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When the Starbuck wildfire blazed near Ashland, Kansas, in March, it was a horrific disaster. But the community of Ashland was as prepared as it could be thanks to forward-thinking planning years in advance, and a community spirit that wouldn't let the flames win. (Journal photo by Jennifer M. Latzke.)

We at High Plains Journal received quite a few nominations for our Ag Cares honors regarding the Starbuck Wildfires and members of the community of Ashland, Kansas. There were so many good people doing good deeds for their neighbors, as you would expect from any small rural town of just 807 people.

And yet, when we started talking to nominees, one theme kept cropping up. They told us it wasn’t one person’s actions that got them through the flames. Rather it was the entire community that made the difference.

Ashland Mayor Kendal Kay and local veterinarian Randall Spare spoke to this spirit of community and responding to not only the challenges of a wildfire, but also the challenges of keeping Ashland a vital hub for an overwhelmingly rural county in a time when rural flight is a major concern.

The story begins, though, years before March 6, 2017. It begins with the Ashland Community Foundation’s goal of building a future for Ashland.

Kay, who serves as the president and CEO of Stockgrowers State Bank in Ashland, explained the Foundation was founded in 1996. Its mission is to assist local community organizations with finding sources of funding and identifying challenges and opportunities for growth. Past grant recipients include the Ashland High School and community libraries, the Clark County 4-H Council and the Ashland Health Center. The Foundation helps entities that fill needs for the community, like the Rainbow Connection preschool, and the Ashland Fitness Center.

Kay said about five or six years ago, the Foundation sponsored a facilitator to bring members of the community together to form a visioning task force called Ashland 2020. As mayor, Kay was involved with the task force, which sought to answer the question, “What do we do to ensure Ashland survives?”

“We are a rural community,” Kay said. “Everything is agriculture-based or related to agriculture. So how do we survive? My philosophy has always been to not focus on the problems, or the challenges, but to find solutions.”

Little could anyone know that this planning, Kay said, fortuitously position their small town to be able to handle the emergency of a devastating wildfire just a few years later.

So as part of the Ashland 2020 task force, there were focus groups that met to look at topics like infrastructure and housing, economic development, youth activities and even civic pride. The groups identified challenges in the community and worked toward solutions. For example, Kay explained, the infrastructure group identified the hospital needed upgrading, and there was a need for more quality housing to attract professionals to the community.

Spare explained the hospital upgrade took the community leaders working together to encourage passage of a $13.5 million bond to build a facility. “We knew if we lost the hospital, we’d lose the school and then lose the community,” Spare said. The people passed the bond by 65 percent because they believed in the future of Ashland—including the landowners who would carry much of the tax burden. And yet, when the fires came and devastated those same rural landowners, people in the community rallied to their aid. It wasn’t city versus country—it was community helping community.

“The facilitator told us to focus on what we do have here to start and how can we build on that?” Kay explained. The next step was to identify members of the community and the skills they would have to help in various capacities. This, he added, was part of the rapid response the city had to the wildfires.

Kay explained that any municipality has contingency plans in cases of emergencies. And Ashland was no different when the fires first sparked up in March 2017. But it was the Ashland 2020 visioning process that the community leaders had just undergone that gave the town a head start on handling the catastrophe headed its way.

“We saw that we had challenges like any other small town or large city out there,” Kay said. “We just chose to chip away at the challenges and work to solve them. We didn’t focus on the negatives.” The new hospital was the tip of the iceberg. The city also invested in new housing construction, which would prove handy as temporary housing for those affected by the wildfires.

The Foundation itself even played a crucial role when it came to organizing response efforts. Working with the Kansas Livestock Association’s foundation that had been set up after the Anderson Creek wildfires of 2016, it was positioned to direct the overwhelming response from Americans wanting to help from all over the country.

“No one stood around expecting help from anywhere,” Kay said. “That’s who we are. We roll up our sleeves and help ourselves and we get to work to help our neighbors.” When help did come in, it was an unexpected and welcome blessing, he said.

Kay, as mayor, saw the volunteer efforts of his neighbors shining in the devastating flames. The planning of Ashland 2020 identified those in the community with certain skills, he said. Over a dozen people led various efforts, and Kay said his job was to just connect the resources and the people and then step back and let the community leaders do what they do best.

“You have to have a spokesman, a leader to put the key people in the places where they can do the best,” Spare said.

For example, Kay’s father and brother at Ashland Grain and Feed coordinated the many trucks of donated hay and fencing supplies from around the country. Another neighbor unaffected by the fire used her design skills to create a one-page flyer with details of where people could donate—thus freeing up others in town to more pressing tasks. The people of Ashland, he said, stepped up to the challenge.

And yet despite the Ashland 2020 visioning and the disaster planning, there were future challenges the Starbuck fire brought to light for the community, too.

The fire showed that their evacuation radius wasn’t nearly large enough to encompass many of their rural neighbors who would need assistance getting from their homes to town. Also, the disaster plan called for evacuating elderly citizens and those in the hospital to Coldwater, Kansas, or Buffalo, Oklahoma. Buffalo itself was trying to fight the same fire and there was some confusion and trouble in the evacuation process that both towns will consider for the future.

Kay said Ashland and the Foundation still have a long way to go in the recovery process. The immediate needs have been met, now it’s a time to look forward to the future needs of not just the city, but all of Clark County. But overall, Kay said he’s so very proud to call Ashland his home.

“Aid came in so many forms, from hay, to money, to even calls and texts telling us tat we were not alone,” Spare said. “When you have a youngster, a guy 24 years old from Iowa, driving all night with a load of hay, it creates accountability on our part to persevere and not give up.”

“We need to pay it forward, and that time will come,” Kay said. Spare agreed and said one lesson he’s taken from his community’s response to crisis is to never give up on making a small town better.

“We can make a difference in the lives of others, every day,” Spare said. “Not just in times of crisis, but today and every day.”

“If you let people rise to the occasion, they will,” Kay said, with a little emotion in his voice. “People stepped up and when we asked they stepped up in a big way.”

But if there’s one thing Kay and Spare could emphasize to other small towns like theirs, it’s to develop relationships between neighbors and community leaders today when you aren’t facing 60-foot walls of wildfire.

Because, the foresight of planning for their community’s future gave them a solid foundation for coming back from what could have been a town-killing natural disaster.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or jlatzke@hpj.com.

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