The three wildfires that have ravaged portions of northwest Nebraska have largely been brought under control, but not before one of them claimed an indirect casualty: the state’s oldest park.
Crews conducted a controlled burn of Chadron State Park late last week to lessen the threat to the city of Chadron and to prevent worse damage to the park, said Kirk Nelson, west regional parks manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. The park sits in the heart of the Nebraska National Forest and is noted for its forested hill country.
“It’s just a beautiful park, and it’s been defaced,” Nelson said Tuesday.
The entire park -- particularly the grass and other ground vegetation -- was scorched by the controlled burn, but buildings and equipment were spared, Nelson said. “We won’t know for a while how much damage was caused. Some of the trees are still green.”
Campers and livestock had been evacuated prior to the controlled burn, he said.
As it was, the wildfire itself reached the park’s western edge “roaring alongside,” but not damaging, the swimming pool, stables and a shelter.
“It was like the fire drew a line,” Nelson said. “The smoke and flames were so close, it just scared the bejesus out of everybody. We feel very fortunate. From what we can gather, we couldn’t have stopped the wildfire from ruining the park.”
The wildfire was much hotter and more erratic than the controlled burn, he said, and would have caused far more damage.
Crews protected the buildings in the park by clearing vegetation from around them. They then put out
the fire as it approached the buildings.
“(It’s) very labor intensive. But under the right conditions, it can work very well,” Nelson said.
The Game and Parks Commission plans to reopen the park but hasn’t decided when. Families that had reservations for park lodging are being notified.
Rain and snow will be crucial to stemming losses among the park’s majestic ponderosa pines, Nelson said. Trees, already stressed by drought, suffered further stress from the fire, he said.
Three fires have raged for the past week in northwest Nebraska: the West Ash, Douthit and Wellnitz fires.
The West Ash and Douthit fires are jointly described as the Region 23 Complex. As of Tuesday afternoon, they averaged 85 percent containment.
The West Ash wildfire, which damaged 58,450 acres, is the fire that threatened Chadron State Park and, ultimately, Chadron.
The park sits on the west side of Nebraska Highway 385, a north-south road. Had the fire jumped the highway, it would have had a clear shot northward toward Chadron, Nelson said.
The city sits about nine miles north of the park, well within the fire’s reach. At one point, a parks official clocked the fire gaining 15 miles in six hours.
“He said you could just watch hilltops blowing up, one after the other. The winds would carry the embers, and it would go from hilltop to hilltop.”
The nearby Douthit fire claimed 29,730 acres.
Further north, the Wellnitz fire was considered 74 percent contained as of Tuesday. It has burned 77,159 acres 44,159 in Nebraska and 33,000 in South Dakota.
The Nebraska Emergency Management Agency on Tuesday advised the public that hazards remain, even though the fires have been largely contained.
Specifically, downed power lines may still be energized, fire-weakened trees could fall and low visibility can make traveling difficult.
Damage assessment has begun. So far, it’s not yet clear how many homes and businesses may have been destroyed by the three fires. At least two homes and two businesses were known to have been lost to the Wellnitz fire.
As with the similarly massive wildfire earlier this summer in the Niobrara River valley, the news isn’t so much in homes lost as property saved.
“Fire personnel saved an incredible number of houses and buildings that would have been destroyed,” Nelson said. “If there is anything to celebrate, it’s the heroic actions of (these) people.”
Residents were able to return to their homes this week to clean up any effects from the fire, including a coating of fire retardant. Families in need of help are being advised to phone the American Red Cross at 888-382-3790.
A number of firefighters and emergency personnel were released from firefighting duty, and those who remained are now focused on mopping up and holding their lines.
On Tuesday, Nebraska Emergency Management Assistant Director Al Berndt estimated the cost of fighting the three fires at around $3.2 million.
Berndt said the federal government will cover the cost of fighting the fire on federal lands, and the States of Nebraska and South Dakota will reimburse local departments for fire services on state land and private property.
Outside of any new wildfires caused by dry lightning, officials’ next big worry is post-fire runoff once rainfall returns.
Roads, bridges and structures within the floodplain could be damaged by uncontrolled runoff, so officials are looking for ways to lessen that threat.