Double Whammy: Drought and Fire Hit Ranchers

Husker Home Place

As if drought wasn't enough, wildfires wreak havoc on north central Nebraska ranchers and ranch land.

Published on: August 1, 2012

Fire was on everyone’s mind. As I ate my lunch at Big John’s Restaurant in Ainsworth the other day during a trip to Brown and Keya Paha counties to cover the aftermath of the wildfires that recently swept through that area, fire fighting stories were the greatest source of conversation for other diners around me. Signs on business windows, including Big John’s, simply said, “Thank you fire fighters and volunteers.”

Driving through what was once the tiny community of Norden, I saw the fire damage firsthand. Fire swept across Highway 12 near Norden in several places, then swept through the community and destroyed several homes and buildings. The rubble and smoking embers are all that remain.





The Keya Paha County fairgrounds were mostly spared. Fire surrounded the grounds, but the dance hall, exhibit hall and arena were saved.

Driving south of Norden, fire blackened pastures, hay piles and forested land on both sides of Norden Road. What I saw was just a small fraction of the nearly 117 square miles burned by fires now known as Fairfield Creek, Wentworth and Hall. The three combined fires, caused by lightning strikes on July 20, took 11 days, over 300 fire fighters from 35 fire departments and hundreds of other ranchers and volunteers as well as five helicopters with water buckets to beat.

I’m told that if it weren’t for ranchers and other residents with ATVs and small water tanks putting out fire patches as the fire jumped north across Highway 12 near Norden, the fires may have spread north into South Dakota.

UP IN SMOKE: Lone cedar and pastures are blackened along Highway 12 east of Norden.
UP IN SMOKE: Lone cedar and pastures are blackened along Highway 12 east of Norden.

I’ve been writing about drought for several weeks. The conditions we are now experiencing are bad. But the loss of homes, ranches, property, fencing and pasture from the wildfires that burned parts of Brown, Keya Paha and Cherry counties the past two weeks have produced a disastrous double whammy on the folks living in these vicinities. Tack on a $3 million price tag to fight those fires, and it just adds insult to injury.

I visited with University of Nebraska Extension educator for Brown, Keya Paha and Rock counties, Dennis Bauer, at his office in Ainsworth during my recent trip, and we talked about the long range impact of the drought and fire. Bauer commented that it is almost miraculous that no one was killed or very seriously injured by the fires or through the fighting of the fires. Coordination of the efforts must have been a monstrous duty. But the folks living and working in those areas pulled together, as they always do in times of tragedy, and beat the fires through stubborn determination. You’ll be reading more about the north central Nebraska wildfires in upcoming web and print articles at Nebraska Farmer.

CONTRAST: Most places, pastures were blackened on both sides of the road. On this particular section of road, on one side of Norden Road, pastures were destroyed, but grass on the other side remained in tact.
CONTRAST: Most places, pastures were blackened on both sides of the road. On this particular section of road, on one side of Norden Road, pastures were destroyed, but grass on the other side remained in tact.

But we wanted you to know that there is a great cost and strain to producers because of the double whammy. If you’d like to contribute to a fire relief fund, or if you’d like more information about how you can donate wire and posts to help ranchers rebuild hundreds of miles of fences they have lost, contact Bauer at the UNL BKR Extension office by calling 402-387-2213.

NO DANCE TONIGHT: This is probably an old message, but this sign is about all that remains of the village of Norden. The dance hall, fair exhibit hall and arena were all saved however.
NO DANCE TONIGHT: This is probably an old message, but this sign is about all that remains of the village of Norden. The dance hall, fair exhibit hall and arena were all saved however.

Be sure to watch www.nebraskafarmer.com and see our August print issue of Nebraska Farmer for news, information and tips on meeting the challenges of drought. Check out the Farm Progress drought site at www.DatelineDrought.com.