Click here to view a slideshow of the blazes in Dawes County.
CRAWFORD, Neb. — It was already a desperate, dry summer before Don Harwood was roaming his burned-over land, finding dead cows and wondering how he'd feed the ones that survived the fire.
The hills of Dawes County were parched, crops withered, creek beds dry.
People who had spent decades ranching on this rugged terrain were already running short on hay and wondering if they should start thinning their herds.
Then a fireball tore across their land to make their decisions for them.
The flames burned through 300 acres on Harwood's property and plenty of surrounding rangeland. The morning after, he was counting cows with burned feet and realizing he was low on options.
“Because of the drought, everyone's just trying to hang on,” he said. “Now I don't know what I'm going to do if I don't find someplace else.”
In this part of the state, the work done on ranches is the work that keeps towns going. Their animals graze on big, open stretches of private and public land — the tens of thousands of acres that are now scorched earth.
Even as the fires burn and ranchers try to sort out immediate life-and-death needs, local officials are well aware of what lies ahead.
In a community meeting Friday evening, Dawes County Sheriff Karl Dailey urged residents to follow evacuation orders instead of risking their lives to protect their land.
“I know things are bad,” he said. “I know crops are in the crapper. I realize it's dry, there's no water for cattle. I have people selling off (their cattle). I understand that.”
After the fields started burning, offers of donations of hay, grain and animal feed started coming in from residents around the area, said John Griesinger, local district ranger for the Nebraska National Forest.
He said people here know that when ranchers struggle, so does the rest of Crawford.
“The area that burned is central to the economy here,” he said.
Buying hay to feed animals is an expensive proposition when it's in such short supply.
Lonnie Douthit, a longtime rancher and owner of the property where the fire started, said prices have skyrocketed. These days, he said, hay is going for about $250 per ton. Last year, his best hay went for $70 per ton. Feeding one cow for a year could require a ton and a half of hay. Douthit got about 90 bales of hay off his 350 acres this year. Normally, he gets about 500 bales.
In downtown Crawford, a handful of businesspeople said the fire had provided a temporary boost, through it was hard to be pleased about it when neighbors were suffering.
At the Frontier Bar and Restaurant, owner Geralyn Dillard said she'd been spending her days preparing big meals — and serving them at a discount — to hungry, weary firefighters.
“In all the devastation, our business is actually profiting a little,” she said.
Down the street, Tim Bosak, manager at Herren Brothers' True Value Hardware, said he's been getting traffic from firefighters seeking gloves, coolers, even a toothbrush. Bosak knows the next few weeks and months will bring more traffic from landowners trying to fix fences and clean up after the fire.
“It's going to be good for our business, but tough for them,” he said. “I'd much rather have an average year rather than business that's fire business.”
With the fire still burning, it's too soon to say how much of an impact the burn will have on the local agriculture industry. Douthit said he's optimistic. He's been through this before and survived. He, and the rest of Crawford, can do it again, he said.
“There's going to be some good come out of this,” he said. “I don't want to look at it as gloom and doom. There will be good things to come out of it — always does. I think grazing will be greatly improved. It's good for cattle, good for wildlife. Right now, we can't see that.”
But for many, the uncertainty is very real.
Harwood, who has owned his land for 15 years, said it was his first brush with real disaster in the form of wildfire.
“I'm just trying to get through,” he said.
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