Kansas Family Faces Fear Amid Wildfire

April 17, 2017 11:01 AM
 
Grisby Cow Wildfire

March 6 is burned into his memory.

A howling north wind caught Brandon Grigsby off guard. It blew a wildfire toward his home and livestock, scattered his family and friends. In the smoke, they became disoriented and lost contact with one another. The firestorm left carcasses — of valued animals and prized trees — on his 600-acre ranch north of Ashland.

But the fire didn't take what matters most to Grigsby, a bank loan officer who raises cattle on the side. Grigsby, 39, fully appreciates how bad it could have been. The thought brought him to tears last week as he described the chaos that erupted that afternoon as people and animals scurried from place to place trying to escape.

It was a terrifying day for a father.

A Calm Start

The Wichita Eagle reports that Grigsby's time line begins around 3 p.m. that day with the evacuation of the Clark County town of Ashland, 13 miles to the south. He thought he and his family would be relatively safe at their place. People who fled the town took refuge at homes in his area.

Brandon had been watching the destructive wildfire that had burned its way up from the Oklahoma Panhandle into the rolling grasslands in the southwest corner of Kansas. It's a Western, big-sky panorama. You can spot trouble from a distance.

But Brandon had a nagging worry closer to him, a fire north of his home that until that afternoon had seemed to be slow-moving. He couldn't ignore it. Would it creep to his place in the night?

He didn't realize a northern front was coming.

When Brandon got home, he told his wife, Heather, and their three children that he thought the fire would stay north of them, but to pack bags just in case.

At that point, his plan was to slowly, calmly move his cows from dry, tall grass to a green wheat pasture three miles southeast of his house.

So Brandon told his 11-year-son, Britt, to get into the pickup and go out with him to help herd the cattle. In the country, it's no big deal for an 11-year-old to help out by driving one of the trucks used to feed or move livestock. The boy was to drive the truck at a slow speed so the cattle, expecting to be fed, would follow. The herders couldn't go too fast. The new calves wouldn't be able to keep up.

Brandon would use his old Honda four-wheeler, and neighbor Danny Rich would join him on his four-wheeler. Brandon's 14-year-old daughter, Reese, and a friend would later come to assist on another four-wheeler.

Brandon would use a cellphone on speaker mode and tucked in his shirt pocket to remain in contact with his son.

Before they got started, Brandon and Danny rode to a hilltop to survey the fire to the north. It seemed under control.

As Brandon and Danny began gathering the cattle, Britt was calling the herd in by beeping the horn on the pickup from a quarter mile away. The boy had the truck on a ridge line as they pushed the cattle out of draws lined with chest-high winter grass, so deep they couldn't find all the calves.

Some of the cows still had afterbirth hanging from calves born earlier that day.

The wind changed dramatically, sending gusts from the north. And soon, leaping flames.

The wind howled.

As they were still looking for calves, Brandon told Danny, "Let's just go with what we've got."

The fire was moving faster — toward them, and smoke enveloped them, so thick they couldn't see.

Brandon told Britt on the phone to keep driving slowly, leading the herd toward a county road.

The smoke cleared enough that Brandon spotted his daughter Reese and her friend on a four-wheeler. He yelled to the 14-year-old, telling her to leave because the fire was closing in, and saw her turn around.

Brandon had a big calf, too young to walk, lying across his lap as he was trying to turn the cattle with his four-wheeler.

The Smoke Descends

On the phone, Brandon heard Britt say nervously, "Dad, I can't see anything." The father yelled back over the phone, ordering his son to keep driving. Britt was on a trail road that crosses a pasture.

In the smoke, Brandon and Danny plowed into each other on their four-wheelers. The collision didn't hurt them but caused the calf to drop off Brandon's lap and bumped his three-legged, cow-herding dog - Doc - off the back of the four-wheeler. The dog always rides with Brandon when he goes to feed the cattle. It can be an unforgiving land for a dog. The family's beloved blue heeler had lost a leg this past fall when he got hit by a truck in the night while chasing a rabbit. A rattlesnake bite had claimed Doc's sister. In the smoke and tall grass that afternoon, Brandon lost Doc.

After the collision, Brandon leaned over to retrieve the calf and didn't realize that his phone fell out.

Thinking he still was speaking into his phone on speaker mode, Brandon yelled out to Britt: "How are you doing?"

When Brandon reached for his phone, it was gone. In the blinding smoke, he had no contact with his son and could only hope that the boy was safe.

That was just before 5 that afternoon. Brandon didn't know where his kids were, wasn't sure if his wife had left the house with their youngest child.

But he managed to move cows onto the road.

As Brandon zoomed back to his house, he saw the four-wheeler his daughter had been riding, but not her.

By then, the fire by was "roaring and rolling."

The wind shot flaming tumbleweeds — like fireballs — through the air.

Emergency at the House

He found the driveway to his house in time to see that the leapfrogging flames had started burning into his house, melting a hole the size of a 50-gallon drum into the siding.

The fire had churned through utility poles, knocking out electricity to his water well. He grabbed a dog pan full of water and tried to douse the flames. The fire had reached insulation and studs.

