VOLBORG, Mont. (AP) — Cecil and Delores Kolka thought they escaped the worst of the Ash Creek Fire when the 390-square-mile blaze spared their home and several pastures as it ripped through the couple's Montana cattle ranch.

But when the family went to round up their livestock they encountered carnage — the charred and bloated bodies of an estimated 400 cows and calves killed as the fire torched a series of narrow, thickly forested draws on the nearby Custer National Forest.

Some surviving animals were burned so badly that their hides were peeling. The worst off were shot in mercy killings. Others now limp by on burnt hooves, and less than half the family's herd remains.

"Before we found our cattle we said at least we've got our homes and are all safe," Delores Kolka said. "In truth, we would have rather lost everything here except our cattle."

Across the West, major wildfires are wreaking havoc this summer on the region's economically fragile livestock industry. In areas such as remote Powder River County, Mont., ranchers said they could be grappling with the devastation for years to come.

Hay is in short supply. Hundreds of miles of fence and numerous corrals and water tanks must be rebuilt. Thousands of head of displaced livestock are being shipped to temporary pastures.

Similar scenes are playing out in Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho. Including Montana, the value of the six states' cattle industries approaches $9 billion annually.

Hundreds of thousands of acres of grazing land have burned so far — with months to go in the annual fire season.

The number of fires and total acreage burned in the West this summer is roughly within range of the past decade's average. What's different is where those fires are burning, as major blazes erupt on grasslands and brush where livestock can be more prevalent, said Jennifer Smith with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

And that's all set against a backdrop of a crushing drought that has set in for much of the region. If the dry conditions persist, the recovery of burned areas could stall, forcing cattle owners to sell their animals or seek more lasting alternatives to the private pastures and public lands they've run livestock on for generations.

Perhaps 200 cattle have been killed in Wyoming and about 225 in Oregon, ranchers and officials in those states said. The numbers are growing as cattle die from injuries, illness and stress.

In remote southeastern Oregon, ranchers Rich and Jeanette Yturriondobeitia lost a third of their 300-head cow-calf operation. Rich Yturriondobeitia had to shoot six cows at one watering trough.

"I can talk about it now and not cry," said Jeanette. "My husband still can't talk about it. The cattle, oh crud we even had some of them named."

She said her husband "found a bunch of them that tried to outrun the fire and couldn't. He won't let me go see it. It was pretty bad."

In Montana, as the Ash Creek fire approached earlier this month, Cecil Kolka and others cut barbed-wire fences and opened gates to give livestock a chance to escape over rock-strewn ridgelines that dominate the landscape.

How so many cattle were killed remains uncertain. Several dead deer and a dead coyote found among the burned cattle suggest the fire simply outran them.

Like others, the Kolkas said they likely won't know the full extent of their losses for months.

"We're still finding dead ones, and we haven't been able to account for quite a few of them," Cecil Kolka said as he drove through the sprawling ranch he runs with his son and daughter-in-law, Dean and Jill Kolka.

Near a water tank where surviving animals were taken to recover, calves with burnt hooves limped painfully through the mud. Numerous cows had blackened teats on their udders. One mother cow stood vigil over a dying calf that could barely lift its head. Kolka said the animal likely would have to be put down.

The overall fatalities are tiny compared to 30 million beef cattle nationwide. That means the fires will have minimal effect on beef prices, which already were high due to a drought-related spike in feed costs and demand from export markets, said Dave Bohnert with the Oregon State University Extension Service.

But within rural economies, the impacts are magnified.

Oregon's Harney County, for example, is wide open country where some ranchers drive 120 miles for groceries. Its 71,000 cattle outnumber the people nearly 10 to one.

Though not one house there was lost to the 870-square-mile Long Draw Fire, it destroyed the food for tens of thousands of cattle, and left half a dozen ranching families wondering if they will be able to send their kids to college or even stay on the land they love.

Some ranchers say the federal government didn't do enough to stop the spread of fires that have burned more than 3,000 square miles of range and forest in the West so far this summer. They contend that restrictions on logging and grazing allowed too much fuel to accumulate in forests and on the prairies, and that limits on road construction hindered access to fire areas.

Environmentalists cite warming temperatures due to climate change as a major culprit. They also argue grazing spreads non-native plants that are quick to burn.

Regardless, the most immediate problem for ranchers who saved their cattle is how to feed them.

