Drought and wind fuel Colorado and Nebraska fires
While two blizzards ravaged ranches in the northern plains in the past two weeks, Nebraska and Colorado ranchers have been fighting treacherous wildfires. With fluctuating temperatures, extreme wind, and drought conditions, it has been a difficult month of April.
Jeremy Blach of Yuma, Colorado had his wife pack several bags, load their three children in the car, and head for safety when a fire neared their house on Apr. 22. Within 10 minutes, the smoke had overwhelmed their sixth-generation ranch, and the Blach family glanced back in the rearview mirror, not knowing whether they would ever see it again.
The blaze took one of the buildings at the home place, burned up trees in the yard, and was a mere eight feet from consuming their home. “The Good Lord was definitely taking care of us that evening and keeping us all safe,” Blach says. However, just down the road, the Blachs lost a windbreak, a set of corrals, and a rental house that had been rented out to a family. That family lost everything inside. The fire burned at least 3,000 acres but there were no fatalities or injuries. Few ranchers had turned their cattle out on grass so there was no loss of cattle. The Yuma fire started after 60 miles per hour wind gusts broke a power line.
Just over 150 miles away, the Arapahoe (Nebraska) Fire blitzed 35,000 acres starting on Thursday, April 7. Lane Kennedy of Stanford has been helping ranchers in his area evacuate cattle throughout the month of April and was at the frontlines of the blaze. “We lucked out on that fire. We’d just kick them out on those wheat fields and went to the next one. It didn’t really kill any cattle. The cattle […] had been on dry grass, so they were pretty content on that green wheat the whole time,” he said.
Sadly, one life was lost. Darren Krull, an Elwood Volunteer Fire Chief, collided with a water truck due to poor visibility while going to the fire and was killed.
Just 15 miles away, the Road 702 Fire, started on Friday, Apr 22. It has burned over 40,000 acres so far, stretching from the Kansas state line to the town of Cambridge. Retired fire chief John Trumble of Cambridge was killed when he went off the road due to poor visibility and his vehicle was overcome by flames. Fifteen more people were injured.
Being onsite was particularly brutal for Kennedy. In one haunting scene, he saw a cow and her calf lying dead next to one another, barely charred but clearly overcome by smoke inhalation. “That kind of jerks your old heart pretty good when you see that,” he says. While he and other cowboys worked to move any cattle that could still travel on Saturday, Apr. 23, they could hear gunshots. Cattle were overtaken so rapidly that producers were forced to shoot the downed ones, lest they suffer any longer.
At one point, Kennedy says, the riders were being passed by the fire while moving cattle. It was a moment of concern, but he was resolved. “Well, you don’t want to see them burn up. I’ve seen that now. I knew I had to try my hardest to keep them alive,” he said. Kennedy has not yet heard a number of dead cattle, but he was a witness to many. One producer he knows of lost every one of their bulls for a 450 cow herd.
The one unifying factor of the fires is the wind: it is both the cause and the catalyst. The Arapahoe Fire was started when 60 miles per hour winds knocked a tree onto a power line. Drought conditions and blowing smoke and sand make it difficult to see from the air and ground. A southerly wind switching to northerly caused restarts during the Road 702 Fire on Saturday. Kennedy says, “Our country is pretty chopped up. Some places, it gets pretty big, but there’s roads and fields and all that, so it’s normally pretty easy to get a fire shut down. With this wind and [it being] so dry, it’s impossible.”
Looking to the future, Blach Cattle–a family operation consisting of Jeremy and Meghann, and their children Adley, Kashton, Kaizley–will be rebuilding their fence and the soil. Every H-brace and corner post was burned up, and a majority of his grass. The sandhill grass and sandy soil requires careful management for the land to return to normal, and he doubts that he will be able to turn cattle out for another year. “Our first goal is to take care of the land like any farmer or rancher to keep it in good enough working order to keep it working for us,” Blach says.
Just as with northeastern Colorado, Kennedy says that conditions in Nebraska are destitute, even without the fires. “The wind is hard on everything […] It’s insane. All the livestock looks pretty tough. At the [Arapahoe Fire] a couple weeks ago, the dirt was blowing everywhere because there’s no topsoil. The air quality is just horrible,” he says. “Nobody I’ve talked to has ever seen it like this around here. Some of those older fellas say that it was dry like this in the ‘50’s, but nobody has ever seen fires like what we’ve had down here.”
Still, both men were impressed by the outpouring of help received. “We’re a pretty small neighborhood down here, but everybody comes together and does whatever they can, whether it’s bringing sandwiches or water or a tractor and disc or horses,” Kennedy says.
Blach said that seven fire departments attended the fire around his house. Many farmers used their equipment to dig fire lines, and local chemical companies filled their tanker trailers with water to keep fire trucks filled. “We’re just fortunate to live in a rural community. […] Yeah, it’s bad, but it could’ve been a whole lot worse,” he said.
Fire departments from surrounding states have come to relieve local departments as the Road 702 fire continues to burn. It is 47% contained as of Tuesday morning
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