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A view of the Big Sandy Creek looking south after a 9,000-acre wildfire raced through the May Ranch on April 22 near Lamar. (Photos by Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)
The same view 102 days after the wildfire. Monsoons transformed the patched burn scar into a verdant landscape.

LAMAR — Gazing north across the rangeland from the spot where a spring wildfire destroyed 9,000 acres of May Ranch pasture in a few hours, you can see scorched cottonwoods puncturing the horizon like black thumb tacks. 

In April, after a year so dry the sage roots turned to powder, the wildfire flew on hurricane winds and threatened ranch families, ranch hands, 800 cattle, and the livelihood and natural history of a certified wildlife sanctuary. 

Not to mention that it melted 60 miles of fence whose replacement cost alone is pegged at $1.5 million.

The fire department says it doesn’t know why the fire stopped after torching most of the 15,000-acre ranch. Dallas May figures it was wind-blown curtains of sand — drought-baked pasture soil — that dropped back onto the fire in the opposite of a self-immolation. A self-smothering. 

So to stand where the fire started, on a 96-degree August day, and recall all that Dallas May said about how bad things were before and during the fire, is to expect a rush of despair. 

But for all the disappointment and disaster that weather has delivered to Colorado in recent years, the gods appear to be making amends where County Road LL dives under Big Sandy Creek. 

Thick, emerald green grass stretches from the creek to the horizon, a table of green felt pinned down by blackened willow stumps. 

Dragonflies crowd the airspace over the creek, executing their lateral dashes in a rewarding search for an in-flight meal. 

A healthy bloom of algae floats under masses of fresh bullrushes, the fluorescent green that would be unnatural it were Kool-Aid appearing vital as the accent color to recovering beaver ponds. 

Dallas May spreads his broad shoulders as wide as his grin.

“It’s all back,” he beams.

Two lucky weeks of monsoon rains focused over Lamar and Prowers County have pumped life back into May Ranch, inviting the extended May family to resume their big plans for the future.

A dragonfly clings to a stalk of grass near wetlands at the May Cattle Ranch. (Photos by Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Shoots of cottonwood sprout near burnt trees.
Wetlands are once again flourishing.

Their purebred Limousin cattle are grazing a thriving alfalfa crop — eating into their winter foodstock, but still a welcome scene. The rare black rails and other birds that helped turn May Ranch into an Audubon-approved beef operation are nesting and breeding in recovering wetlands. Carbon storage contracts the ranch sold to those needing climate change credits have been adjusted to acknowledge all the carbon released by the wildfire, but those losses should be offset in the long run by rain-restored root growth stuffing more carbon underground. 

Dragonfly chasers are calling to ask when they can come out to Sand Creek and take photographs.

“It’s been a good summer,” Dallas said, trading ranch observations at creekside with his son, Riley. “What the ranch desperately needed was rain, and we’ve gotten rain when we needed it.”

The pendulum swings

As happens with most farming and ranching endeavors, nature’s pendulum actually swung back a little too far, too fast. Riley notes that even as his dad was celebrating a two and a half inch rainstorm one night in the last week of July, Dallas was simultaneously mopping up water from the main house. The microburst ripped part of their roof off, collapsed a hay shed, and crumpled a dozen farm buildings and irrigation rigs at nearby ranches.

The burst spotlighted Colorado growing microclimates that can be just a few miles wide, said Bruce Fickenscher, CSU Extension southeast region manager. The May Ranch sits nearly at the Arkansas River, and recent cloudbursts seem to have sought out streams and reservoirs, Fickenscher said.

“Water creates water, and so part of that area has done really well, moisturewise,” he said.

A view of the May Cattle Ranch’s winter pasture following the April wildfire. (Photos by Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)
The same view this August.
A view of the Big Sandy Creek looking north, taken on April 26.
The same view 102 days after the wildfire.

The beaver dams the Mays have stewarded along Big Sandy Creek and its marshes also helped damper the fire with their own microclimates, by backing up natural wetlands that serve as firebreaks. Rocky Mountain National Park naturalists encourage the same beaver structures in places like Moraine Park, and believe they have helped stop wildfire from racing east into Estes Park.

Fickenscher agrees with Dallas and Riley May that as terrifying as it was to see the wildfire whip across 10 miles in a matter of minutes, the wind speed helped save the rangeland for the long haul. The fast-moving fire didn’t have time to settle into the roots of sagebrush and kill it. A little moisture and time can bring it back.

The Mays will try to keep cattle off the fast-regenerating burn areas for most of the next year. That allows seeds to develop. Then, when cattle are allowed back, they knock off the seeds as they graze and plant them just so underground with a passing, grinding hoof.

The trick now is managing both the culinary lives and the sex lives of the 800 cattle, with every interior fence on 16,000 acres destroyed.

Purebred Limousin are valuable when their bloodlines are maintained and documented. This is not Sandals Lamar — mating pairs are selected, not randomized.

Further thought must be given to bulls within a bloodline. First-time mamas need to be matched with a bull whose temperament and offspring they can accommodate.

In the absence of good fences to promote good social structure, the Mays and various ranch hands are constantly out on horseback and in pickups moving animals around, playing babysitter and matchmaker. Traps lurk everywhere, in the form of holes left by fenceposts burnt to ash and waiting to break the leg of heifer, horse or human.

“Our cattle are basically still running all across the entire ranch. From one end to the other,” Dallas May said.

Dallas May, a Lamar rancher, on his ranch. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

On ranches and farms, the to-do lists never end, they’re just rotated like pasture. Re-stringing every interior fence is on a list, next to daunting data entries of man-hours and material. Replacing all of it at once “just isn’t something you can budget into operating the ranch,” he said.

Which leads to the list of figuring out who’s responsible for starting the fire.

The Mays and the Prowers County sheriff have pictures of molten metal fallen from power distribution poles where the flames erupted. Local and state fire investigators interviewed dozens of people.

Their official report concludes the fire likely started from a bad fitting on a power pole, or power lines slapping together in the gale and sparking over bone-dry grass. The county’s incident report doesn’t identify who owns the power poles in question, and said there was no criminal intent or criminal act to prosecute.

Whether or not that constitutes an act of God, the Mays don’t have insurance for the fences or economic losses from calves that disappeared in the smoke clouds. They’d like to pinpoint which power company or co-op is responsible for those poles, and at least have a conversation.

Cattle wade through a playa. (Photos by Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)
A burrowing owl surveys the landscape.

Driving the ranch’s elevated canal roads, Dallas May has one eye on the fences and misbehaving power lines. But his other eye looks for daily ranch delights, like herons lifting off mud flats, or glimpses of the fieldstone remnants of an old pony express station exposed by the fire.

A dozen-odd endangered black-footed ferrets released here last fall were out of the fire zone, and though elusive, are occasionally spotted darting across ranch tracks in nocturnal pursuit of sleeping prairie dogs.

May recalls the first depressing mornings after the April 22 fire.

“I didn’t think I’d ever see it this way again in my lifetime,” he said. “I can stand here today and be optimistic because I honestly thought we were going to lose every shrub on the ranch. I actually thought a lot of the ground would be sterilized from heat because it was so intense.”

CSU’s Fickenscher notes the May Ranch fire was just one of a handful of big grass fires that hit southeastern Colorado at the end of months without rain or snow.

“It’s still not good,” Fickenscher said. “But it’s better than it has been. Like anybody in agriculture, you’ve got to be the eternal optimist, to a certain extent.”

Michael Booth

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: Twitter: @MBoothDenver