The drought already has driven up hay and corn prices. Pasture is at a premium. And emergency grazing lands released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture can be hundreds of miles away, leaving ranchers wondering how they could ever pay shipping costs.

A Wyoming fire that burned through 153 square miles of remote pine forest and meadows in Medicine Bow National Forest displaced as many as 10,000 cattle.

Meanwhile, disaster programs ranchers normally look to are not available until Congress enacts a new Farm Bill.

"What it does for so many is turn an already slim profit margin into a negative margin," said Wyatt Prescott, executive director of the Idaho Cattle Association.

Ranchers depend heavily on federal grazing allotments, which sell for $1.35 for the right to graze a cow and her calf for a month. But after the ranchers foot the bill for fences and water improvements, the cost is more like $30, said Stacy Davies, manager of the Roaring Springs Ranch outside Frenchglen, Ore.

That is a fraction of the cost of feeding a cow on hay, which runs around $90 to $100 a month since the drought has driven up hay prices, he added.

Ranchers won't be able to graze burned allotments for two years after they burn, unless federal policy changes.

Next door to the Kolka ranch, Marian Hanson says the fire destroyed up to 85 percent of the grazing land on ranches she runs with her daughter and grandson. She has transferred several hundred cattle to locations scattered across Montana.

Her grown grandsons, Blaine and Bob, have been spending their days pulling up burned fence posts, coiling ruined barbed wire and sawing down burned trees.

"There's not enough here for cows to eat," Bob Hanson said as he worked in a stand of blackened pine trees. "We lost a bunch of buildings, too, but it ain't nothing like Cecil and Dean (Kolka). That's heartbreaking."

__

Contributions from Todd Dvorak in Boise, Idaho; Nigel Dura in Portland, Ore.; Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyo. and Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, N.M. Barnard reported from Grants Pass, Ore.

Related on HuffPost:

Loading Slideshow...
  • A birdfeeder hangs in front of a home d

    A birdfeeder hangs in front of a home destroyed by the High Park Fire, in Bellvue, Colorado west of Fort Collins June 30, 2012. The High Park Fire burned more than 87,000 acres and left one person dead and destroyed 259 homes making it the second-largest and second-most destructive fire in Colorado state history. The High Park Fire is 97 percent contained while the Waldo Canyon Fire, which has burned more than 17,000 acres, left at least two people dead and destroyed 346 homes is 45 percent contained. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages)

  • Maggie Baker looks over item retrieved f

    Maggie Baker looks over item retrieved from her brother-in-law's home which was burnt to the ground in the High Park Fire, June 30, 2012 in Bellvue, Colorado west of Fort Collins. The inferno burned more than 87,000 acres and left one person dead and destroyed 259 homes. The High Park Fire, which started June 9 from a lightning spark, is the second-largest and second-most destructive fire in Colorado state history. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages)

  • Maggie Baker (R) and her sister-in-law N

    Maggie Baker (R) and her sister-in-law Nellie Bowman walk through the remains of her brother-in-law's home which was burnt to the ground in the High Park Fire, June 30, 2012 in Bellvue, Colorado west of Fort Collins. The inferno burned more than 87,000 acres and left one person dead and destroyed 259 homes. The High Park Fire, which started June 9 from a lightning spark, is the second-largest and second-most destructive fire in Colorado state history. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages)

  • Maggie Baker (R) and her sister-in-law N

    Maggie Baker (R) and her sister-in-law Nellie Bowman walk through the remains of her brother-in-law's home which was burnt to the ground in the High Park Fire, June 30, 2012 in Bellvue, Colorado west of Fort Collins. The inferno burned more than 87,000 acres and left one person dead and destroyed 259 homes. The High Park Fire, which started June 9 from a lightning spark, is the second-largest and second-most destructive fire in Colorado state history. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages)

  • Maggie Baker looks at items retrieved fr

    Maggie Baker looks at items retrieved from the remains of her brother-in-law's home which was burnt to the ground in the High Park Fire, June 30, 2012 in Bellvue, Colorado west of Fort Collins. The inferno burned more than 87,000 acres and left one person dead and destroyed 259 homes. The High Park Fire, which started June 9 from a lightning spark, is the second-largest and second-most destructive fire in Colorado state history. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages)

