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Ranchers move forward after devastating wildfires, but say road will be long and hard for some

WOODWARD, Okla. — It’s Thursday morning at the Woodward Livestock Cattle Auction, just like any other Thursday.

Owner Jerry Nine is inside the pen moving cattle through as an auctioneer rattles off bids, a kind of language you come to understand the longer you listen.

In the tiered theater-like seats are about two-dozen buyers, bid cards in one hand, bottomless cup of coffee in the other.

In between the lulls of the auctioneers’ rapid-fire calls, Nine’s yelling at the cattle and clanking of the pen’s gates, you occasionally hear a chuckle from denim-clad group looking down from above.

The sound of intermittent ribbing of one buyer by another — something you would expect from a room full of businessmen in cowboy hats and boots.

“Peanut gallery, I’m going to use that,” said buyer Wes Sanders, looking for a quick come-back as he sat and fielded looks and playful taunts from those around him. “It’s all business. They’re all our friends. All of these guys are my friends but, when it comes to (bidding), business is business.”

Sanders, 64, has been ranching his whole life.

“I guess I was born into it,” said Sanders, who is also a rancher and calls Woodward home.

He said the feeling inside the barn on this day is quite different from just a week ago — the area hadn’t received any rain yet.

“Last week, it was cold. Dirt blowing. Wasn’t much prospect of rain yet. So, until it hits the ground, you don’t know if it’s really coming or not,” Sanders said. “This was a great rain.”

And, with the rain came relief - at least some sort of respite from the destruction much of Woodward, Beaver and Harper Counties saw just a few weeks ago when the wildfires started.

When the fires started on March 6, no one you spoke to expected it would scorch so many acres and kill so many cattle.

Final estimates put the numbers of acres burned at more than 1 million in Oklahoma and Kansas alone.

A fire Sanders calls a “one-in-a-lifetime” event and, “hopefully, we don’t see that again.”

This section of the state can sometimes look more like a desert than a place you would expect with green pastures for grazing cattle.

It’s how many here earn a living, and it an be a tough job for those who decide to stay in the long-time family business.

But, many do.

And, talking about the rain — or just weather — is as good of a conversation starter in this stretch of the plains than any other part of the country.

“Fortunately, the good Lord provided rain — a good three inches of rain — so that will turn a lot of things around,” said rancher Jody Bryant as he walked a portion of his land near the Beaver River, just east of Laverne in Harper County.

Bryant lost about 30 head of cattle and roughly 85 percent of his pastures in the fire.

“We feel like we were fortunate in that aspect,” Bryant said. “It could have been a lot worse."

Even in the days after the fire, the work that comes with the territory of raising cattle wasn’t done.

With fences destroyed, Bryant took to his land by horseback — gun in tow — putting down livestock that survived the initial fire but would have ultimately suffered and succumbed without his hand.

“That part’s been brutal — been real brutal,” he said.

Bryant said fences will eventually be mended, the rains will come.

Time will move on, and ranchers will recover, but Bryant said “some people, they won’t recover. Some people, I’m afraid, are going to have to declare bankruptcy or even sell some land.”

And, some will need help throughout the rest of the year — and potentially — years to come.