PARADISE, Kan. (KSNW) – Faith and hope. It’s what a Kansas woman said she clung onto as she watched a December wildfire destroy her home and her livelihood.
“I could see flames coming out of our house and out of our show-barn that we were just in,” said Stephanie Dickerson.
Dickerson is a fifth-generation farmer. She and her family own and operate Bar S Ranch, an Angus, Red Angus, and Charolais breeder, in Paradise, Kan.
“We have three boys. Two of them are back kind of at the ranch full time mainly, and so they would be 6th generation on our farm and ranch,” Dickerson explained.
All of those generations of hard work and memories remain in Dickerson’s mind and heart. However, most of her family’s land, buildings, and many of their cattle did not survive the Dec. 15 Four County Fire. Dickerson vividly remembers that day.
“It was pretty scary. It was really eerie that day. I told my husband I just I have never been around anything that was that much wind,” she said.
The moments leading up to the fire
Dickerson was working with some of her show cattle in the ranch’s barn when a neighbor called. She said the neighbor and asked if she could help get their horses to a safe spot because the fire was close to their property.
She, her husband, one of her son’s and her son’s roommate drove the 8 miles to their neighbor’s house.
“When we got over there, the fire was all around their house and barns. They came out. They said, ‘you guys need to get back, go home,'” Dickerson explained. “So we started to head back. As we did, the wind picked up, picked up the truck and trailer that my husband and son were driving, and flipped them over.”
The two, uninjured, got out of the truck and got in Dickerson’s vehicle.
“As we drove out, there were flames in front of us. We turned around. Behind us, there was a tanker, fire truck tanker there. There were flames behind the tanker truck,” Dickerson said. “We basically just took the ditch, drove through flames to get out of there.”
The four then picked up a nearby friend and neighbor whose home was also in the path of the fire. Their next stop was their home to try and save some of their pets.
“We were going to go back west because that’s where we thought the fire had already been. A fire truck stopped us and said, ‘no, you can’t go west.’ We tried to go south. We couldn’t go south. We couldn’t go back east. That was where we came from. There were no roads going north, so we were basically trapped,” Dickerson said.
Dickerson and her four passengers followed a pair of fire trucks and a tanker truck to the middle of a wheat field.
“We all set together,” she said. “The tanker truck poured water over the top of us as the fire burned over the top of us.”
After the fire had passed, the group finally returned to their home. By that time, their home was engulfed in flames.
“My three corgis were in my house. My house was completely gone. There was nothing that we could do. Three of our vehicles were there. They were badly burnt,” she said.
The fire also destroyed the ranch’s main headquarters. It was the house her great-great-grandfather built and where her great grandfather was born.
“It was hard the first couple of days to think what are we going to do? Are we going to rebuild? Are we going to go on?” Dickerson told KSN. “But that was just a fleeting thought because my great-grandpa came over from Germany when he was 12. He was a stonemason, and he made money to bring the rest of his family and stuff over, so we are resilient and so, we never, after that fleeting first thought it was OK, we are going to rebuild.”
Kansans helping Kansans
The days following the Four County Fire were filled with volunteers and an outpouring of support.
“We had hundreds of people actually show up in person,” Dickerson said. “The donations of food, clothing, monetary donations from people that we didn’t even know some of them, but they just felt led to help us.”
More than a dozen students with Valley Heights High School FFA decided to spend part of their Christmas break helping Dickerson and her family.
“I come into school the next day was telling the kids about what happened out there and how it had kind of affected people that we knew and they really wanted to help in some way or form,” said Valley Heights FFA Teacher Drew Obermeyer.
Obermeyer, who is friends with Dickerson, said he was not surprised his students were willing to lend a helping hand.
“They do give of their time, and their energy and they are busy, you know, we are a small school, and kids are involved in everything, but we have got some true leaders here, and they really want to support and do things. Their generosity is unmatched a lot of times,” he said.
The FFA students traveled about six hours to and from their high school to volunteer. They helped take down about five miles worth of burnt fencing at the ranch.
“The fence, the heat got to it so bad you could just touch them with your pliers, and it would break. It was terrible. I couldn’t imagine if that was my personal ranch,” said Valley Heights Senior and FFA member Caleb Hornkohl.
Hornkohl and fellow FFA member Braylee Fritzson said while the volunteer work was somewhat tiresome, they would do it all again.
“When we went out and saw the smile on their (Dickerson and family) face, it really brightened your day, and you just couldn’t imagine how happy you could be,” said Fritzson.
“They (recipients) are really thankful for it and just the smile on their face once you go out there and help them. Their smile is priceless,” Hornkohl said.
Kansas farmer and rancher Ryan Ketter also witnessed that priceless smile. He hauled nearly 300 hay bales to those impacted by the fires.
“My brother and I decided to donate a load of hay to the fire victims, and then word got around that we were hauling hay out there, so anyway it kind of went from there and oh, about 10 other farmers donated hay, and they also donated fuel money which was very, very nice,” said Ketter.
Ketter, who calls Tipton home, hauled nine loads to farmers in need in a matter of days. The hay is especially needed this time of year as much of the grass was either burned or dormant because of the cold temperatures.
“They are very appreciative, and I know if the shoe was on the other foot, they would do the same thing,” he said.
“We will never be able to repay the generosity, the labor force that came out to help us, the gifting of vehicles for us to drive, the people who took in our cattle when they are already had their resources were stretched thin,” Dickerson said. “There are just aren’t any words to say how appreciative we are.”
Dickerson and her husband currently live in a neighbor’s home as they work to rebuild what they lost in the fires.