  • Maggie Baker visits the remains of her b

    Maggie Baker visits the remains of her brother-in-law's home which was burnt to the ground in the High Park Fire, June 30, 2012 in Bellvue, Colorado west of Fort Collins. The inferno burned more than 87,000 acres and left one person dead and destroyed 259 homes. The High Park Fire, which started June 9 from a lightning spark, is the second-largest and second-most destructive fire in Colorado state history. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages)

  • Frank Baker visits the remains of his br

    Frank Baker visits the remains of his brother's home which was burnt to the ground in the High Park Fire, June 30, 2012 in Bellvue, Colorado west of Fort Collins. The inferno burned more than 87,000 acres and left one person dead and destroyed 259 homes. The High Park Fire, which started June 9 from a lightning spark, is the second-largest and second-most destructive fire in Colorado state history. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages)

  • A charred animal trailer sits amidst the

    A charred animal trailer sits amidst the destruction caused by the High Park Fire, in Bellvue, Colorado west of Fort Collins June 30, 2012. The High Park Fire burned more than 87,000 acres and left one person dead and destroyed 259 homes making it the second-largest and second-most destructive fire in Colorado state history. The High Park Fire is 97 percent contained while the Waldo Canyon Fire, which has burned more than 17,000 acres, left at least two people dead and destroyed 346 homes is 45 percent contained. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages)

  • A fireplace is all that remains of a hom

    A fireplace is all that remains of a home burnt to the ground in the High Park Fire, in Bellvue, Colorado west of Fort Collins June 30, 2012. The High Park Fire burned more than 87,000 acres and left one person dead and destroyed 259 homes making it the second-largest and second-most destructive fire in Colorado state history. The High Park Fire is 97 percent contained while the Waldo Canyon Fire, which has burned more than 17,000 acres, left at least two people dead and destroyed 346 homes is 45 percent contained. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages)

  • A scorched pathway leading to a home des

    A scorched pathway leading to a home destroyed by the High Park Fire, is seen June 30, 2012 in Bellvue, Colorado west of Fort Collins. The High Park Fire burned more than 87,000 acres and left one person dead and destroyed 259 homes making it the second-largest and second-most destructive fire in Colorado state history. The High Park Fire is 97 percent contained while the Waldo Canyon Fire, which has burned more than 17,000 acres, left at least two people dead and destroyed 346 homes is 45 percent contained. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages)

  • An item recovered from a home destroyed

    An item recovered from a home destroyed in the High Park Fire, June 30, 2012 in Bellvue, Colorado west of Fort Collins. The inferno burned more than 87,000 acres and left one person dead and destroyed 259 homes making it the second-largest and second-most destructive fire in Colorado state history. The High Park Fire is 97 percent contained while the Waldo Canyon Fire, which has burned more than 17,000 acres, left at least two people dead and destroyed 346 homes is 45 percent contained. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages)

  • A home surrounded by burnt land stands u

    A home surrounded by burnt land stands undamaged after the High Park Fire, in Bellvue, Colorado west of Fort Collins June 30, 2012. The High Park Fire burned more than 87,000 acres and left one person dead and destroyed 259 homes making it the second-largest and second-most destructive fire in Colorado state history. The High Park Fire is 97 percent contained while the Waldo Canyon Fire, which has burned more than 17,000 acres, left at least two people dead and destroyed 346 homes is 45 percent contained. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages)

  • Dragons Eye

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/kcr56rck"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/kcr56rck">kcr56rck</a>:<br />Eye Of The Dragon (High Park Fire from Fort Collins Colorado)

  • High Park Wildfire

    Fire burns behind homes north of Poudre Canyon in the Glacier View area near Livermore, Colo., on Friday, June 22, 2012. The fire is burning on more than 68,000 acres west of Fort Collins and has destroyed at least 189 homes (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • High Park Wildfire

  • High Park Wildfire

    Fire burns behind homes north of Poudre Canyon in the Glacier View area near Livermore, Colo., on Friday, June 22, 2012. The fire is burning on more than 68,000 acres west of Fort Collins and has destroyed at least 189 homes (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • High Park Wildfire

    A slurry bomber drops retardant on the High Park wildfire after it crossed to the north side of Poudre Canyon and threatened homes in the Glacier View area near Livermore , Colo., on Friday, June 22, 2012. The fire is burning on more than 68,000 acres west of Fort Collins and has destroyed at least 189 homes (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • High Park Wildfire

    The sun sets behind a plume of smoke from the High Park wildfire near Livermore , Colo., on Friday, June 22, 2012. The fire is burning on more than 68,000 acres west of Fort Collins and has destroyed at least 189 homes (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • Image via <a href="http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151219758154638&set=p.10151219758154638&type=1&theater" target="_hplink">Facebook</a>.

