Ranchers hit hard by Nebraska wildfires

Sep 7, 2012

A little black cloud floated over the Chadron area of northwestern Nebraska late last month and changed lives forever. At least five fires started from lightning strikes from that little cloud that didn’t bring any rain to an area that hasn’t seen rain worth noting since May. A week later, the Pine Ridge area, known for its pine-forested hills and shady canyons, was still smoking. The last report estimated that the three fires that make up the Region 23 Complex had burned about 86,000 acres, or 135 square miles. About 70 percent of the land that burned is privately owned.

The drought in the area had ranchers and farmers nervous already, with very little grass, and hay prices skyrocketing. The fires weren’t 100 percent contained yet, but a lot of ranchers were counting cattle and trying to figure out what to do with them until the next sale day.

“There’s no feed, the springs and streams are drying up. The fire made up a lot of minds. The people around here who were wondering how they were going to get their livestock through the winter aren’t wondering anymore,” said Gary Fisher, a landowner in the area.

Fisher doesn’t run cattle of his own, but he’d leased his property in the Pine Ridge for about 80 pairs of cattle and 80 head of broodmares. On the afternoon of Aug. 31, he was breathing a sigh of relief that they’d headed off the fire just before it reached his place. Two hours later, he was trying to get the cattle gathered and the horses herded to safety. As the fire swept over the hill, the yard filled with tractors with discs, pickups with water tanks in the back and four-wheelers with spray tanks as neighbors showed up to try to save Fisher’s house and outbuildings.

When the smoke cleared, the fire had burned all of Fisher’s timber and 90 percent of his grass, including some established shelter belts, plus about 12 to 15 miles of fence. All the horses and cattle survived the fire. “The fire burned fast and hot. The land isn’t just burned over, it’s burned. There’s nothing left,” Fisher’s wife, Nancy said.

“We were hoping the horses had found the holes we cut in the fence, but we looked over and saw the horses galloping single-file along the top of the canyon toward the fire, silhouetted against the glow of the fire in the bottom of the canyon. We figured it was all over. A couple hours later they showed up in a different pasture. Every one made it out,” Gary said.

Fishers lost a garage in the fire, but they consider themselves lucky. Their two-story log home with a shake roof could have easily joined the five other homes that were lost in the fire complex. “We are so thankful for the friends, neighbors and strangers who showed up and helped however they could. I know a lot of them had to be worried about their own places, or had already been up fighting fire for days, but they showed up here and worked like it was their own home they were trying to save,” Nancy said. “I was never so happy to have a dirty house, because it means I still have a house. The fire may have changed the scenery, but it didn’t change our address. It was all about heroes and miracles.”

Fishers are semi-retired, so while they have plenty of work ahead and some tough decisions to make, a lot of others are in a much tighter spot.

Tom Rempp, yard manager at Crawford Livestock Market, said many ranchers are taking everything to town. “We’ve got about six or seven hundred head of cows and calves that we weren’t expecting. A lot of guys were selling calves this week, but now they’re selling pairs because they don’t have any feed. We’d already seen a lot of yearlings and calves sold early because of the drought, but when you throw in a couple major wildfires it just compounds the problem.”

Rempp said a lot of people started bringing cattle in early in the week for the Friday sale because they just don’t have feed for the cattle. The sale barn had been getting in their winter hay starting in early August, so they have something to feed them, but it’s not easy. “It’s a bad situation for everyone involved,” Rempp said. “We’re trying to do the best we can for these guys, get them the best price we can. You hate to see them get rid of herds they’ve worked their entire lives to build. It’s a sickening feeling, but there’s not a lot we can do. There’s no feed in the area and when hay hits $200 a ton, it’s pretty tough to make it pencil out. All we can do is hope for a wet winter and a wet spring and go again next year.”

Until then, though, the ranchers still in business have a long road ahead of them. Eventually the vegetation will come back, but in the meantime, erosion, silt, dust and noxious weeds are major concerns. A Burned Area Emergency Response Team was in the area to provide insight on how best to manage the land to protect natural and cultural resources.

Many ranchers are looking at replacing miles of fence, windmills, tanks, outbuildings and corrals. Funds have been established by the Chadron Community Foundation, Inc. and Nebraska United Methodist Conference to help those affected by the fires, both private property owners and volunteer fire departments. Donations to both funds are tax deductible. Donations can be mailed to Dawes – Sioux Fire Fund, P.O. Box 1125, Chadron, NE 69337, Nebraska Conference Center, 3333 Landmark Circle, Lincoln, NE 68504, or made online at www.umcneb.org/ DroughtandFireGive. Inkind donations of feed, wire, posts, water tanks and other livestock-related materials are being collected at the Dawes County Fairgrounds in Chadron, Crawford Livestock Market and Farmers Coop in Hay Springs. — Maria E. Tussing, WLJ Correspondent Tombstone Bull Feeder