He ran into the house, full of smoke, and screamed out, asking if anyone was inside. His father-in-law pulled up in a pickup and told him everyone was OK.

Using the dog's water pan and buckets of water from the stock tank, and at times even antifreeze, they doused the burn spot.

He returned to driving 40 head of cows and calves down the county road as flames jumped the road behind him. Fire flared above power lines.

His wife, Heather, had left with their 6-year-old daughter, Kashlee. Before Heather drove off, she threw open the horse pen and ran their five horses and mini-pony out to the county road, so they could get to safety. Brandon found the horses about 2 a.m., 4 miles east of the house. Not a single horse hair appeared singed.

That evening, Brandon, Danny and Brad Pike, his father-in-law, pushed the cattle into an 18-acre wheat field — an island of green in a sea of dry grass that fueled the fire. They also managed to get mooing, at-risk cattle from an adjacent ranch to the wheat field.

By then, the fire was threatening Danny's house, so he headed off, and Brandon's father-in-law left to help Danny. Brandon would try to the hold the cattle in the wheat field.

'I think Dad...died'

The heat and smoke made it hard for Brandon to breathe. He followed a fence line to a stock tank so he could douse his stinging eyes but was reluctant to get off his four-wheeler. He had run it so hard, he feared the engine would stall out if he got off. It was his only means to escape. "If that thing dies," he thought, "what am I going to do?" He jumped into the stock tank, thinking wet clothes would protect him from the heat.

He wrapped his wet shirt over his nose and got back on the four-wheeler, still idling.

His father-in-law returned, and he was able to talk to his wife on a cellphone. She and all three children were safe in Coldwater, 20 miles to the east.

Brandon told Heather how he had lost track of Britt and Reese.

She told her husband that their son had feared the worst for his father and Danny and didn't want to leave them. By phone, she had to help guide Britt out of the fire's path. He had become disoriented in the smoke but remained on a gravel road, keeping the pickup between the ditches. "Britt, you just keep driving," she told him, urging him to go faster, faster to escape the smoke.

Finally, she saw headlights on the Chevy pickup shine through the smoke. It had turned a sunny day to night, automatically activating the headlights.

"She said, 'I've never been so glad to see headlights in my life,'" Brandon recalled. Britt had driven about 4 miles from where he had been herding cattle.

Britt had blurted out to Heather: "Mom, I think Dad and Danny died."

When Brandon got to that point in telling the story — about his son thinking he had died — he choked back tears.

"I just get pretty emotional about my kids," he said.

He's still angry at himself. "I'm just mad that I had my 11- and 14-year-old" out there. "They should never had been out there to begin with."

If he had known that the north wind would have turned so threatening, he would have gotten his family out first, then worried about the cattle.

"That was just stupidity on my side," he said. "I really didn't see the urgency at the time."

Although his wife and children were safe, Doc, their dog, was still missing.

Later that night, Brandon made his way over the scorched earth to the feed yard in Ashland, where he treated his eyes with medicine that cowboys use when the dust irritates their eyes. For a week after the fire, Brandon's eyes continued to sting. His voice went hoarse from breathing smoke.

'Something from Mars'

That night, he returned to his house to make sure the fire was out and to see whether Doc had showed up.

After spending the night at a friend's house in Ashland, he saw the extent of the damage the next morning as he went home.

"It looked like something from Mars." The grass that covered the hills had burned completely, leaving a lunar surface.

He passed burned cattle with scorched eyes, some still alive and standing. He found his cattle and his neighbor's cattle along the county road.

At his place, he went looking for dead cows and spotted what looked like a dog's burned body. But it was a coyote. He saw dead deer.

And then something heart-warming popped into his view: "All of the sudden, from this draw runs up my blue heeler," Brandon recalled. Doc's thick coat looked untouched by the fire.

"I have no idea where he rode that thing out," he said. Blue heelers are known for their stamina. Even missing a leg, Doc is still nimble.

Three of Brandon's cows had gone looking for their babies. In a canyon, he watched as one cow stood over her dead calf.

"It just tears you up," he said.

These are animals that the family has raised, groomed and shown in 4-H. "To see that happen to them, it's tough."

Still, the wheat pasture saved most of his herd. After everything that happened, he lost four cows and seven calves and some prized, 100-year-old cottonwood and hackberry trees that form a grove near his house. Some of those tree limbs consumed by the fire held his kids' tree house.

He built his house at the spot because of that grove, which provided a break from wind and storms blowing from the southwest.

15-mile Fire Line

But the losses paled compared with the safety of his family, he said.

He's thankful for the help he got from his neighbor and his father-in-law to save his cattle and his house. The family is back in their home. The burned wall has been repaired. He's thankful for all the strangers who have sent assistance to his county.

Brandon has had time to reflect on how two giant fires grew together, the one from the southwest and the one from the north that surprised him.

From what he understands, what had been a slow-moving, 15-mile-long back fire turned into a raging, 15-mile-long blaze suddenly blown forward by the front - something the people of Clark County will never forget.

"God was with us," he said. "That's for darn sure."

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