What we found in the fire: Kansas rancher, firefighter saw extensive losses

By Rachael Van Horn
Woodward News – August 1, 2017

Photo by Rachael Van Horn

If you’ve ever been around Englewood, Kan. firefighter and rancher Bernie Smith, you’d know he’s seen a lot in his ranching career.

From his wire rimmed glasses, his utility style wrangler shirt with a pen tucked in his left pocket, to the crease of his straw cowboy hat, one knows this is someone who understands what it means to try and make a living on the border line between the desert sand of the Oklahoma Panhandle and the Flint Hills of Kansas.

He knows what it’s like being up all night driving cattle in before a blizzard. He knows what the frozen ground feels like when he’s helping calve a heifer. And he knows how the summer wind can feel like 100 shop heaters scorching your face.

And while he thought his vast background, both in fighting fires and ranching had prepared him for just about anything, it hadn’t prepared him for what he went through on March 6.

“We lost 10 houses in town and we lost 15 in our area and we have never lost a house to a grass fire before,” Smith said. And we lost them in about two hours.”

Smith, who lost hundreds of cattle and thousands of acres of grassland and fencing, was among several ranchers who recently took part in a group story-telling session shepherded by Oklahoma Agriculture Secretary Jim Reese.

The group gathered at Laurie’s Cafe in Gate last week in what was a more relaxed atmosphere, which allowed them to finally tell their stories. In many cases it was the first time they got to meet some of the folks from Michigan who had been hauling relief supplies thousands of miles, numerous times, during the days and weeks after the fires.

The meeting was, in reality, the first opportunity for neighbors who had lived through something this intense to sit together and share their own stories. It had an unexpectedly deep impact on those who are, just now, able to begin to process the reality of their survival and how close fate came that day.

For Smith, his role as a firefighter and protector of his family and their livelihood on March 6 seemed to rip him in two pieces like Rumplestiltskin. And still, he remained focused on his mission to evacuate homes while keeping an ear tuned into when he might need to go to his own home.

“For someone who’s never done it, it is pretty hard to set at a house and let a fire come to you and then set there and let it go by you,” Smith said. “And then go ahead and take care of the house and make sure you have the house saved and then keep trying to get back in front of the fire.”

The fire for Smith began around 11:30 a.m., like it did many. And two hours later, his fire department notified him that they had the fire controlled as well as was possible but it was still inevitably going to roar through Englewood and the surrounding areas.

And so Smith, well known to his neighbors, had the task of going door to door and ranch to ranch to notify people, it was time to save themselves and what they could.

“My fire department said it was probably 1:30 before I made it back. And they said they had the fire as good as they could get it and they wanted me to evacuate houses,” Smith said. “I invite anyone to look around in your house, if you’ve got five minutes, what do you take?”

No one except Smith and the people he helped that day know the kind of helplessness and fear that is contained in those moments. But it was evident, as he told his story last Thursday, that watching and helping people make those choices left its gremlins living in the soul of this rancher.

“I had an older couple. I went to their house and they’ve got to drive two miles to the west to get out. Fires coming from the southwest, They said, ‘Well, you’ll get it out.’ And I said, ‘No, not today,'” Smith said.

In all, Smith and other firefighters were out fighting the mammoth fire for 52 hours before finally being relieved.

As others shared their stories after he had, Smith listened intently.

And while he fought it, the anguish was fixed in a painful 50-yard stare, as he relived that day and likely the day after. But this time it was with others who understood the movie that plays in his mind when he smells smoke, hears the fire tone on his phone or drives through areas of his ranch that still need fencing.

It is a film in living color of the memory of finding hundreds of dead and dying cattle. Likely, he remembers the feeling of driving around in his pickup on March 7 with a rifle so he could put down those cattle still suffering.

And yet again, it was his communication with a Michigan family the Tuckers, who eased his soul in the days immediately after the fires.

“The Tuckers, they brought their kids and I picked them up in Knowles. The ranch that I lease over there had burned – 95 percent of that ranch…and her kids wanted to ride with me,” Smith said. “I told the kids, I said, ‘I’m glad you all come, because this is history being made.'”

He said the response from people in states all over the United States, specifically from and for the agricultural communities, has rarely been seen.

“Those kids set there and they listened to every word,” Smith said. “They went home and I think they wrote stuff for their 4-H. It was great. And Todd and I and Carrie and I became close friends after that and that was the only time I ever met them before in my life.”


Posted by Gwen Dorr Romine, KSFFA Webmaster
KSFFA’s Fire News Blog Home Page

2 Responses to “What we found in the fire: Kansas rancher, firefighter saw extensive losses”

  1. 1 Sam Knipp August 3, 2017 at 9:16 am

    Great story. Good job Rachael!

  2. 2 Anonymous August 3, 2017 at 9:09 am

    I grew up in Englewood and my heart cries for my home…….going next month to see for ourselves the devastation


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