VICI, Okla. — The hay began arriving before the fires were out. It came stacked on pickup trucks and strapped onto semitrailers. From a few counties away. From halfway across the country.
For ranchers whose grazing land was destroyed by wildfires that tore across western Oklahoma this month, the cylindrical bales were an economic lifeline, a way to feed cattle marooned on grassless patches of charred red soil. The hay was also free, provided not by lawmakers in Washington or Oklahoma City, but mostly by strangers in other corners of rural America.
“If we waited on the government, we wouldn’t have it,” said Leo Hale, a local business owner who volunteered for 12-hour shifts distributing hay at the Vici rodeo grounds. Vici, population 700, was hit hard in the fires that scorched nearly 350,000 acres across the region, left two people dead, and blackened mile after mile of pasture. Donated bales of hay arrived from Kansas, Texas, Michigan and other parts of Oklahoma.
When wildfires strike in cattle country, the list of needs is long and expensive: Hurt cows have to see the veterinarian. Fences must be replaced. Barns need to be rebuilt.
Perhaps most urgently, the surviving cattle must eat. So each time a major fire devastates the Great Plains, an informal but robust hay delivery kicks into gear, powered by Facebook messages, word-of-mouth and the honor system.
Free hay arrived last year in Kansas after the state’s largest wildfire on record left thousands of cows dead and countless others with nothing to graze. It came by the truckload to eastern Montana last summer when flames destroyed huge swaths of grassland. Without the bales arriving in Oklahoma, many ranchers would likely have to sell their herds.
“We may not be able to feed the cows enough to gain weight,” said Michael Kelsey of the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, which has been taking donations to provide hay and other supplies. “But if we can feed the cows enough to maintain, we’re in good shape. That’s just the reality of the disaster.”
Rhett Smith’s ranch on a gravel road outside Taloga, Oklahoma, was directly in the flames’ path. Unlike some of his neighbors, Smith saved his house and his 100 cows. But his grass was gone.
So when two tractor-trailers carrying 64 bales of hay rolled down Smith’s winding driveway, a sense of relief washed over him.
The hay would be enough to feed his cattle and his neighbors’ herds for at least a few weeks.
The trucks were driven by Levi Smith and his brother, Blake, who raise cattle about 100 miles from Vici, along the Kansas-Oklahoma border. The brothers had never met Rhett Smith before — and are no relation to him — but they said they empathized with all he was going through. Their family’s land burned last year, the brothers said. And donated hay had gotten their cattle through it.
“They think it can’t get any worse,” Levi Smith said, “but when these loads of hay come in, it gives you hope.”
In the sparsely populated counties where cattle roam, people rely on neighbors and take pride in giving help without being asked. Signs around Vici (which is pronounced “Vy-Sigh”) offer free meals, free clothes, free care for orphaned calves. In nearby Lenora, hay bales are stacked alongside a road for whoever might need them. As eager as people are to assist, they also seem reluctant to receive.
“Nobody wants to take any help if they don’t have to,” said Nick Campbell, a town trustee in Vici. “We’re trying to get them to understand that we’re there for them, whatever they need.”
The Oklahoma fires, which burned an area about the size of Chicago and New York City put together, made relatively few national headlines. But in agricultural circles — and especially in places that have seen their own fires — word of the destruction spread swiftly. Prairie fires are a fact of life on the Great Plains, but recent years have brought a series of unusually strong, multiday blazes that set records and spread out of control.
When Travis Brown lost much of his pasture in Montana’s fires last summer, other ranchers sent hay.
So when Brown heard about the new fires in Oklahoma, he and three other Montana ranchers paid about $940 each to send more than 100 hay bales to Oklahoma.
“I remember the feeling of just being overwhelmed after seeing so much of our livelihood burned,” Brown said. “The smoke hadn’t even cleared away yet, and people are saying, ‘You’re going to be OK.’”
Around Vici and Taloga, where drivers greet passing trucks with a wave and the skyline is dotted with wind turbines and oil pumpjacks, the flames have subsided. But the damage remains.
The fire’s timing was especially cruel, coming in the midst of an extreme drought. Dead cows appear along roadsides, hooves pointed to the sky. Driveways lead to piles of rubble. When the wind blows, it smells a bit like a campfire.
“You can see across the river and just see the black as far as you can see,” said Lori White, a Putnam, Oklahoma, rancher who lost a calf and about a third of her pasture in the fire, and who has been helping coordinate hay deliveries for ranchers who fared worse.
Last weekend, as a much-needed rainstorm tamped down the last of the flames, Matt Schaller delivered hay to ranchers around Vici. Schaller, who works on a grain farm, had driven more than 1,100 miles from Michigan with a load of donated bales, part of a nonprofit group he helped start last year after making deliveries during the Kansas fires.
“It’s just what you do,” Schaller said.