By Cody Griesel
Cowley Courier – March 15, 2017
Greg Powers calls barbecue a comfort food and has spent the last few years offering that culinary comfort to emergency personnel during times of crisis — most recently in Hutchinson, serving crews fighting the wildfire there.
Powers serves as the head nurse at the Cowley County Jail, where he has been employed for 11 years. He is also the Kansas state lead for Operation BBQ Relief (OBR), a Missouri-based group of barbecue aficionados who cook for first-responders, firefighters, other emergency crews and community members during major disasters.
The group was founded during the 2011 tornado that struck Joplin, Mo. Powers became involved with OBR after that tragedy and has been actively deployed across the region numerous times since.
He said barbecue is more of hobby for him, but serving those directly impacted by disaster has had a lasting impression on him. After feeding community members displaced by the Joplin and Moore, Okla., tornadoes, he said that the importance of a good meal really hit home.
“When you are feeding people who have lost everything, you realize that a hot meal means a lot to them,” Powers said. “It’s been a life-changing experience for us.”
Powers and his wife, Kristi, were among the OBR volunteers deployed March 7-9 in Hutchinson. The group served 1,850 barbecue meals during those three days. Powers said they were set up about 100 yards from the command center and had several of the firefighters tell them how good the food smelled.
“They seem to really like it … I know we’ve never had any complaints,” he said.
On the way to Hutchinson, Powers stopped at Sam’s Club and picked up 640 pounds of meat and loaded it up while it was still cold to smoke for the firefighters. He said they primarily cook pork because of the cost and ease of smoking. Powers said he mainly uses hickory pellets, but other flavor woods have been pressed into smoking service, depending on local availability. OBR employs smokers that can hold from 100 to 750 pounds of meat. The group’s main smokers are two 500-pound-capacity units that were donated by Old Hickory Pits.
The fires outside of Hutchinson were the first disaster the group has been to this year in Kansas. Powers said he goes to, and coordinates, all the OBR deployments in the state as part of his position with the organization. He said he stays mostly in this area, but has helped cook other regions, including some of the hurricane-devastated areas in the southeast.
He said he is glad that his boss, Cowley County sheriff Dave Falletti, doesn’t even question allowing him the time off to offer his cooking talents at disaster sites.
“He told me, ‘Just go … I only wish I could pay you for your time,’” Powers said. ”He’s been very supportive of me.”
Powers said he enjoys cooking, especially when it can help those in need, and plans to continue to serve with OBR.
“Unfortunately bad things will continue to happen, but we’ll be there and keep plugging on, doing what we can,” he said.
The Highlands fire, in Reno County, was just outside the city of Hutchinson, a city of 42,000. The fire burned more than 5,000 acres and, although damage assessment is still ongoing, there are reports of at least nine homes destroyed, according to a release from the Cowley County Sheriff’s Office. This was just one of the wildfires in Kansas at the time, with the total loss in excess of 700,000 acres and some 35 to 40 homes.
OBR is a volunteer, not-for-profit organization comprised of competition barbecue cooks, chefs, caterers and other volunteers that come together to feed those whose lives have been affected by disasters. The group has been deployed in 21 states and served more than a million meals.
For more information, and to volunteer or donate, visit www.operationbbqrelief.org.