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Across the Fence: The Wellnitz Fire: Final flames
September 21, 2012 M. Timothy Nolting   

Read more by M. Timothy Nolting
On the morning of the third day of the Wellnitz fire, the sun rose blood red, as if bleeding for the black scars that stretched for miles across the scorched and barren ground. After nearly 48 hours with no sleep, I had just slept for about five hours and felt guilty for having rested while others probably stayed up all night. Juan and Frank had catnapped in the truck up by Julie’s house to keep an eye on hot spots there. I grabbed a quick cup of coffee and a piece of coffee cake and headed out to see what was going on. The fires had stayed under control during the night and it appeared that all was well. Everyone seemed to have breathed that great sigh of relief that comes after imminent danger has passed and brother-in-law Herb was planning to get some much-needed sleep.

I drove up to Julie’s house and no one was there. I drove around the perimeter and everything seemed to be burned out. A few tiny spirals of smoke swirled from the ash here and there and the old log barn lay in a smoldering pile of ash with a wide firebreak all around. The hill where we had made last night’s final stand of the day was blanketed with a layer of smoke, and ghostly images of charred trees gave visual substance to the hollow feeling of despair. So much had been lost and yet so much had also been saved. The firebreaks that Herb and I had disked had held. The hungry yellow flames had been stopped and this particular battle had been won. So I thought. I drove north to see if I could be of any help to Deb’s brother Ken.
The fire was moving to the north, approaching a line of timber and grass covered buttes known as Beaver Wall, shortened to ‘The Wall’ by those who live nearby. If the fire breached The Wall, Ken’s family ranch lay in its path. Hay fields, pasture, haystacks, barns and home were threatened.

When I arrived, Ken and I drove around a nearby hayfield where yesterday’s fire had burned into a timber-filled canyon at the south edge of the field. Smoke spiraled up from the canyon floor, so we took shovels and water and hiked down to put out any threatening hot spots. The fire had crept through the canyon, slowly burning the short, dry grass and small bits of brush and twigs that provided fuel. The damage was minimal and putting out the hot spots would help to prevent a flare-up.

“If we can hold it here and on the east side, I think we’ll be okay,” Ken remarked. His voice sounded more hopeful than certain.
Volunteer fire crews from all across Nebraska, parts of Wyoming, Colorado and as far away as Oregon to the west and North Carolina to the east came to help fight the blaze. For nearly every official fire truck there was also a ranch pickup with a water-tank and sprayer in the bed along with a two or three man crew. Firefighters wore helmets, facemasks and heavy canvas, fire retardant suits. Friends and neighbors wore denim jeans, cotton shirts, baseball caps or Stetson straws and bandannas tied over their faces.

We watched as dozers and road graders cut firebreaks three blades wide across would-be fall pastures on the north side of The Wall. As crews cut the fire breaks and set the backfires, smoke rolled over the top of The Wall and soon, bright orange flames crested the buttes, engulfed the trees that stood sentinel along its edge, and marched steadily and viciously down the steep sides of towering buttes. The backfire crept forward to meet the advancing flames, leaving its own ever-widening black ‘grin’ as drought parched grass shriveled to powdered ash.

I am certain that everyone there held their breath as we watched the two fires advance toward each other. The backfires reached the base of The Wall before the onward march of the wildfire and when the two met it looked like this particular battle could be called a victory. There was also fire on the southeast side of The Wall that was being aggressively fought, but it looked like the fire had been stopped on our side.

I drove back to Ken’s house for more water and to make a call to Deb to see how things were going there. They had been evacuated from her mom’s place and were in Chadron. The fire there had been kicked up by high winds and had jumped the firebreak that Herb and I had cut the night before. If they couldn’t get it stopped at the road, everything would be lost. I had left too soon and was more than a half-hour away. I hung up the phone and was headed out to the truck when I saw a giant, billowing tower of smoke rise up out of the canyon where Ken and I had put out hot spots earlier in the day. The wind had suddenly kicked up to a fierce fury.

The fire that had only recently been subdued came back to violent life. The firebreak was breached by windblown embers and grass fires erupted in dozens of spots as winds whipped the flames along at incredible speeds. (I learned later that at one time, the fire advanced eight miles in less than 15 minutes.) The fields and canyons behind us sent clouds of black smoke boiling skyward as rekindled fires raced through timber and grass. The air was thick with the smell of burning pine and cedar as the clouds of smoke rolled over us. The midafternoon sun disappeared and, except for the orange glow of flames, it was dark.

Fire crews chased the flames northward as dozers and graders sped to the west to cut new firebreaks wherever possible. I stopped on the road where water tanks and fire trucks scrambled to break out of the small traffic jam. I pulled into the ditch to get out of their way and heard a Fire Chief yelling into his radio; “Give me everything you’ve got, trucks, people, helicopters! I need everything you can give me, here, now! I’ve never seen anything like this!”

I learned that the road east was blocked due to fires on the east side of The Wall and the only way out was west, then south to Chadron. It would take nearly two hours to get back to the fires at my mother-in-law’s place. I prayed that everyone would be okay and that whoever was there would be able to stop the flames before they reached the penned livestock and the homes. For the time being, I was needed right where I was.

I spent the rest of the day riding on the edge of the tailgate, manning the sprayer while our nephew drove from one outburst of flame to another. The wind continued at over 30 miles per hour and airborne embers set fires that crept closer and closer to the hayfield we were trying to save. Flames moved so quickly that many times we had to drive into the fire. Sheldon would drive through as quickly as possible while I sprayed water on the leading edge. When the heat became too intense to bear I would yell for Sheldon to “Get out!”

The fire to the south quickly reached the canyon where Ken and I had put out small hot spots earlier in the morning. The dense stand of timber was devoured in a rush of flames and smoldered for days after. Through the night, we drove a constant circle around the perimeter of the hay field, watching for embers that would fly up and out of the canyon and land in the dry grass beyond. We would sit at the edge of the canyon and watch thousands of flames and glowing embers flicker like stars in the blackness of the canyon below. When the sun came up, there were streaks of burnt grass, like long black fingers stretching out into the field from the canyon rim. We had saved most of the hayfield.

Jamie, Jessica, Juan, and I, along with cousins, uncles, brothers and neighbors fought fires and drowned out hot spots for a full week. The last of the flames we fought were on the morning of the seventh day when Juan and I cut down a burning tree and rolled it into the creek bed where it sizzled and sputtered in the muddy water. We drove through herds of deer, standing in green alfalfa, too afraid of running into the smoldering timber and so they stood, nervously watching as we passed by.

The flames are gone but it will be months, perhaps even years before the earth is healed and the damage repaired. Disintegrated fence posts lay in piles of white ash and mile after mile of brittle, heat damaged barbed wire lay where it fell. Cattle are loose and scattered around the country. It will take months to sort them all out. Some will be found that did not escape the flames. Winter pastures are gone and the hope of spring grass lies under scorched ground that will not be ready for grazing by next season. Hundreds of acres of cedar and pine that provided shade and shelter, windbreaks, and protection from erosion are nothing more than grotesque matchsticks that will stand as charred mementos for decades.

The ‘final flames’ from the Wellnitz fire are yet to come.
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