to me that I wasn’t ready to see these things. I love cattle and livestock, and this was just so hard to take in.
I kept going toward the Bar S Ranch. There were miles and miles of burnt ground in every direction as far as I could see. I came up to other groups of cattle, many of them already perished and some still suffering, trying to fight for their last breathes. In the distance, a group of about 20 cows that had somehow survived were coming over a hill, looking for feed and water. They sure looked lost and very unsure of what had happened. I turned east toward the Bar S Ranch headquarters and sale facility, careful to dodge all the downed powerlines, and saw a few pickups with ranchers assessing the situation.
David and Stephanie’s home was nothing but a hole in the ground with three concrete steps that used to lead to their front door. There was nothing left. Their show barn, outbuildings and machine sheds were completely destroyed. Pickups and other vehicles were burned down to the metal frames. It was a horrifying scene. I saw one of their boys and a few others helping load a few animals that amazingly had survived the fire. I headed over to the sale barn and dropped off the goods I had bought. David was driving by and I spoke very briefly with him before he headed off with a crew to find some cattle. He was clearly shaken but I knew he appreciated I had stopped by.
After that, I headed to my cousin’s headquarters south of Natoma where they have a grow yard and pens of weaned calves. That place had not been touched by the fire, but south of there about a mile, where the spring-calving cows were, was burned. We passed a homestead that was completely roasted to the ground along with lots of equipment, combines, tractors, barns, pens and anything else that could ignite. There were more dead cattle littering the fence lines and ditches everywhere I drove.
We got down to the winter pasture where the spring-calving cows go that time of the year. At that point, we just tried to get an account of what was alive and what was dead. There were some survivors in the group but many of the cows had burned eyes, singed hair and feet that they walked on very tenderly. They seemed very lost and came toward the pickup with a look in their eyes of “please help us.” It was just heartbreaking.
Along the property’s east fence line there were many dead ones along the fence. On the west side of the property in the bottom of a dry creek bed there were around 60 dead cows, many just piled on top of one another. There were bodies here, there and everywhere.
People asked, “Why didn’t ranchers cut fences and let them get out of the way?” Well, there simply wasn’t enough time because it happened so fast. The fire was started by sparking powerlines and then a severe windstorm ravaged the Plains, with recorded wind speeds from 80 to 107 miles per hour. The area had suffered from a very dry fall and there was a lot of dry grass – conditions perfect for this disaster. I saw deer, coyotes, raccoons, badgers and other animals that are normally very elusive, but the fire came so fast that even they couldn’t get out of the way of the flames. There really wasn’t anything anyone could do to react to a fire event that burned that fast and blew so hard. It is truly amazing that not many people were killed in the event.
That first day we basically just assessed the situation, got feed and water to livestock and tried to get a bearing on what needed to be done. With powerlines down, many of the wells weren’t working to pump water, so that was first on the list to do.
I drove back home to Elm Creek that evening, spending the entire trip on the phone with people wanting to know about the fire and what they could do to help. I was on the phone late into the evening.
I went back to Kansas on Dec. 17 with a trailer. Some friends, Cody and Blake Steinkruger and Colby Lange, met me in Alma. They brought a livestock trailer, two 4-wheelers and a side-by-side. We got to the Stull’s place south of Natoma around 8 a.m., and they asked if we could start gathering the survivors from the spring-calving pasture. We had just moved the cows up to the corrals when stock trailers started arriving. I didn’t even know some of the folks, but they were there to help and lend a hand.
We loaded 121 cows that could actually walk out of that pasture and moved them to an area where there was grass and water, and was closer to the headquarters place so feed could be hauled to them when needed. There was another pasture that we never got to because there were no survivors in that group. The Stulls lost a great many cows and bred heifers in the fire, and we personally lost 30 of the 48 head of partnership registered Charolais cattle. We identified some of the cattle by their metal ear tags, but most of the plastic ID ear tags were melted or unreadable, and ear tattoos were burned so badly they couldn’t be read. It is amazing any cattle survived; so many were lost and so many had to be put down because of their burns and injuries.
The harm to the cows that survived will be felt for a long time. There will be abortions, lung issues, infections, burnt udders that calves won’t be able to nurse, blindness or other eye damage, burned feet that will slough hooves and many other side effects.
