by Rebecca Long Chaney
ASHLAND, KS — “The rancher we helped told me it reminded her of the dirty 30s and Dust Bowl,” said Rianna Chaney, 13, formerly of Thurmont, MD. “Because there were no trees left and just sand, and that’s what it looks like now.”
Rianna joined nine other 4-H members from her Pride of the Prairie 4-H Club and two 4-H moms from Elwood, NE, to help ranchers affected by the devastating wildfires that swept across Clark County, KS, destroying nearly half a million acres on March 6 in just hours. Pastures were burned, homes were lost, thousands of miles of fencing were destroyed, equipment was burned and one trucker tragically was killed.
“Close your eyes mom, that’s what it looked like when the lady was driving to safety.” This was one of the first things Conner Schutz, 14, of Elwood, NE, told his mom, Codina Schutz Moore, when he arrived home after volunteering two days and helping tear down burned out fence rows that were destroyed in wildfires that burned more than 90 percent of Clark County.
The first day the group split up to work on two different ranches. Five kids were with me helping Susan and Tom Betschart of Betscharts’ Limousin Ranch. Through tear-filled eyes Susan told the story of her evacuation with her dog through blinding black smoke and flames on both sides of the road not knowing if she would survive or see her family again. “My husband called and could hear the panic in my voice — All I said, was, I can’t talk right now,” she explained.
While she escaped with her life, her husband was on another side of Ashland cutting barbed wire fence in a nearby pasture, while others bulldozed through fences trying to save cattle from the flames racing toward them. Her husband ran their 39 head of Limousin bulls to the only safe place left, according to Susan — the streets of Ashland where their was no fuel, no tall grass to burn. There the bulls were safe, and there, the bulls survived. The Betschart’s other 130 cows survived as well, but they did lose a majority of their pasture and most of their fencing.
That was our main job, tearing out the burned barbed wire fence rows. It was cold, windy and the kids never complained once. “We learned to work without using machinery that we could have used and we did it all by hand,” said Ty Smith, 16, of Elwood. “It meant everything to help those ranchers. Those ranchers are still trying to figure out where to start. Our trip showed what helping others out is all about.”
“The pastures were all blackened where the wildfires burned the tall pasture grass right to the ground,” explained Sheridan Chaney, 13. “I also saw a home that was burned right to its foundation and trees where the sap burned so hot inside the tree that the bark exploded right off of the trees.”
In total, the Pride of the Prairie 4-H’ers tore down and rolled three miles of barbed wire fencing, all by hand. Most of these kids were handling barbed wire for the first time.
“I learned a little more about the true meaning of hard work,” said Carsen Reiners, 13, of Elwood.
The other crew went to the home of Max and Marge Meuli, owners of Meuli Ranch, to help him clean out a burned out windbreak. This team was headed up by chaperone and 4-H mom, LeahAnn Brell, who also operated the four-wheeler that day helping the kids pull out large limbs and carry debris, making a large controlled burn pile. All 2,000 acres of the Meuli Ranch burned in the wildfires.
The morning of the wildfires, the Meulis received a call from their grandson. His wife’s brother, his foreman and foreman’s fiance were all killed in the wildfires in the panhandle of Texas trying to save cattle.
Shortly after that, Max and Marge got the call to evaluate, the wildfires were closing in. “I didn’t even think to grab a photo album,” Max said. “I got out with the only thing that mattered most to me… my wife.” The couple, in their 80s, drove out their lane, with flames above their vehicle on both sides. The fires burned the whole way up on three sides of their house and burned out at the cement sidewalk, but their home was spared. Max and Marge said they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary last year and they knew exactly how blessed they were.
“I was so lucky to have met them,” said Kennedy Brell, 14, of Elwood. “I really enjoyed going to Kansas to help people with clean up.”
The trip to Kansas was certainly a life-changing experience for these young people that they will not soon forget.
“My experience helping ranchers from the fires was so rewarding,” explained Ayden Moore, 13, of Elwood. “It meant so much to help people who really need help.”
If the kids had never cleared a shelterbelt or windbreak before, they were eager to learn. If they had never rolled barbed wire before, they did not hesitate. Seeing these 4-H members work tirelessly, made me believe that we just need to make more of an effort to put these working opportunities out there for our youth.
“My experience in Ashland was awesome and a lot of work,” said Wryston Brell, 11. “I learned to never give up and that when you say you are going to do something, that you need to give it your all.”
Community service is a huge part of the 4-H program and this was a very special trip for the kids to give of their time, energy and enthusiasm. “The entire trip was a humbling experience,” said LeahAnn. “God was definitely at work in the cleanup efforts. The trip and work were something I’ll remember for a lifetime but also the bonding experience with this group of our local kids made it one of the most rewarding trips I’ve ever been on.”
The kids were donning gloves and using fencing pliers donated by local businesses and people from Elwood and Lexington, NE. The outpouring of financial support in the local and nearby communities was phenomenal.
Our entire group stayed at the Christian Camp in Ashland. There was one girls’ bunk house, and one boys’ bunk house, each with 50 bunk beds. There was electricity, but no heat, just a few space heaters and temperatures dipped in the 30s at night.
Across from my bunk were ladies from Virginia who had driven out with supplies to donate and to volunteer a few days. There were church ladies from Iowa in their 70s who came to help and FFA kids from Michigan who came to lend a hand.
I hear many people in Elwood often say, “It takes a village.” I know this project never would have had the success it did without the incredible support of the Elwood community and many other communities and friends, Thank You!
Driving back from Ashland, a judge and his wife, eating at the same restaurant in Wakeeney, KS, found out about our 4-H group working on the fence rows after the wildfires and told us it “renewed their faith in young people.” They paid our entire dinner bill.
LeahAnn and I couldn’t be more proud of the young people who experienced this life-changing adventure with us and to work hard, deliver supplies, share smiles and hugs, and to change lives.
Recovery efforts will take years and cost tens of millions of dollars and all contributions help. If you want to make a difference, checks can be made to the Ashland Community Foundation. It is a 501(c)3 organization donation and is tax deductible. Put Wildfire Relief Fund in the memo and 100 percent of the funds will be used to help the ranchers who lost everything. Send checks to P.O. Box 276, Ashland, KS 67831.