The Recorder

Fires leave tragedy, destruction in west

Tragedy swept across Texas, Kansas, and Colorado this week, leaving farms, ranches, and rural towns devastated in its wake. Out of control grass fires, many of them exacerbated by strong winds and extremely low humidity, burned as much as a million acres, and left several people dead in their path.

Two of these were a pair of ranch kids, Sydney Wallace and Cody Crockett, who were in their early twenties. They died trying to save cattle on Franklin Ranch in Texas, as did rancher, Sloan Everett. Amarillo Globe News said of him, “He died protecting his family, the land and his way of life. He was serving his family in that moment. That’s important for people to know and how big a priority that was, to give his life on behalf of his family.”

A ranch woman also perished while fighting fire on her family’s land. Such dedication and desperation is heartbreaking and yet not uncommon among rural people.

This tale of horror emerged as fire started in Oklahoma and swept into Kansas leaving devastated prairie and evacuated small towns in its wake. Many smaller fires are also burning grasslands across the state, with one rumored to have been stirred by a passing tornado. Parts of the Texas panhandle are also ablaze as are 45 square miles of rural Logan County, Colorado.

Although Kansas is officially known as the Sunflower State it is also sometimes known as both the Wheat State and the Breadbasket of the World. Agriculture is one of its main industries. The state boasts the 7th largest ag economy in the United States. Reno County alone has over 1600 farms. The largest percentage of Kansas ag revenue is generated by cattle and calves, corn for grain, soybeans, and hogs. It is however, number one in the nation in wheat production, as well. Nearly one fifth of US wheat production takes place there.

We all know about the ranch and farming cultures of Texas and Colorado. With the bringing-us-all-together aspect of social media it is easy to feel close to the disaster, as dramatic photos of home ranches that belong to friends and friends of friends show up on Facebook. Frightened cattle mill in circles, silhouetted against yellow and orange flames that put their world in danger. Nearly 200 cows were killed on one ranch alone.

We can only hope and pray that fire weather will abate before too many more acres are burned. However, the first of the region’s two major tornado and storm seasons hasn’t even begun yet, so there may be more to come.

And as if Tennessee didn’t see enough trouble last year with the terrible fires in the Great Smokies, a Tyson chicken farm has discovered that its birds are infected with highly pathogenic avian influenza, HPAI, the dreaded bird flu. The USDA says that this is the first confirmed case of H7 in the US this year and the first found in Tennessee.

The 73,500 birds involved will be culled in an attempt to halt the spread of the disease. However, if outbreaks in 2014 and 2015 in laying hens and turkeys had anything to show us, it is that this disease spreads swiftly and with devastating effect. This could be another harsh blow to the Volunteer State, as poultry is big business there. “Broiler production is the No. 3 Agricultural sector in Tennessee for cash receipts generated. Currently the number of poultry operations is increasing in the state with over $461 million in receipts from broilers and just under $44 million in egg receipts.”

Along with around 30 other farms in the area, the affected farm has been quarantined and tests are ongoing.

As you have read here in recent months, avian influenza has been causing serious problems in the Far East, with human deaths, and infected shelter cats in NYC, with one veterinarian being infected but surviving.

Four hundred sixty people have been diagnosed with bird flu in China since October. So far human cases have been sporadic and fairly limited, but health officials are suggesting caution. According to CNN, “For now, the WHO recommended precautionary measures to prevent infection, including avoiding poultry farms and contact with live birds, washing hands regularly, covering your nose and mouth when near poultry, and cooking meat thoroughly.”

It will be good news indeed if this case is isolated and does not spread.

Other good news was announced late last month when the president ordered review of the Waters of the United States or WOTUS. The program had been intended to bring most of the water in the nation, including farm ponds, puddles, and ditches, under federal control via the EPA. American Farm Bureau called it, “nothing more than a federal land grab.”

However, according to Landscaping, because the rule was finalized quite some time ago overturning it will not be easy. The process will probably be years long and may have to go as far as the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court agreed in January to consider whether jurisdiction over lawsuits pertaining to the legality of the rule rests with federal district or appellate courts.

There are so many problems with the rules as written that they are hard to list. Farm and Dairy said, “…NPPC and the other groups said EPA and the Corps of Engineers failed to reopen the public comment period after making fundamental changes to the proposed rule and withheld until after the comment period closed the scientific report on which the rule rested.”

Many farmers feel that the rule is so broad and vague that it has the potential to make even traditional of farming practices into activities that require federal permits. Since it does not make clear which activities are contraindicated or when, it leaves farmers helpless under it.  Any action to delay or derail it is welcome to many who work the land. The new executive order instructs the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to initiate formal review of the rule with the intent to revise or rescind it.