In early May 2022, Lion Corinne Masters saw a hint of green in the landscape. Someone else reported seeing a few flowers blooming.  A few farmers near Masters’ family land had cattle grazing.

Woman mends a fence
Lion Corinne Masters lost miles of fencing along her property in the Paradise fire.

On an ordinary spring day this would not have qualified for conversation among the tight-knit people of north-central Kansas, where the pioneer spirit has tied families to the prairie for generations. But 2021 was a year like no other in the rural counties of Russell, Ellis, Rooks, and Osbourne.

First came the May 2021 flood, when heavy rain caused rapid, swelling creeks, pouring two to four feet of water into the homes of unexpecting Kansas families. In the small town of Natoma, one-third of the homes were destroyed. Lions from as far away as Lane County drove two-to-three hours to help rebuild the American Legion Hall that is home to the Lions.

Then came December 15, 2021. Just as people began to put the flood behind them and decorate for Christmas, wildfires driven by wind that hit 100 mph swept through the area. Fire shot like lightening across the dry plains, taking not just homes, barns, and more than 5,000 miles of barbed-wire fence, but livestock by the hundreds. More than 150,000 acres of land burned brittle and black as night, then turned white with a cover of blowing ash and dust as the wind continued for days.

“The land is an extension of their lives,” says Lion Laah Tucker who lives in Natoma.

Woman sifts through ashes
Masters’ grandparents old stone home was reduced to ashes in the heat of the blaze.

“Generations of families have raised their children and tended livestock on that land. The land is a part of them.”

The Four County Fire started as the day ended, shifting with the wind and leaving little unscathed. More than 25 homes, barns, vehicles, farm implements, swing sets, feed troughs…it all burned. Stone fence posts more than 100 years old crumbled in the heat, and telephone poles burned from the ground up.

“Only dust,” says Masters in March 2022, when asked what she could see from her window. “I’ve spent hours and hours outside and I’ve only seen one rabbit. That’s it. The trees and bushes, the landmarks, the wildlife are all gone. Everything is gone. It’s all just bare.”

Foundation of burned barn
People in Paradise lost everything in the fast-moving fire, including homes, livestock, and entire farmsteads.

The retired teacher was spending days on her hands and knees cutting the wire of her ruined, twisted fences that stretched for 30 miles along their land. She sifted through the ashes of what was once her grandfather’s stone barn where she had bottle-fed calves as a child.

It was gone, crumbled into a pile of ash with her grandparents’ old stone home.

Panic, fear, and sadness had fallen over their land during the fire, when it was so dark, so windy, and so dangerous that farmers could not get down roads to check their cattle or cut fences to let them run to safety. Families who would ordinarily go to check on friends and neighbors simply couldn’t, although some tried.

“It came so fast,” they say time and time again. “It came so fast we couldn’t leave. We live on 320 acres,” says Lisa Arnoldy of Russell. “It came within 10 feet of the front door.’’

With the light of day they saw the real heartbreak. About 100,000 hay bales used to feed the cows had burned. Hundreds of cattle had been unable to escape the fire and died in the fields, and the same ranchers who had raised them from calves had to dig pits to bury them.

Baby calf nurses
As of the spring of 2022 glimmers of hope have appeared in Paradise, including calfs born to some of the surviving cows.

“People think they are just livestock, but farmers know their cows like people know their pets,” says Arnoldy, who stayed inside on those days because she couldn’t bear to witness the grief outside.

One rancher lost 100 head of cattle, and another lost more than 80. Years of genetics go into breeding those herds. One man’s beloved Clydesdale horses could not be saved. A man who had just rebuilt his home after the May floods saw it burn to the ground.

Another man lost 360 bales of hay to the fire. One bale of hay might feed six cows for a week, says Keith Harberer, the emergency management director for Russell and Ellsworth counties. Everyone knew the importance and cost of quickly replacing those lost bales to feed the cattle that survived, and word of need spread quickly. Within days, a convoy of semi-trucks loaded with donated hay bales started coming in from farms all over Kansas and as far away as Iowa, Texas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri and Colorado. Day after day they arrived in the four counties.

Boy waves flag at passing truck with hay bales.
About 100,000 hay bales used to feed the cows had burned in the fire. A truckload of new hay is a welcome sign.

The Tuckers’ visiting grandson waved the American flag as they passed the house.

Food came in for the people too – and not just from farmers. Natoma Lions flipped pancakes for many. The Paradise Methodist Church fed 100 or more people lunch and dinner every day, and in the gym of the Paradise school and some churches they offered shelter to those who were suddenly homeless.

Many of the same Lions from 14 clubs in District K who had driven miles to help repair the Natoma Lion’s clubhouse after the flood returned after the fire with food, time, monetary donations, and hands ready for hard labor.

Young members of Future Farmers of America from all over Kansas spent their spring break rolling up miles of burned barbed wire and cleaning up debris for farmers they had never met. Men and women—from real estate owners to bankers—came in to spend their weekend rebuilding fences.

Even with all the help, recovery will be long. Walter Fink, a rangeland management specialist and professor in Agronomy at Kansas State University, says most of the land burned was native grassland. He expects it will take at least three years to recover. Both forage production and plant composition were impacted, and soil erosion is occurring. Rainfall is crucial because continued drought will only make recovery more difficult.

While there are so many losses, the people did not lose hope. They have clung to things that could not burn: friends, family, faith, and spirit.

“In small communities the victims are also the people who come to the aid of others,” says Tucker. “The response has been amazing as people have come from everywhere to help. Everybody just pitches in to help everybody else. It has really helped keep spirits up.”

Farmers have shifted their focus from this tragedy to the work and the promise that lies ahead. A little green on the hillside has helped, says Harberer.

“Call it the pioneer spirit,” says Masters. “And people helping people. That’s what happened out here.”