Nebraska: Wind stokes grass fire
The week of January 10th was exhausting for dozens of rural volunteer fire departments in the central plains. On the 14th strong winds fanned to life an old burnt brush pile. The brush had been burned, stirred and buried with dirt but still somehow came to life around 1:30pm, approximately five miles north of Guide Rock, Nebraska. Local rancher and volunteer fireman Troy Anderson was checking a tank when he saw the smoke and called it in. Within the half hour it took for the fire trucks to arrive, the fire propelled by winds over 60 miles per hour was over a mile long. It was big, hot and dirty,” Anderson said.
The fire blackened a swath of country more than 5 miles long before being contained along the river and railroad tracks. Over twenty fire departments worked together along with everyone who had any sort of a tank to haul water with. While some 26 miles of fence was burnt, no livestock were injured, people kept moving their stock ahead of the flames. Anderson was shocked how when he was trying to save some bulls they kept trying to go towards the fire, but they were able to force them through a cut fence with just a few corn rows between them and the blaze. “There are three houses that there is no reason they should be here. We have no idea why their windbreaks didn’t catch fire and burn. It burned underneath the trees and took the needles but the trees didn’t lite. Trees away from there were burnt,” Anderson said. “I have post holes in my fence, it burnt ten inch hedge posts clear to the bottom of the hole.”
Anderson also mentioned that fences are often not covered by insurance so landowners are now having to foot the bill themselves to rebuild. South Central Cattlemen Assn of Facebook is organizing donations to help with fencing, feed and supplies. Many of the landowners in that area hire their farming done so most don’t even own a disk anymore. Anderson encourages folks to maybe consider buying an old one cheap on a farm sale just in case you might need it to build fire breaks and to also clean up your wind breaks of dead wood, weeds and trash as a precaution.
A few days later on the 16th about two hundred miles west, another grass fire roared to life. In mid-December a pit was burned a few miles from the small town of Benkelman, a month later it came back to life driven by winds over 60 miles per hour. Providentially the wind had caused a power outage and a lineman working on the issue saw the glow around midnight and called it in. Another neighbor, an expecting mother was also awake and reported it, small miracles that made the difference to avoid what could have been a horrible tragedy.
The fire burned down the creek and then the wind changed directions driving the blaze straight for the town of Benkelman, Nebraska. With the wind the local fire chief Gene Zimbelman almost immediately called his dispatcher and requested them to call out every department within a fifty mile radius. “We are taught to fight fire from the side and rear; we had to fight this one head on. 40 to 50 foot high flames straight up in the air. We had sixteen departments here helping, from Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas, forty trucks and eighty men.”
They were forced to evacuate the town at 2:30 in the morning. “Waking people up at 2:30 in the morning puts the fear of God in everybody,” Zimbelman said. “Ten minutes made the difference to save the town.”
Local EMTs helped to evacuate the hospital and nursing home. “Living in a small county, you can’t put a price on that. Volunteer firemen left to fight a grass fire and could have not had a home to come back to. They put others before themselves,” Zimbelman said.
With the wind, they feared they would lose the west half of the town but miraculously they were able to stop the fire at the edge. One storage shed was lost and some buildings had some smoke damage but for some reason the trees didn’t burst into flames and the town of Benkelman was saved. “It was a miracle, thank the Lord and luck,” Jerry Fries said. “The firemen deserve a medal of honor. We have an excellent fire department, they are heroes.”
“Nobody got hurt and we didn’t ruin any equipment. Praise the Lord it turned out like it did,” Zimbelman said. “By a little after seven in the morning all was clear and we let folks back in. I’ve been on the department for 49 years, chief for 30 and this was the number one fire I’ve ever been on.”
This fire charred mostly CRP ground, fields and along a creek so not much pasture or fence was lost and no livestock. For the volunteer firemen in that area this was the third fire that week. Benkelman is in Northeast Dundy County in far south west Nebraska, they border Kansas and Colorado. Southern Nebraska like much of the plains is in extreme drought and the regular high winds have further parched the region.
Zimbelman encourages folks to support their local volunteer fire departments. “They are all unpaid, well trained volunteers.”
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