Experts say Nebraska's massive wildfires could be a 'new age'

Rancher Ed Hall examines his land after a 75,000-acre fire swept through it in late summer. Hall ranches along the Niobrara River north of Bassett, Neb. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Rancher Ed Hall didn't lose any cattle to the wildfires that swept through the Niobrara River Valley this summer, but faces upwards of $75,000 in fence repairs. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
The canyons along the Niobrara River that form part of Ed Hall's ranch north of Bassett, Neb. are scorched, burned by massive wildfires in late summer. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Land burned in the recent wildfires on Todd and Sharon Semroska's ranch west of Chadron, Neb. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Twenty-five percent of Todd and Sharon Semroska's land was burned in late-summer wildfires. The Semroskas ranch west of Chadron in the far northwest corner of Nebraska. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
The almost-black dirt at the front of this picture is land that was burned in a massive wildfire in northwest Nebraska this summer; the field behind it survived unscathed. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Todd Semroska has already had to sell of some of his herd, with plans to sell more. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
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November 9, 2012 - 6:30am

Wildfires ravaged hundreds of thousands of acres of Nebraska land in the last few months, but while the flames have been quenched, the damage remains – and experts say this isn’t the last we’ve seen of major wildfires. NET News reporter Hilary Stohs-Krause has more on the recovery process – and lessons learned – in this Signature Story.


When the Region 24 Complex fire broke out in north-central Nebraska in late July, Jim Stout was there. The volunteer fire chief for the Rock County Rural Fire Department said for the first 42 hours, he barely slept more than an hour or two.

PART ONE

"'Some Lost Everything': Wildfires In Nebraska Leave The Future Uncertain"

Wildfires have burned 335,000 acres of Nebraska land so far in 2012. That’s less than one percent of the state’s total area – but it’s 85,000 acres more than the previous record. For this Signature Story, NET News reporter Hilary Stohs-Krause traveled to Sioux, Dawes, Keya Paha and Rock counties to talk with those affected by the flames.


 
PHOTOS
 
Photo courtesy of Cody Hall
The Region 24 Complex fire
 
Photo courtesy of Cody Hall
Cattle flee the Region 24 Complex fire, which burned more than 76,000 acres in late July.
“A weather station in Keya Paha County registered 113 degrees, and 40 mile an hour winds, and 8 to 14 percent humidity” when the fire broke out, Stout said. “I mean, things just burnt so much faster and strong than anything I’ve ever seen. I’ve never been in a … fire season like this in the 30 years I’ve been on the department.”

More than 75,000 acres were blackened in the Region 24 Complex fire, and the total economic impact is still being tallied. Pasture was burned, homes were destroyed - parts of the Niobrara River were off-limits for almost two weekends, hitting tourism outfitters hard during their busiest time of the year.

At the other end of the state, a series of fires near Chadron consumed more than 160,000 acres, including more than 500 miles of fence. At its peak, more than 1,000 personnel were battling those flames.

It was the worst year on record for wildfires, but experts like Doug Fox, Region 24 Emergency Management Agency director, said it might only be the beginning.

“I really look for it to be as bad a year next year as this year,” he said in his office in Bassett, Neb.

Don Westover, fire program leader for the Nebraska Forest Service, said the interval between major fires is getting shorter – and the fires are getting bigger. He called it a “new age” for Nebraska, following the recent path of neighboring states.

“It’s just that it’s now becoming Nebraska’s turn,” he said. “For the longest time, Nebraska never had a wildfire that burned into a town or burned a structure. And all that has changed.”

Westover said there are several reasons for this, the main one being the crippling drought that has plagued most of the country.

“Climate change has an important role to play there, because temperature is increasing (and) rainfall is decreasing, at least in the last year here, for sure,” he said, “and it’s forecast to do so again next year.”

He also cited the proliferation of forest vegetation in the state. Nebraska doesn’t have a logging industry to speak of, so the spread of invasive species like cedar trees has been relatively unchecked.  

If bigger fires are here to stay, where does that leave those who depend on the land? Can something be done to help mitigate the damage?

Rancher Todd Semroska thinks so.

“Harrison Fire Department said – of course, it’s all hindsight – but they said they could’ve contained that if they could’ve have got there.  You know, they said the road was that bad, they just couldn’t get there. And it was a county road!”

Semroska ranches west of Chadron, Neb., and lost about 25 percent of his land to this summer’s fires. Access was an issue fighting the Region 24 Complex fire, too, ranchers and firefighters said, preventing fire trucks and personnel from reaching the flames. But for local departments, the equipment they wanted to drive on those roads isn’t in much better condition.

“The main thing we need to do is get all our equipment back up in shape,” said Stout with the Rock County rural fire department at his auto repair business in Bassett. Take their command truck, for example, which he said badly needs to be replaced.

It’s a pick-up.

From 1979.

“I don’t know if we’re going to have enough money or not to do that.”

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman said the federal government declined to designate the Region 24 Complex fire a disaster area, which would have opened it up to federal financial assistance; that decision is currently being appealed. Two counties affected have already voted to increase tax levies, and there are some state resources, like the governor’s emergency fund.

“We’re clearly going to use all of that,” Heineman said, adding that he’ll be requesting an appropriation from the state legislature in January to help defray costs.

Some of the responsibility for prevention lies with landowners, Westover with the Nebraska Forest Service said – action like thinning their trees, fireproofing their homes, doing controlled burns to clear out that fire load.

That last one is a message volunteer fire chief Stout said he’s been preaching for more than a decade.

“And where people feared fire so much in this part of the world,” he said, “it’s been a real struggle.”

As for the physical recovery process, it depends on the type of land burned. John Griesinger, a Pine Ridge District ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, said experts were assessing the damage to public forest lands near Chadron almost before the embers cooled.

“So we’ve got hydrologists, we’ve got biologists, we’ve got people that are specialized in erosion, and timber people on board, engineers, and they’re all there and they’re looking at what damage has occurred and what damage could potentially occur,” he said.

But those assessments can only predict so much.

“We won’t know anything on the timber,” he said, “other than the ones that are just black sticks, until next year when we see what comes out of the spring and what comes out of the moisture this winter.”

Like the forested land, the burned pastureland needs rest; rest, and lots of moisture. Experts like Jerry Volesky, a range management specialist with the University of Nebraska, recommended holding off on grazing that land as long as possible.

“These perennial grasses that are in the pastures and rangelands will come back, assuming we have normal or near-average rainfall next spring and summer,” he said. “Rainfall the following year can really do wonders in making it look a lot better.”

Semroska, the rancher from west of Chadron, agreed.

“You hate to wish for snow,” he said with a chuckle, “but we definitely need it.”

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