WICHITA, Kan. – Kansas rancher Greg Gardiner got into some of his scorched pastures for the first time Wednesday and surveyed what he likened to a battle zone: carcasses of dead cattle everywhere.
"It's pretty much a catastrophe," Gardiner said as he looked out on his ranch near Ashland, charred by wildfires that have burned through hundreds of acres in four states. "It's as bad as a mind can make it."
Gardiner cries when he talks about how thankful he is that none of his family members were lost in wildfires that that have led to the deaths of six people. Gardiner's brother Mark lost his home — like dozens of other people in largely rural areas of Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado — but he is safe.
Gardiner figures he lost 500 cattle. Any badly burned animals found still alive are mercifully shot.
"A lot of people have gone out and run out of shells and come back to get more shells," said Gardiner, speaking by cellphone. "It's pretty grisly work out here right now, to be honest."
He saw a coyote's carcass and wryly stated that there's not even coyotes left to clean up the dead. No wildlife is left as far as he can tell.
While cattle producers like Gardiner spent much of Wednesday assessing their losses, fire crews were attempting to extinguish the blazes. Most of the burned land is in Kansas, where more than 1,000 square miles has been consumed in a series of blazes, including one believed to be the largest in the state's recorded history.
It is too soon to know yet how many animals perished. In Clark County, where Gardiner lives, ranchers so far have lost about 2,500 adult cattle and at least 1,000 calves, said Randall Spare, co-owner of Ashland Veterinary Center.
"It is just horrendous," rancher David Clawson said from his home near Englewood, a Kansas town of about 50 residents where a fire destroyed 12 homes.
Ranch hands were among those who have been killed in the fires. In the Texas Panhandle, three ranch hands died trying to save cattle from fires that have burned nearly 750 square miles.
Gray County Judge Richard Peet said it appears 20-year-old Cody Crockett was on horseback and his girlfriend, 23-year-old Sydney Wallace, was nearby on foot as fire and smoke swirled around them. Peet says Wallace died of smoke inhalation. Crockett suffered burns, as did 35-year-old Sloan Everett who also was on horseback. Their bodies were found near each other.
A fourth person who died in Texas — 25-year-old Cade Koch — was attempting to drive home when smoke from a separate fire to the north enveloped him. His wife, Sierra Koch, who is pregnant, described her husband as a hard-working, friendly man who "treated everybody with the utmost respect."
"He was hard-headed and had a huge heart," she said.
In Kansas, the Highway Patrol said Corey Holt, of Oklahoma City, died Monday when his tractor-trailer jackknifed as he tried to back up because of poor visibility on a highway, and he succumbed to smoke after getting out of his vehicle.
About 545 square miles also has burned in Oklahoma, where a woman had a heart attack while trying to keep her farm and died.
No deaths were recorded in Colorado, where more than 45 square miles burned.