Building fences Area farmers help with wildfire losses

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A replacement post standing next to a burned one gives perspective to the damage done by recent wildfires.

These three past presidents of the Iowa Corn Growers Association, pictured left to right, are Ron McCartney, Gunder; Doran Zumbach, Coggon (organizer of trip); and Tim Burrack, Arlington, recently traveled to Kansas to do fence-repair work.

By Pam Reinig

Register Editor


“Farmers help farmers.”

With just three words, Clayton County Supervisor Ron McCartney summed up the motivation behind an Iowa-based humanitarian effort to help an Oklahoma rancher devastated by spring wildfires.

“I mean, this guy lost nearly everything,” he added. “How can you not help? If it was us, we’d be looking for help, too.”

McCartney was one of nearly 50 volunteers who left home on Father’s Day for a road trip to the Kansas-Oklahoma border where the crew helped a rancher replace fencing. Doran Zumbach of Coggon who, like McCartney, is a past president of the Iowa Corner Growers Association, organized the effort. His goal was to get 10 people together but as word spread, interest grew. Several women signed on for the trip, as well, including Zumbach’s wife, Billie, who documented the effort in regular Facebook posts.

The spring firestorms that ripped through the plains consumed more than 1.6 million acres of land from Colorado to Kansas to the Oklahoma panhandle and into Texas. Low humidity, high winds and generally dry conditions made the fires hard to fight. Predicting the path of destruction was equally challenging. According to McCartney, many ranchers had only a 30-minute notice to move their livestock.

“There were huge losses,” McCartney continued. “Some of the stories were heard were just incredible—stories about people spending three days putting down injured livestock, or driving 100 miles just to get the ammo to do it.” 

In a pre-trip interview, Zumbach painted a sobering picture of the losses sustained by ranchers: About 10,000 hogs and over 14,000 cattle, with some of the heaviest losses in the Kansas area that the Iowa group served.

“The miles of fence lost is just astounding,” Zumbach said. “If it was a single fence, it would stretch from Cedar Rapids to Madrid, Spain.”

The Iowa contingent set a goal of replacing two miles of the 25 miles of fencing lost by the rancher. According to McCartney, a mile of fencing can cost as much as $10,000.

“We pooled our funds and took everything we needed with us,” he said. Their provisions included a large grill loaned by the Delaware County Cattlemen’s Association that was used nightly to prepare meals in the parking lot of the hotel where the group stayed. The group stayed in Dodge City, KS, about 50 miles from the ranch where they worked.

“Our original plan was to work Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday but we left a little early because it started getting hot,” McCartney said. “It was 104 degrees when we pulled out.”

With the rancher and his family working alongside them, the group put in 12- and 14-hour days to accomplish their goal. Even the rancher’s son, who has just broken his leg pole-vaulting in a high school track meet, found ways to help. The group’s were hampered by numerous flat tires caused by cactus needles and burnt stubs.

The amount of fence the Iowa group was able to replace was just a small percentage of the rancher’s overall losses. But for all parties, it was a rewarding effort.

“In economic terms, all we provided was a just a small bit of help,” McCartney said. “But from an emotional standpoint, this was huge for the family. Up until the moment we arrived, they had doubts that we were coming. I know it was a boost for them—and for us, well, we gained a whole lot more than we gave.”

Other efforts have been undertaken locally to assist ranchers who faced significant losses from wildfires. Earlier this year, the Clayton County Cattlemen’s group raised money for fence materials.

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