  • Image via <a href="http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=3273738644328&set=p.3273738644328&type=1&theater" target="_hplink">Facebook</a>.

  • High Park Wildfire

    A firefighting helicopter races to dump a load of water on the fire north of Poudre Canyon in the Glacier View area near Livermore, Colo., on Friday, June 22, 2012. The fire is burning on more than 68,000 acres west of Fort Collins and has destroyed at least 189 homes (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • High Park Wildfire

    Shirley Paskett, left, and her partner Pam Creech react as they listen to a reverse 911 call telling them to evacuate their home after the High Park wildfire crossed to the north side of Poudre Canyon in the Glacier View area near Livermore, Colo., on Friday, June 22, 2012. The fire is burning on more than 68,000 acres west of Fort Collins and has destroyed at least 189 homes (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • High Park Wildfire

    Shirley Paskett loads her stuffed bob cat into her vehicle after she and her partner were evacuated from their home after the High Park wildfire crossed to the north side of Poudre Canyon the Glacier View area near Livermore, Colo., on Friday, June 22, 2012. The fire is burning on more than 68,000 acres west of Fort Collins and has destroyed at least 189 homes. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • High Park Wildfire

    A firefighting aircraft is dwarfed by a plume of smoke north of Poudre Canyon in the Glacier View area near Livermore, Colo., on Friday, June 22, 2012. The fire is burning on more than 68,000 acres west of Fort Collins and has destroyed at least 189 homes (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • High Park Wildfire

    Fire burns behind homes north of Poudre Canyon in the Glacier View area near Livermore, Colo., on Friday, June 22, 2012. The fire is burning on more than 68,000 acres west of Fort Collins and has destroyed at least 189 homes (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • In this June 19, 2012 photo provided by the Colorado National Guard, an aircraft drops a load of fire retardant slurry above the High Park wildfire about 15 miles west of Fort Collins, Colo. The ammonium phosphate dropped from airplanes to slow the spread of raging wildfires can turn a pristine mountain stream into a death zone for trout and some say the retardant has never been proven effective. (AP Photo/Colorado National Guard, John Rohrer)

  • In a photo made on Tuesday, June 19, 2012, and made available on Wednesday by the Colorado National Guard, firefighters from the Monument, Colo., fire department march to dinner at sunset in a base camp near the High Park wildfire about 15 miles west of Fort Collins, Colo.(AP Photo/Colorado National Guard, John Rohrer)

  • In this June 19, 2012 photo provided by the Colorado National Guard, an aircraft drops a load of fire retardant slurry above the High Park wildfire about 15 miles west of Fort Collins, Colo. The ammonium phosphate dropped from airplanes to slow the spread of raging wildfires can turn a pristine mountain stream into a death zone for trout and some say the retardant has never been proven effective. (AP Photo/Colorado National Guard, John Rohrer)

  • Burned trees stand on the south side of Poudre Canyon where the High Park wildfire devastated the west of Fort Collins, Colo., on Wednesday, June 20, 2012. The largest Colorado blaze west of Fort Collins was 55 percent contained and has destroyed at least 189 homes since it was sparked by lightning June 9. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • High Park Wildfire

    The stairs that led to a home that was destroyed by the High Park Wild fire are photographed during a tour by fire officials in Poudre Canyon west of Fort Collins, Colo., on Wednesday, June 20, 2012. The largest Colorado blaze west of Fort Collins was 55 percent contained and has destroyed at least 189 homes since it was sparked by lightning June 9. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • The stairs that led to a home that was destroyed by the High Park Wild fire are photographed during a tour by fire officials in Poudre Canyon west of Fort Collins, Colo., on Wednesday, June 20, 2012. The largest Colorado blaze west of Fort Collins was 55 percent contained and has destroyed at least 189 homes since it was sparked by lightning June 9. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • High Park Wildfire

