What began as a small fire on Nebraska National Forest land near the Spotted Tail Trailhead three miles south of the city quickly turned into a blaze that saw multiple agencies working together to keep Chadron safe.
United States Forest Service (USFS) Pine Ridge District Ranger said response to the fire began between 10:30 and 11 a.m. Friday with reports of smoke. Both the Chadron Volunteer Fire Department and USFS responded, and upon first arrival the flames had only taken one hillside, about 5-6 acres according to Buskirk’s estimate. The heat and wind that came in late last week provided everything to fan the flames.
Buskirk noted the fire, like many in the area, started with a lightning strike during a thunderstorm Thursday night. That small flicker crept around in the grass and could’ve possibly even become buried in a log.
Those who lived in Chadron and the surrounding area over the past 20 years will likely remember the fires of 2006 and 2012 that threatened the city and cause many to evacuate. The fires also left behind plenty of timber and the years since have allowed grasses and other flora to flourish. As the heat and wind of last week dried out the area after the rain, the small fire sparked by lightning quickly began to consume and grow.
Terrain was also a factor, Buskirk noted, as the hilly ground made it difficult to gain access and containment. With the fire continuing to build, the Chadron Volunteer Fire Department and USFS were joined by neighboring agencies including the Nebraska Forest Service, volunteer fire departments from Crawford, Harrison and Hemingford, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Dawes County Sheriff’s Office, Nebraska State Patrol and Dawes County Road Department.
There were about 80-85 personnel on scene during the height of battling the fire, along with plenty of fire trucks, grass rigs and tenders. Efforts were made from the sky as well, with retardant dropped by a single engine air tanker out of Chadron and a couple heavy tankers from Rapid City. At the city dams, a firefighting helicopter filled its bucket to drop into the area.
Back on the ground, county road equipment was being used to create fire lines and prevent further spread while the Dawes County Sheriff’s Office and Nebraska State Patrol addressed traffic. Buskirk said the problem wasn’t so much vehicles blocking access, as the fire was already in a remote area. The big traffic issue was people craning their heads and not watching the road, or doing a quick U-turn on the highway to come back and get another look.
Bulldozers were used to get the fire lines going about 5:30-6 p.m. Friday night, Buskirk said, and the fire was moving in a general northeast to southwest direction away from the city. Weather was not favorable for the firefighting efforts, with winds averaging 20-30 miles per hour. However, Buskirk noted crews that had been hard at work all Friday night and into Saturday building fire lines and keeping things under control, so the wind wasn’t really an issue.
In town, the community was also coming together. Chadron Fire Chief Branden Martens is grateful for the businesses and individuals who donated water and other drinks, food, gloves, masks, lip balm, eye drops and other items to keep the firefighters going. He added people were banging on the fire department doors to do drop offs, and each time they asked what else they could bring.
At 4:45 p.m. Sunday, 54 hours after it began, the fire was declared 100 percent contained. But that doesn’t’ mean the job is done. Buskirk said people will be out in the area throughout the week to make sure the fire doesn’t relight and also to monitor rehabilitation of the fire lines. He explained work will be done to bring the ground back to the way it was, spreading some grass seed and implementing erosion prevention measures.
As for damage, Buskirk said there was no timber loss and costs will be primarily for rehab. Clearing up the dead and downed timber, he said, will do as much good as harm, as it will allow easier access to the area should another fire ignite.
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