Five years after the smoke cleared: Ash Creek Ranch, Crawford Nebraska
October 16, 2017
West Ash Creek Fire
August 28-Sept. 2, 2012
My mom doesn't panic.
But there was a sense of urgency in her voice when I talked to her on the phone around noon on Friday, August 31, 2012.
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I knew they'd been fighting a fire, but I'd seen the messages on Facebook, thanking those who'd helped keep it under control, so no serious damage had been done.
I grew up in the Pine Ridge of western Nebraska, riding through the charred, downed trees and hip-tall grass that had been left by a fire that burned through when I was five. I was familiar with the unpredictability of the wind and the weather, but had been joking with my dad about the drought earlier in the week—"I guess you don't have to worry much about fire. Dirt won't burn."
Turns out that even in a drought, there's plenty to burn. When the south wind came up and fanned the sparks left unattended from the "contained" fire, the plume of smoke proved it wasn't under control. The 50 mile-per-hour winds carrying ash and sparks and a sense of foreboding indicated it would be a long night.
Mom and Dad called the people who ran cattle on their place that morning and told them the fire had flared up ahead of a south wind and it looked like the fire was headed their way. They had the 120 pairs hauled off the place by mid-afternoon. They were running 75 head of broodmares, but there was nowhere to take them, and not enough trailers to haul them anywhere.
I asked my husband, Trevor, to drive us the hour and a half home because I wouldn't be able to keep the speedometer under a hundred.
I'm not sure what I thought I could do, in my Kia Rio hatchback. But I knew I needed to be there.
We stopped at the grocery store in our small town and bought as much water and sports drinks as we could fit in the car, all the time chafing against any delay.
The fire blew into the yard about the same time we did. We pulled in as the steel garage became fully engulfed in flames, but no one was sure where the spark came from, as the nearest black was 30 yards away.
My brother, who lives half an hour away and had spent the last three days and nights fighting the fire, had kept us informed by cell phone on the drive down. My other brother, who lives four hours away, drove in not long after we did, bringing his four-wheeler and spray tank.
Dark was falling as we grabbed shovels and tried the keep the flames away from the barn. Firefighters and neighbors pulled the vines off my parents' log house and ripped the flowers out of the flower beds, doing whatever they could to keep the fire from getting a foothold near the house.
I heard my father say the f-word that night for the first time in my life, when the incident commander pulled in the yard and told him there wasn't a fire truck available to guard the house. All the resources—fire trucks and helicopters that had been helping out– had been pulled to another fire as it threatened a state park and surrounding housing developments.
The power company cut the power to the area to protect the firefighters. But without power, the well, hoses and sprinklers they'd put on the roof of the house were useless. The only water we could access was what was hauled from 8 miles away in 1,000-plus gallon tanks Dad and the neighbors had equipped earlier in the summer, as drought dragged on.
Dad and Trevor saw the county's D8 Cat unoccupied, so Dad figured he might as well be using it. They fumbled around in the dark until they found the master switch, then fired it up and worked on the fire line. "I never thought I'd help your dad steal a D8 Cat," Trevor said.
Neighbors I didn't recognize through the soot and their ski goggles drove out of the south pasture long after dark, having chased the fire down the canyon, around the house and the majority of the 5,000 trees my parents had planted.
Another neighbor woman, in her late 60s, pulled in the yard with a 1970s dump truck equipped with a 1,500-gallon water tank so we could refill the tanks on the four-wheelers and pickups. She left when the fire threatened her son’s home. This wasn't new to her, as the fire had burned over her earth-bermed home the day before, leaving broken windows, but little other damage.
An acquaintance from 40 miles away parked his water tank and sprayer in the yard and guarded the house all night, then came back the next afternoon, bringing a case of bottled water, just to make sure everything was okay. He later sent a check for $1,500 for "whatever you need it for."
Neighbors whose own homes were in the path of the fire brought their tractors and discs and plowed fire lines around the house and buildings, before hurrying back to their own property to do the same.
We drove through the dark to cut fences so the 75 horses wouldn't be trapped, only to watch them run back into the flames.
That's a sight I won't forget—75 head of horses silhouetted against the orange glow of a fiery canyon, bracketed by cottonwood torches, running toward the flames.
The fire traveled 16 miles that night, then burned for two more days, until it was pinched down against the highway.
Dawn brought the realization that everything was changed, but all would be well. The pine trees that sent golden puffs of pollen on the breeze in the spring, and scented the summer with their spice, and snagged wisps of fog in the winter, were now blackened, smoldering sentinels, standing guard over a grey wasteland. Fenceposts left ashy holes, the staples left hanging on the burned and brittle barbed wire, soapweed spikes burned until they resembled pineapples. The cottonwoods that were seedlings when the Lakota built the tipi rings still evident beside the creek, began the process of dying, stripped of their rugged bark. Ash trees, whose golden leaves would ordinarily soon be like glowing lamps against the cool background of the canyons, were burned out-shells.
But everyone gathered in the house around the donuts someone brought from town at 6 that morning. We talked about the close calls, the unpredictability. My dad told of he, my uncle and brother abandoning the four-wheeler and driving as fast as they could through the smoke, with flames on all sides.
They returned to find the four-wheeler undamaged, in the middle of a perfect circle of unburned grass.
One horse had to be put down because her feet were badly burned, but 74 others suffered no more than a singed tail.
Nearly 200,000 acres burned in three fires that week, thanks to a few split-second lightning strikes from an insignificant-looking cloud that trailed through on a hot afternoon at the end of one of the driest summers on record.
The wind blew that fall. Mom joked about shoveling the ash out of the house. The visibility was worse than in a snowstorm a lot of days.
The next spring it rained. It rained all summer, so the aerial planting Dad had done sprouted and the native grass did what it does—it recovered. Having sold all the cattle 10 years earlier and running on a lease basis since, they could allow their pastures to rest for a full year.
The ash that hadn't blown away washed down the ridges and silted in the ponds.
Mom and Dad are still planting trees, and cutting up blackened ash and box elder trees for firewood. They've milled some of the burned trees into lumber.
Dad doesn't spend much time thinning timber anymore—Mother Nature took care of that. The areas he'd thinned, where the grass and the Ponderosa pines lived together, providing both food and shelter for animals, domestic and wild, burned just as quickly ahead of 50 mile-per-hour flames as the neighboring ungrazed, unthinned forest on the government ground. You can only do so much.
Within 24 hours of the fire burning through, springs that had been dry for years bubbled to the surface, fed with the water released from thousands of trees that wouldn't need it anymore.
The next spring there were more songbirds than we ever remember seeing, flitting around the green that sprouted through the black.
The apple tree planted by some hopeful homesteader bloomed again. Black trees on either side showed the fickleness of fire.
Five years later, we look back, and we see the cycle. We still miss the hushed sighs of the pines, but the cattle enjoy the increased carrying capacity. Soon, the black trees that are still standing will start to fall, making riding those ridge pastures like riding through a game of pick-up-sticks, impossible without a chainsaw.
Eventually, though likely not in my lifetime, those trees will come back. The Ponderosa pine seeds flung from the pinecones produced by the few remaining trees will someday sprout, and grow through the spindly dog-hair phase, and the strong ones will reach the sky.
They'll soak up the water, and shelter cattle and deer, turkeys and bluebirds.
And one day an innocent-looking cloud will skim past…