    A burnt cactus stands near a home that was destroyed by the High Park Wildfire are pictured during a tour by fire officials in Poudre Canyon west of Fort Collins, Colo., on Wednesday, June 20, 2012. Areas with other homes destroyed were not included in the tour. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • Burned trees stand on the south side of Poudre Canyon where the High Park wildfire devastated the west of Fort Collins, Colo., on Wednesday, June 20, 2012. The largest Colorado blaze west of Fort Collins was 55 percent contained and has destroyed at least 189 homes since it was sparked by lightning June 9. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • In this photo made on Monday, June 18, 2012, and made available Wednesday by the Colorado National Guard, a helicopter drops a load of water above the High Park wildfire, about 15 miles west of Fort Collins, Colo.. The fire already has destroyed at least 189 homes since it was sparked by lightning June 9. (AP Photo/Colorado National Guard, Jess Geffre)

  • In this photo made on Monday, June 18, 2012, and made available Wednesday by the Colorado National Guard, a helicopter drops a load of water above the High Park wildfire, about 15 miles west of Fort Collins, Colo. The fire already has destroyed at least 189 homes since it was sparked by lightning June 9. (AP Photo/Colorado National Guard , Jess Geffre)

  • In this photo taken on Monday, June 18, 2012, and made available Wednesday by the Colorado National Guard, a helicopter drops a load of water above the High Park wildfire, about 15 miles west of Fort Collins, Colo. The fire already has destroyed at least 189 homes since it was sparked by lightning June 9. (AP Photo/Colorado National Guard , Jess Geffre)

  • High Park Wildfire, Slurry Bomber

    A slurry bomber files through smoke as it circles to make a drop on the High Park wildfire near Livermore, Colo., on Tuesday, June 19, 2012. The fire already has destroyed at least 189 homes since it was sparked by lightning June 9. Incident commander Bill Hahnenberg said it could be weeks or even months before it's finally controlled. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • High Park Wildfire

  • High Park Wildfire

    A spotter plane, top, catches up to a slurry bomber to lead it on a drop on the High Park wildfire near Livermore, Colo., on Tuesday, June 19, 2012. The fire already has destroyed at least 189 homes since it was sparked by lightning June 9. Incident commander Bill Hahnenberg said it could be weeks or even months before it's finally controlled. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • High Park Wildfire

    Smoke rises beyond a pasture as the High Park wildfire continues to burn out of control near Livermore, Colo., on Tuesday, June 19, 2012. The fire already has destroyed at least 189 homes since it was sparked by lightning June 9. Incident commander Bill Hahnenberg said it could be weeks or even months before it's finally controlled. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • High Park Wildfire

    Fire burns in the forest on the High Park wildfire near Livermore, Colo., on Tuesday, June 19, 2012. The wildfire has burned over 180 homes. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • High Park Wildfire

    A helicopter lifts off after taking on water to drop on the High Park Fire west of Fort Collins, Colo., on Monday, June 18, 2012. The wildfire has now burned about 90 square miles and destroyed more than 180 homes. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • High Park Wildfire

    Smoke billows from the High Park Fire west of Fort Collins, Colo., on Monday, June 18, 2012. The wildfire has now burned about 90 square miles and destroyed more than 180 homes. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • High Park Wildfire

    A helicopter lifts off after taking on water to drop on the High Park Fire west of Fort Collins, Colo., on Monday, June 18, 2012. The wildfire has now burned about 90 square miles and destroyed more than 180 homes. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • High Park Wildfire

    Smoke billows from the High Park Fire west of Fort Collins, Colo., on Monday, June 18, 2012. The wildfire has now burned about 90 square miles and destroyed more than 180 homes. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • High Park Wildfire

    Smoke billows from the High Park Fire west of Fort Collins, Colo., on Monday, June 18, 2012. The wildfire has now burned about 90 square miles and destroyed more than 180 homes. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • High Park Wildfire

    The sun sets amidst smoke from the High Park Fire near Bellvue, Colo., on Monday, June 18, 2012. The wildfire has now burned about 90 square miles and destroyed more than 180 homes. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • High Park Wildfire

    Fire crowns in the trees on the High Park wildfire near Livermore, Colo., on Tuesday, June 19, 2012. The wildfire has burned over 180 homes. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • High Park Wildfire

    Fire burns in the forest on the High Park wildfire near Livermore, Colo., on Tuesday, June 19, 2012. The wildfire has burned over 180 homes. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)