At first they said no family members were lost.
But in all the later tellings of the grassland wildfire that raced across 9,000 acres of May Ranch near Lamar last weekend, the distinction between working animals and family members disappeared as quickly as 50 miles of burned fencing.
May Ranch cowboy Chano Villalobos dropped the reins of his closest working companion, a gray named Chapo, amid a raging smokestorm last Friday, counting on his trusted partner to stand still while Villalobos hurried to open a gate and save dozens of waiting cattle. Many of them were mama cows, calving before, during and after the firestorm driven by 50-mile-an-hour winds.
Chapo stood still. When Villalobos turned back to jump on and push the cattle to safety, his horse’s saddle blanket was on fire. Chapo wouldn’t stand still for that. The horse turned and sprinted into the smoke.
The cows were saved, as were nearly all the thousands of critters large and small that call the sprawling ranch home.
Chapo was not. Villalobos took what was left of his saddle off Chapo’s body when he found it Saturday morning, in burned-over shortgrass. To everyone who worked the 800-head Limousin cattle ranch with Villalobos, if that loss was anything, it was a family loss.
Four generations of the May family had been transforming their high sage and sandy creek-bottom country into a sustainable conservation ranch.
More birds, less plowing. More wetlands, fewer row crops. More sanctuaries for endangered species, less human intervention.
But, as forever in ranching, balancing the elements is hubris, and temporary. Sooner or later, likely sooner, there will be too much wind, scraping away too much earth. Too much fire, and not nearly enough water.
Ranch patriarch Dallas May was with son Riley and son-in-law Wes over the border in Kansas on Friday morning, delivering hay to a dairy in Coolidge, when he got a call about smoke at the southeastern corner of the family property, where Big Sandy Creek meets the Arkansas River. They raced back west, while Dallas’ brother Bon, his children and in-laws, and wranglers on horseback went into action.
The ranch has a wildfire plan. The Mays had talked about it just the week before with Prowers County Rural Fire Chief Staffon Warn. Dallas May, Warn said, worried that any new spark after a winter with zero snow cover would start near all the bird and other riparian habitat the ranch had meticulously crafted along the precious waterways. It would be hard to get in there with firefighting equipment, and it would likely burn, May told the chief.
It was. And it did.
Warn says the wind Friday morning was 56 miles per hour, sweeping north toward the heart of the ranch. Prowers County Sheriff Sam Zordel, who rushed to the ranch headquarters, says, “I swear it was higher than that. I mean, I don’t have an official report to justify my thoughts, but it was howling pretty good.”
The family, ranch hands and neighbors arriving in skidding pickups jumped into front-end loaders and road graders the Mays keep at their machine shops for the express purpose of digging firebreaks amid prairie winds. The big machines plowed through fences to free cattle, who will stand at a fence and burn up rather than try to knock it over.
May Ranch has about 350 pregnant cows this spring. In April, they are calving nearly every hour, around the clock. About 90% of them were immediately in the path of the fast-spreading south end fire.
Chief Warn’s firefighters found Chapo before they found the horse’s cowboy, Villalobos. Warn was driving through clouds of smoke, directing volunteers by radio, when one of the department’s pickups passed the fallen horse with a burning saddle.
The firefighters switched missions.
“We had to find that rider,” Warn said. “One of our trucks found him wandering down the road.” May thinks the cowboy, who had rushed to save cows and lost his working partner, would have died in the blinding smoke. “It’s a miracle to me, honestly,” he said.
More neighbors, meanwhile, poured into all corners of the ranch, unbidden. They dragged in hoses to spray structures, brought tanks to water dazed cattle, and drove disc plows and field rakes or anything that could carve a line ahead of the fire.
When the sheriff got to the ranch headquarters, with barns, houses, sheds and pens, Dallas May was back from Kansas and dumping loads of dirt onto spot fires sparked by embers carried on the wind. Volunteer firefighters from departments neighboring Lamar had watered down the homes.
LISTEN: Bon May on how close 10 people came to the fire
One of the ranch hands was raising 80 sheep and 20 goats for his family, in pens at the headquarters area. Stacks of hay bales around the pens were lighting up like an “inferno,” according to May and the sheriff. A neighbor got in a tractor and tried to drive through smoke and flames to knock down the pens and let terrified animals out. The heat broke the tractor window, and sent the friend to the ER with second-degree burns.
The sheep and goats died, May said.
“It’s horrible,” he said. “From the time the fire started, it had gone 10 miles north in one hour.”
So far, May believes, the entire ranch lost only two mature cows, another miracle he attributes to friends and neighbors moving scared animals away from flames. The ranch may never know how many calves were lost, though. Some animals were birthing as the fire started.
With all the interior fence posts burned into the ground, the Limousin are wandering far from their usual paths. But the mama cows can be found.
“You point out a cow to me and I can tell you within a hundred feet where she’ll give birth, because she’ll go back to the exact same spot she did it the year before,” May said. That urge will take them right into now-scorched burn areas, he fears.
Chief Warn thinks the fire burned 8,500 acres in Prowers County, the vast majority of that on the May Ranch itself, and then a few hundred acres in Kiowa County to the north. It stopped nearly at the county line, for reasons Warn can’t explain, after blowing right over other county road firebreaks.
It’s the biggest grass fire in the area for three or four years, Warn said. May said it has not snowed in the area since a host of state government VIPs came to the ranch in November to release endangered black-footed ferrets into a prairie dog colony, not far from where the fire started.
After securing the humans, and then the cattle and calves, and the horses, and the dogs, one of the first things Dallas May wanted to check when the fire died down was his beloved beaver dams. Dams turn high plains water trickles into wetlands, which turn grasses into rushes and shade trees and aged cottonwoods good for nesting. All of those helped give May Ranch a coveted Audubon Society endorsement as a bird-friendly place to raise beef.
The dams survived, still surrounded by water. But the winds are so strong, and the shortgrass prairie so dry and ready to revert to blowing sand, that even the fire ash is already scoured from parts of May Ranch. Sand dunes are already forming, desiccated and depressing.
“We had a big cottonwood tree in the line of the fire. Fire burned every piece of bark off and all the way up to the top. I’m sure it’ll die,” May said.
What the family fears now is a one-day reversal of years of transformation. Until now, they’ve been carrying out a long term program to show that modern ranching can be regenerative, not subtractive, to the land and wild species.
To further bolster the consumer appeal of beef with May Ranch origins, for example, the family had applied for Global Animal Partnership certification. A grocers’ seal of approval is handed out at the lowest levels by certified grass-only feeding, and avoiding antibiotics.
Level 5, which the Mays pursued and won, means no physical alteration of the cattle.
Which means no branding.
Which means the owners of unbranded cows wandering across a suddenly fenceless, 15,000-acre prairie must depend on the kindness of neighbors and the diligence of cowboys to restore order and bring back thousand-dollar prizes.
And those are things that worry the May family not at all.
Dallas is showing around one of the few photos that someone stopped to take during the middle of the firestorm. There, through a thick haze, draped across the saddle of a new ranch hand’s horse, you can make out the black-and-white face of a border collie named Azul.
The ranch hand opened gates and herded cattle through blinding smoke, picked up another stray horse along the way, and then with Azul found a road wetted down by hoses. They made their way into the yard, and Azul stayed atop the saddle until the worst smoke passed.
“As soon as the smoke cleared, our friend was back on his horse, his dog was back on the ground, and they were moving cattle again,” May said.
“That’s what people were doing. Risking their lives to save families.”
Photos, videos and audio by Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun