Kansas churches working with fire victims


With prayer, financial help and hands-on labor, United Methodists are responding to the devastating fire damage that has struck south-central and southwest Kansas.

“It’s been amazing what everybody’s done,” said the Rev. Rick Branson, pastor of Ashland UMC.

Called the largest wildfire in state history, it burned 600,000 acres – with more than 500,000 of those in Clark and Comanche counties. Fire spread to as many as 23 counties.

How to Help

Anyone wanting to make a donation in the Great Plains Conference can do so through their church, with a check payable to the conference. The number on the remittance form should be #975. Those outside Kansas and Nebraska can address checks to the Great Plains Annual Conference, P.O. Box 4187, Topeka, KS 66604. In the memo line of the check, write #975, Disaster Response Fund.

The Rev. Hollie Tapley, Great Plains Conference disaster relief coordinator, said financial aid has been given to several families in Clark, Ford and Reno counties.

Fire destroyed approximately 30 homes around Ashland, Branson said. One of those belonged to his parishioners, Mark and Eva Gardiner, which also lost “thousands and thousands of cattle,” the pastor added.

“They have the Cadillac of the breed,” Branson added.

Yet, Branson said, sorrow over the loss of their livestock and livelihood didn’t shake the couple’s belief in God.

“They were just so grateful. They did our liturgy in church,” he added. The March 12 service was attended by U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, as well as the Rev. Don Hasty, Dodge City District superintendent.

The service became emotional at times, Branson said.

“We just shared for God moments where we’ve seen Him all through this experience,” he said. “In each and every disastrous thing, it could have been so much worse.”

The lone fatality from the fire, Branson said, was a trucker who got on the wrong path and couldn’t escape.

“Everybody’s well, nobody’s injured” in the area, he said. “We’re just sending up praises for that.”

The women of Ashland UMC served food to first responders 24 hours a day all week at the school gym and cafeteria, which was set up as a shelter. Trucks of food and water, including a truck full of hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken patties sent by Tyson Foods, helped feed the workers and those at least temporarily without homes.

At Protection UMC, one family lost its house, said the Rev. Wayne Stephens. An offering for them was taken March 12 at its Sunday service.

The usual 50-minute services turned into an hour-and-a-half as those attending shared their experiences, he said.

“A lot of people just got to talk,” Stephens said. “Several people had life-and-death situations. Some people got lost in the smoke and miraculously got out. Several of my church people had fire that came right up to their house – it jumped over and didn’t touch the buildings or the house.

“It’s just miracle after miracle,” he added.

Stephens said it was heartwarming to hear of calls being heeded for hay for the surviving cattle, put out by a local feed store. Farmers from as far away as Vermont sent hay to their Kansas counterparts.

“They wanted their hay to be here,” Stephens said. “Everywhere you see in Comanche and Clark counties, there’s hay trucks rolling.”

Stephens said he has tried to provide spiritual and emotional support to the first-responders by attending their counseling sessions.

“They really took a beating emotionally,” he said. “The dispatchers had to tell people calling in that there was no one else to send. People had to watch their houses burn or their cattle burn up. It’s very emotionally charged, the whole situation.”

Stephens said the outpouring of support and assistance has been beyond anyone’s expectations.

“There’s been nothing like this,” he said. “The response has been overwhelming.”
David Burke, communications coordinator, can be contacted at dburke@greatplainsumc.org.

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