Nebraska and Kansas, along with southern parts of South Dakota, have experienced an active wildfire season so far this spring.
It is no secret to farmers and ranchers that the spring weather has been extremely dry, with little, if any, measurable precipitation in many wildfire-prone regions — along with slow green-up of forages and high winds nearly every day. This perfect storm of converging conditions has made for a nightmare wildland fire season for producers, first responders and rural communities.
About 12,000 acres burned northwest of Wichita, Kan., beginning over a month ago in the Cottonwood Complex Fire. Then, about three weeks ago, 8,500 acres burned in the North Branch Fire about 17 miles southwest of Superior, Neb., near Burr Oak, Kan.
But the biggest fire facing Nebraska wildland firefighters so far this season is still ongoing, beginning about noon April 7, 7 miles west-southwest of Elwood, where a dead evergreen tree was blown into a power line by strong winds.
The Road 739 Fire covers an estimated 35,000 acres in Gosper and Furnas counties. On April 8, Gov. Pete Ricketts issued a state of emergency declaration, allowing state assets from the Governor’s Emergency Fund to be used for the response.
According to a report from the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, 40 fire departments from across the state responded, along with members of the Wildland Incident Response Assistance Team. Two UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters with crews, a 25-person Wildland Taskforce hand crew and support vehicles from the Nebraska National Guard were deployed, along with a Nebraska State Patrol helicopter that flew a recognizance flight to provide information to incident command, NEMA reported.
Eight structures and 48 outbuildings were reported destroyed. The American Red Cross arrived in Arapahoe to provide assistance if needed, and there was at one time an evacuation order for the village of Edison during the height of the fire.
Adding to the tragedy, Elwood Fire Chief Darren Krull, 54, was killed while responding to the fire when a vehicle he was riding in crashed into a water truck during zero-visibility conditions created by heavy smoke and high winds. He was laid to rest April 13 with services at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Elwood. Ricketts ordered flags across the state to be flown at half-staff to honor Krull.
“Suanne and I were heartbroken to receive news of the passing of Fire Chief Krull,” Ricketts said in a statement released Wednesday. “The bravery shown by Fire Chief Krull exemplifies the selfless service that makes our state great. As we reflect on his heroic sacrifice, we’re reminded of the courageous firefighters working in harm’s way across Nebraska to protect lives and property.”
Todd Whitney, a Nebraska Extension cropping systems and water educator based in Holdrege, says that the chaos engulfing producers by the wildfire is still ongoing.
“We had significant pasture impacted,” Whitney explains. “Livestock was caught by the fires because it was so fast-moving. And the worst part is that we are still having fires. The Elwood Fire Department is being called out daily. The Farnam Fire Department sent over a new fire truck to respond to the wildfires, but the truck was destroyed in the fire, so they are now short a fire truck. Until we get all of the fires controlled, we are facing some real challenges.”
High winds and extreme dry conditions with no rain in the forecast continue to hamper control efforts in the region. “Fires are popping up in the wind,” Whitney says. “We had five or six highways closed due to fire and poor visibility on [April 12], and ash is still blowing. Farmers are trying to keep tillage tools hooked up to their tractors, so they can deploy to places where they are needed to stop the fires, but the challenge is that when you till the soil, it is more susceptible to wind erosion.”
The effect on livestock is devastating, Whitney says.
“The mental health side of this for producers is difficult,” he says. “You have the chaos of it. Producers could see their cattle in the pasture, but because of the heat of the fires, they couldn’t do anything. It was moving so fast, maybe up to a mile every five minutes. During the height of the fires, everything was moving. Tractors were going everywhere. Trucks were trying to get to cattle to haul them out, but there just was no time. It’s heartbreaking.”
Huge amounts of stored hay in pastures and around farm sites were destroyed by the fires and continue to smolder.
Now the challenge is replacing fencing materials that were lost in the fires, along with hay and forage to feed livestock. The Nebraska Department of Agriculture is encouraging producers who wish to donate or sell hay and forages to farmers and ranchers in the fire zone to contact the NDA Hay and Forage Hotline at 402-471-4876.
Challenges to crop producers are also ongoing. Those who had already fertilized crop acres may not have much in the way of nutrients left after the fast-moving, but extremely hot fire burned off fertilizer and crop residue.
“Some producers tried to turn on their center pivots, but the challenge for that was the weight of the water being carried in the system,” Whitney says. “The wind was blowing around 60 to 70 mph, so it was blowing the water away from the pivot. As the fires came through, burning the tires and even ruining rims on the pivots, the impact of the fire twisted some of the systems. The whole systems are just a mess.”
With planting season on the horizon, farmers, ranchers and irrigation suppliers are faced with the challenges of limited repair supplies and inventories.
“Land that had already been tilled, with the cornstalks and husks blown in the wind, it just piled up in the fencerows, and the soil is kind of in windrows that are still smoldering and have flames coming out of them,” Whitney explains. “There was a huge number of bushels of grain in grain bags that were destroyed because the plastic just melted, and in some cases, the grain is still on fire. There will be huge losses in that way with numbers that we don’t know yet. But the numbers will be bigger than anyone can imagine.”
Tough road ahead
With no rain in the forecast in the near future, and winds continuing, farmers who will be planting soon are facing powder-dry soils that were dehydrated by fire, with little if any residue on the surface to prevent wind erosion and help with water infiltration, Whitney says.
“It is heartbreaking, but the agriculture community is resilient,” he says. “The problem is that the fires are still happening, and will continue to be a problem until we get some significant rain.”
Other wildfires were reported across the state over the past month, including the Votaw Road Fire that covered 900 acres near Wellfleet; the County Line Fire near Sparks three weeks ago; and the more recent Peterson Fire near Bertrand; along with other recent fires near North Platte, Sutherland and Tryon. Fire season seems just to be heating up.
“There is such a shortage of everything right now,” Whitney says. “You can’t just go down to the local farm supply and get everything you might need. There will be meetings in the next couple of weeks to talk about financial resources that are available to producers. We know we have a long road ahead.”
Thankfully for everyone within the footprint of the Road 739 Fire, help is coming in, Whitney says. Nebraska Cattlemen, Nebraska Farm Bureau, Nebraska Extension, USDA, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture and other local agencies continue to set up ways to help producers in the fire zone.
Monetary donations can be made through local organizations such as the Elwood Area Foundation and Oxford Area Foundation, along with numerous local banks. If you need more information, contact Gosper and Furnas County Region 17 emergency manager Roger Powell at 308-268-5088.
Nebraska Cattlemen has a wildfire resources page at nebraskacattlemen.org.
“Management after Wildfire in Central and Western Nebraska” is a Nebraska Extension publication that covers management tips after a wildfire occurs. It’s available at beef.unl.edu.