Dave Johnson talks about one of the casualties of the Anderson Creek Fire last year, a Jeep he had bought right after he and his wife, Patty, were married in 1972. It was destroyed in the wildfire in March 2016.

Courtesy photo

GYP HILLS - As his mud-covered pickup comes over a rise on a recent morning, mist blankets the horizon of Gyp Hills grass.

Rancher Dave Johnson is out feeding his pregnant cows like he does several days a week during the winter. They follow behind his pickup as he drops them cake - or high-protein supplement pellets. They eat it up as if it were candy as Johnson drives through another gate, preparing to feed another herd.


Tom Carr and his wife have been working to remove the dead red cedar trees from the pasture land on their ranch west of Medicine Lodge, seen Jan. 19, 2017.

As spring sets in, the pastures are awakening with green grass and colorful wildflowers. Young wobbly-legged calves frolic beside their mothers.

Life is returning to normal - but the scars of the Anderson Creek wildfire are still evident.

In the canyons are charred carcasses - the remains of the lifeless red cedar trees that will never suck water or choke out grasses again. For ranchers like Johnson, that sight couldn't be more beautiful.

"Look, there is lots of dead trees down there," said Johnson, pointing to a draw in the middle of his pasture. "And they aren't using water."

A year ago, the Gyp Hills prairie was singed down to the bare earth. Nearly 400,000 acres burned in the Anderson Creek Fire, which, at that time, was the largest wildfire in state history. The fire started in late March of 2016 in Woods County, Oklahoma, before moving into Comanche and Barber counties in Kansas.

Nearly 850 cattle died. At least 2,700 miles of fence - worth $27 million - were destroyed. About 230 firefighters each day were on the fire lines. In all, it cost Barber County $1.5 million in suppression costs, said Jerry McNamar, the county's emergency management director. Also, more than a dozen outbuildings were destroyed.

The Johnsons, thanks to the help of neighbors, saved their homes, but nearly all of their 9,000 acres of pastures burned. They lost 35 cows and 40 calves that weren't able to get out of the fire's way, along with a bunkhouse and the garage where a Jeep that Dave and his wife, Patty, got shortly after they married in 1972, was stored.

Now the Jeep, sitting just off their long rural drive, is a burned piece of steel - just another reminder of the fire.

"It used to be orange," he said.

Now, a year later, thanks to spring rains and plenty of fuel in the pastures - the Starbuck wildfire, which burned 500,000 acres through Clark, Comanche and Meade counties, is the largest fire in state history - killing somewhere between 3,000 to 9,000 head of cattle in Clark County alone, along with destroying more than 30 homes and 100 outbuildings.

Yet, as ranchers in these latest fires begin to pick up the pieces, ranchers like Johnson are seeing hope. 

Grass is growing. The springs are flowing. And the cedar trees - the bane in ranchers' sides for decades - are almost all dead in the area that burned.

Where there was once destruction, there is now rebirth.

"There are less cedar trees than there have been here in scores - 100 years maybe," said Dave Brass, a Comanche County rancher whose family has been battling cedar trees since the 1970s. "There is no question, in the long term this was beneficial. This was beneficial for the range, beneficial for everything for the control of invasive species."

Cedar problem