A wet spring and an outpouring of support from friends, neighbors and generous strangers near and far are helping northeastern Colorado slowly begin to recover from a 30,000-acre March wildfire, according to Dan Firme, one of a half-dozen people who have been coordinating relief efforts since day one.

A wet spring and an outpouring of support from friends, neighbors and generous strangers near and far are helping northeastern Colorado slowly begin to recover from a 30,000-acre March wildfire, according to Dan Firme, one of a half-dozen people who have been coordinating relief efforts since day one.

“We had a real good response on the hay. It was amazing,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. It’s pretty humbling.”

He recounts with awe the amazing array of farm groups and individuals, FFA chapters and young people who quickly jumped in to raise funds.

Patrick Shafer, a rancher from Akron, was one of many who found a creative way to contribute. Though not directly impacted by the fire, when he heard the story of a young cattleman, Kyle McConnell, who had been forced to put down 90 cows, he was moved to start a cow-calf drive.

“I had to shoot a $6,000 heifer bull because he broke his leg, and that was hard enough,” Shafer recalled recently.

He got the idea of funneling donated cows to McConnell after seeing it done following devastating blizzards on the Northern Plains, tragic events not so unlike the freak spring storm that hit southeastern Colorado and western Kansas two weeks ago.

“You can lose your crop to a hailstorm, but cattle don’t grow back,” Shafer said. “It takes a lifetime to get a herd built.”

So when he heard about McConnell’s situation, he knew he needed to act fast. “I didn’t know him, but I wanted to give him some hope,” Shafer said from his farm where he was working cattle. “He’s in his 30s, and something like that is so discouraging and makes you want to give up. I told him to just concentrate on getting his herd rebuilt.”

“It’s a hard life,” he added. “But it’s the tough people who came before us that explains why we’re here now. We have to stick it out so our kids can be here down the road.”

McConnell quickly did his part to return the favor, lending Shafer a bull to replace the one he’d had to put down.

Those are the kinds of heartwarming stories that continue to reverberate through the fire-scarred community.

All told, Firme estimates the area north of Haxtun received at least half a million dollars in cash and in-kind donations of hay, seed, fencing and other supplies.

“It sounds like a lot of money to somebody sitting in town. But people don’t always realize the investment it takes to be a producer in agriculture these days,” he said. “I think many people are seeing the value of what it takes to rebuild these communities, and it’s a startling scenario to them. It’s shocking to me, too, when I think about it.”

Not counting direct property losses, he estimates his farm alone incurred $170,000 in additional operating expenses dealing with the fire’s aftermath.

Firme farms and ranches north of Haxtun, which was ground zero for the March 6 fire. In addition to acting as president of the local cattlemen’s association, he serves on the board of the local soil conservation board and as a volunteer firefighter.

He took a moment to update the growing conditions in the area while a friend was planting corn in one of his fields. The fire destroyed his own corn planter, not to mention his family’s entire machine shop full of equipment. His cousin was among four people who lost their homes that day.

Green regrowth is starting to appear, but progress is slow, he said. “We’ve had some pretty decent moisture, but stuff really hasn’t started growing all that much yet,” he said.

He looked out over a field that had been planted to oats to keep the topsoil from blowing.

“Pretty spindly,” he observed.

He hadn’t decided whether he would try to hay or graze the oats or plant corn into it.

Over the last 60 days, he estimated he’s had close to 5 inches of rain. He couldn’t be exact because he lost his rain gage in the fire and hasn’t replaced it yet.

“The problem is we are in a very low organic matter area that is very sandy. The fire took every bit of plant residue we had,” he said. “I’m not sure how much oomph the soil will have behind it now.”

The fire burned range and pastures, Conservation Reserve acreage and dried corn stalks, taking out dozens of center pivot irrigation sprinklers in the process.

“The devastating part was that the wind was blowing like mad that day, and it was just scouring any type of forage or vegetation. We had drifts of sand like snowdrifts,” he added.

It also took out many of the trees, which is no small thing in such a barren landscape.

“We had a nice plot of trees we lost in the fire that I’ll never see again in my lifetime,” he said. “My dad planted them 30 years ago, and they were just getting to be really nice. He’s 70 years old, so he’ll never get to see them replaced.”

Most of the dead trees throughout the area have been left standing because of how costly it is to remove them.

“Stuff like that goes on the back-burner while we concentrate on what we have to do to make a living and keep things going,” he said.

While offers of labor are appreciated, there’s really no substitute for just getting out there and doing what needs to be done one step at a time on a day by day basis, he said.

Right now, he’s psyching himself up to rebuild miles of fence, even though there isn’t enough grass to turn out cattle.

“Basically you just pick a place and start rebuilding,” he said.

Kansas Agland Editor Amy Bickel's agriculture roots started in Gypsum. She has been covering Kansas agriculture for more than 15 years. Email her with news, photos and other information at abickel@hutchnews.com or by calling (800) 766-3311 Ext. 320.

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