Ag community pulls together to support ranchers hit by Windy Fire

Lura Roti
For the South Dakota Farmers Union

A day after the Windy Fire consumed more than 2,000 acres of owned and leased winter and spring pastureland, and 1,500 round bales on the Ham Ranch, friends, neighbors and even some strangers began showing up ready to fence.

“They came for a week straight. A bunch of guys showed up without asking, to help fence. Some of my friends said, ‘We wouldn’t tell you we were coming because you would have told us to stay home.’ You know, they are right,” shared Brady Ham, a fourth-generation Shadehill, S.D., rancher. “We are all done fencing now.”

In addition to helping replace fence destroyed in the fire, many donated hay. “It is humbling because hay, in this country, is a commodity that a guy doesn’t want to let go of. One young man hauled a load in from as far away as Brookings,” Ham said. “I felt pretty helpless in that fire, and it is pretty humbling when people help out. It was quite the experience. I would not want to do it again, but I sure learned how generous and gracious people are.”

Lemmon, S.D., rancher Joe Zorc understands what Ham means. “We are the kind of people that don’t really want help. But when help comes, it sure is nice,” Zorc’s voice tapers off as he is overcome with emotion recalling the donated loads of hay, fencing supplies from Lindskov Implement and a crew from Boldt Power who showed up to dig in corner posts after the Windy Fire destroyed 1,800 acres of his summer pasture.

“When they first (came), we told them we didn’t need their help, we could do it ourselves. They said, ‘We are here. We will not take no for an answer. Show us where to start,’” said Zorc, who ranches with his wife, Kathy, and son, Preston.

Kathy said the generosity could not have come at a better time. Their daughter Kaylee got married two days after the fire. “They brought a meal out for us. I wanted to say, ‘We didn’t need it. We will be OK.’ But when life is overwhelming it is nice to have a hot meal.’” Friends also helped decorate for the wedding. “Thank God for good friends. We are blessed in many ways, let me tell you.”

The Zorc and Ham ranch families were among many Perkins County, S.D., cow/calf producers to lose pastureland and cattle to the Jan. 14 Windy Fire.

Propelled by 60- to 90-miles-per-hour gusts, the prairie fire burned across 21 miles of Adams County, N.D., and Perkins County.

“It is amazing no houses or lives were lost,” said Lemmon Volunteer Fire Chief Chad Baumgarten.

Serving on the Lemmon Volunteer Fire Department for nearly 30 years, Baumgarten said he and the crew see about 20 grass fires a year. Most are during the summer months and most are started by haying equipment or lightning. The Windy Fire, he said, was unlike any fire they have seen in their area for several reasons.

“We have had winter fires before, but most of the time there’s snow on the ground to help stop it. This fire was different,” Baumgarten said. “There wasn’t any snow and because it was January, all the grasses are dead, brown and it was extremely windy.”

It took volunteer fire departments from Lemmon, Grand River and several small communities from as far as 100 miles away to contain the fire, which eventually met its match on the banks of the Grand River and Dogtooth Creek. All told, 26 fire departments helped fight the fire. To date, what ignited the fire remains a mystery.

Fighting a fire like this one was personal for many volunteer firefighters. Most volunteers are like Baumgarten in that they ranch full time. And the rangeland they were fighting flames on could just as easily be their own grassland they depend upon to feed their own cattle. The cattle they worked to move to safety that smoky night could just as easily been carrying their brand.

“It (was) scary. I was loading my neighbors with water and supplies to fight the fire, then I watched them literally drive back into the wall of smoke and flames. They are my neighbors and my friends,” said Thunderhawk, S.D., rancher Chad Odell.

Odell drives the 1,800-gallon tender truck for the Grand River Volunteer Fire Department.

Ham believes it helped that many of the volunteers fighting the fire on his land had been there before. “The guys knew where the heck they were. Some of the guys had been on my place to help me move cattle before. The fire chief is one of my best friends,” Ham said.

The fire hit Perkins County around 4:30 p.m. It raged through the night. Firefighters were not only fighting fire — they also had to deal with freezing temperatures in the low teens and frozen equipment.

After the fire was over, family and neighbors who had fought the fire throughout the night stuck around as Ham assessed the damage.

The fire ran through a pasture of bred heifers. More than a dozen had to be put down. Ham thought for sure the fire had also gotten to a large group of fall-calving cows and calves. “It burned right through their pasture, but they got into the creek and trees and none of them were hurt. My cousin and his dad checked on them after the fire and called to tell me they were all right. It was relieving.”

After the fire was contained, some of the volunteer firefighters stuck around to help Ham clean things up. “I would not have wanted to be by myself that night. I owe them.”

Many of the same neighbors who fought the fire returned to help Ham fence.

How to help

Even though Dave Reis ranches more than 260 miles from Perkins County, the Lyman County, S.D., rancher is donating a load of hay to help. “It’s just natural, isn’t it? I could see myself in their situation very easily. A prairie fire comes running through your land and wipes you out. I just wanted to do something to help.”

He donated his load of hay through South Dakota Farmers Union website. The state’s largest family farm and ranch organization is one of the groups working to connect those impacted by the Windy Fire with resources to help.

“Helping neighbors in need is just what you do,” said Doug Sombke, a fourth-generation Conde, S.D., crop and cattle producer and president of SDFU. “As a producer more than 200 miles away, I felt a bit helpless. This allows me and others to do something, whether it is a donation of money, hauling hay or donating a load of hay.”

To learn about how you can help, visit www.sdfu.org.

The Zorc family of Lemmon, S.D., stand on what was pastureland. From left are Preston, Kathy and Joe.
Brady and Kristen Ham on their Shadehill ranch. The Ham ranch family was among many Perkins County, S.D., cow/calf producers to lose pastureland and cattle to the Jan. 14 Windy Fire.