Click here to view a slideshow of the wildfires in western Nebraska.
HAY SPRINGS, Neb. — Fires burning in Dawes County were beginning to cool Sunday, and people living near the blaze growing farther east were paying close attention for a shift in the wind — and hoping their fire was nearing an end, too.
By midday, the 87,000-acre Wellnitz fire was the most active blaze in the area. It was burning north of Hay Springs and Rushville and into the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Days earlier, it had swept through an area about 10 miles north of Hay Springs, engulfing grassland and a few outbuildings.
People living there held their ground, working alongside local firefighters to put down fire lines. On Sunday, though, they weren't taking any chances. The wind was shifting again, so they loaded up their animals and were heading for town.
Gale Hankins, who has lived in the same area for all of his 58 years, said it was the biggest fire threat he ever had seen.
For the first few days, local and state authorities managed the fire. By late in the week, however, it was growing too big for them to maintain. A multi-agency team was directing options by late in the week.
Nearly 350 firefighters were involved in the effort.
Still, Hankins worried.
Sitting on an ATV, eating a piece of toast and eggs in a plastic container, he watched as his neighbors hurried to move their cattle and a small team of volunteer firefighters loaded their truck with water.
“There's hundreds of fire trucks, but will they be there when you need them? Those five minutes you need them?” he said. “You can't be greedy and ask them to sit there.”
Officials said they were optimistic the fire's progress would slow because of relatively moderate wind conditions and the work of fire crews.
West of that blaze, the Douthit fire, which burned 29,730 acres near Crawford, was 95 percent
contained by Sunday afternoon.
The West Ash fire, closer to Chadron, had burned 57,825 acres and was 45 percent contained.
Firefighters had finished a 5-mile-wide burnout near Chadron, and a plane had dumped 36,000 gallons of flame retardant.
People who had been evacuated from the village of Whitney were returning to their homes, along with property owners around the rugged hills of Crow Butte. Two days earlier it was covered by a massive orange ball of fire.
Blayne Anderson, who grew up in the area but now lives in Cheyenne, Wyo., was on his uncle's land, checking out piles of charred rubble that once was a house and outbuildings filled with old appliances.
He pointed to a still-smoking spot in the pile.
“I believe that's my uncle's collection of National Geographic magazines,” he said.
On the ash-covered hillside, Anderson's nieces spotted the charred bodies of a rabbit and a rattlesnake.
The property's owner, Max Franey lives in Chadron but runs a guided hunting business around Crow Butte. Anderson said Franey was concerned about the future of that business but had seen signs of animal life returning, including deer and turkeys.
At the entrance to Chadron State Park, firefighters said most of the park had made it through the fire without any major damage.
“We've had two significant challenges, and we've been able to hold both of them,” said Rick Teeters, a
division supervisor with the Veteran Volunteer Fire Department in Goshen County, Wyo.
Gov. Dave Heineman flew in to survey the area this morning. He said he was pleased to see the eastern fires under more control and praised firefighters for their efforts.
Heineman said he would return in the fall to meet with local officials on the needs of ranchers who had lost animals and valuable grazing land in the fire.
“We're not going to forget the people in western Nebraska, even when the fires are over,” he said.
In conversations on the street and in restaurants and coffee shops, residents in several communities affected by the fires seemed concerned about the potential damage but also realistic. They will rebuild.
They will have a few years' peace of mind because of a lower fire risk, thanks to so much overgrown brush being destroyed.
Hankins gestured to the bone-dry grass and trees. This time last year, he said, the area was underwater because of flooding from a nearby creek.
He survived that and would get through this, too.
“We worked a week to get our cattle back and fences fixed,” he said. “And now we're doing it again.”