Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Out of the ashes comes a silver lining

Rancher Brian Alexander stepped over a tiny stream and into waist-high grasses, bushes, brambles and wildflowers. “Six months ago, this was mostly bare dirt under a canopy of red cedars,” Alexander said. “This spring probably hasn’t run in the last 20 years because of all the cedars taking water.” Rising from this small valley and neighboring prairie were the charred skeletons of cedars that would never sap water or growing space from the Red Hills again. Alexander’s 7,000 acres were part of the estimated 390,000 acres burned in late March by the Anderson Creek Fire, which started in Oklahoma before moving north into Kansas. The horrific blaze was named for its ignition spot in Oklahoma. It is the biggest wildfire in Kansas history. “Our ranch looked like the surface of the moon, only black,” rancher Dave Brass said of his 10,000-acre spread. “There was no noise. No birds singing. Nothing. “It was almost eerie.” The fire led to the deaths of hundreds of cattle, damaged or destroyed millions of dollars’ worth of fencing and torched several homes and other possessions. But now ranchers are finding a silver lining in the massive fire. “It’s kind of the best of times coming out of the worst of times,” said Mark Huddler, a rancher who lost 27 miles of fence and several buildings. “We’ve got water in streams that haven’t run for years because the fire decimated so many cedars.” An Oklahoma State University study says a 12-inch cedar tree can use up to 42 gallons of water per day. Many thousands of cedars died in the fire. “The pastures look good, really good,” said David Johnson, who lost about 70 cattle, several buildings and vehicles. “In the long run, we’re going to be better off.” But Huddler, Johnson and other ranchers said they worry about the future. “What’s been the worst fire is going to become the second-worst fire if we don’t pay attention to this,” said Ted Alexander, Brian’s father. “This will happen again.” Controlled burning, proponents argue, is the only way to rid the prairie of cedar trees and other fuel and prevent another major wildfire. “Prairie needs fire almost as much as it needs water if it’s going to stay healthy,” Ted Alexander said...more

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