We did what we could on that day and hauled the cattle to a better, safe place with feed. At that point there were still hot spots flaring up, and they were putting out fires as the wind had changed direction and new fires were sparking. There were lots of fire trucks and rescue units going up and down the desolate county roads, asking if folks needed help. They were out looking after people.
It was still early afternoon and we had done what we could do at Stulls’ so we headed over to Bar S Ranch to see if they could use a little help. When we pulled up to the Bar S headquarters, it looked a lot different than the day before. There were about 40 pickups, lots of action and trucks delivering hay. There were two semi-trucks just pulling out, loaded with equipment.
“That’s a fencing crew. I don’t know who they are, who sent them or anything, but they tore out and put up nine miles of fence today with a huge crew,” Stephanie Dickerson said. That was just amazing!
Dru Uden of TC Angus Ranch, Franklin, Neb., was there. He brought a load of hay and offered to take in cattle for them – and ended up taking in a load of cows to winter for them. I heard that Dan Warner of Warner Beef Genetics from Arapahoe, Neb., took 100 head of cows to care for while the Bar S Ranch rebuilt. There were trucks being unloaded with pallets of feed, tubs, mineral, fencing supplies, food, water, clothing and other supplies. We were sent to help load out some feedlot cattle but there were already a dozen or so cowboys getting it done. What looked like a place of ruin the day before was now a fully functioning rescue mission and headquarters.
The Days After
The healing had begun. There were lots of people on hand to help these ranchers lift up their down spirits and rebuild. GoFundMe pages were already up and money was being donated. In the first few days, people mobilized quickly. I received calls from Missouri to Colorado and from the western Nebraska panhandle to the very northeastern corner of the state – all from folks wanting to know where to go and who needed help. They had loads of hay and feed products and wanted to help. Other folks wanted to gift toys and help families who lost everything and could use a little Christmas cheer, including a local vet who bought some farm toys. I just told her to bill me for it.
For the next two weeks, all my time was devoted to answering phone calls and working with a local vet, a sale barn manger and friends to direct donations for delivery. It was hard to get organized at first. People were willing to donate hay but there were no trucks for delivery. A local feedstore we do business with, Pleasanton Feed Service, called and put together fencing supplies, tubs, mineral, feed and cash donations. I was interviewed by Clay Patton at KRVN Radio who wanted to get the story out about what was happening with the fire relief efforts in Kansas. The Fence Post magazine out of Colorado called and interviewed me to help get donations from that area. The amount of support was truly great.
I was starting to feel a little bit in a rut, like things just weren’t coming together to help. That is when I got a call from a friend who said he had heard my name on KRVN. He said KRVN interviewed Cody Robinson of CR Hay who was leading a convoy of hay, feed, fencing supplies, a loader and other stuff to Kansas. During the interview, Cody dropped my name as someone who helped influence people to get this convoy going south. That day they had 17 trucks loaded to the hilt to deliver hay and supplies to the fire victims. At that point I finally broke down and had tears running down my face. I am still not sure if the tears were from relief or the feeling of so many people willing to help out in a situation that was so bad. Needless to say, my heart was filled knowing people in agriculture are willing to help each other out when needed.
Even now, there is hay being offered and trucked to Kansas. There have been online sales, GoFundMe pages and other organized events that are helping these folks heal. Darr Feedlot sent down a loader tractor for a couple weeks to use to unload hay donations. The Paradise United Methodist Church began organizing and dispersing donated funds, using a model that was successful in the Ashland fire relief a few years ago. They took 120 applications from those affected by the fire and will equally divide all the donations
This spring they will need fencing supplies and help building fence. Many of them lost calving facilities and could use portable calving sheds to borrow for the season until they can rebuild. Many of the ranchers lost so many livestock they could use a few heifers or cows to rebuild numbers. They will need money to rebuild.
Ranchers affected by this fire are truly in need of help and will be for a long time. They are rattled, broken and depressed. Imagine if your operation had a fire go through it, and you lost all your winter grazing, stock-piled hay resources, cows, calves, bred heifers, bulls, horses, smaller animals like sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, and on and on. How do you rebuild when you have lost everything?
I can’t image, but that is why many have helped those affected by the fire, and I have done everything I can to help my friends and family in their time of need.
To donate to the Paradise United Methodist Church Paradise Area Fire Relief fund, please visit https://paradiseks.churchtrac.com/?fbclid=IwAR0izBasiSYJMI2bbkQWMeZQE07A_21jGSg1BzOZQVE-fOSMPKVuzktZSec.