Mike Kesselring chokes up as he talks about the massive wildfires that swept through Nebraska's beloved Pine Ridge, nearly swallowing his home and his family's life's work.
“Everything was on fire. It was the darndest monster movie you've ever seen,” he said. “I know I'll remember that until the day I die.
“But I also know I'll remember how I felt when those cowboys came over the hill with water trucks to save us. My love for the people here and for this area has only intensified.”
Talk to avid outdoorsmen who live in the rugged, forested Pine Ridge and their first words aren't about the heartbreaking loss of thousands of acres of old growth trees or the potential impact on public recreation in an area rich in natural resources.
No, they talk about what's left, about how they and their neighbors stuck together to fight the fires. And how they believe, in their bones, the land will bounce back.
“There's an immediate shock of ‘Oh, my gosh, it's terrible, everything is black,'” said Kesselring, whose family owns a Western-themed retreat center, the High Plains Homestead, northwest of Crawford. “There's no doubt about it: This was a big fire. But if we get some rain, things will green up. The complexion won't change as much as you think.”
The fires struck an area of Nebraska unusual for its forested hills and amount of publicly owned land.
Northwest Nebraska is home to the Nebraska National Forests and Grasslands, Chadron State Park, Fort Robinson State Park and Toadstool Geological Park — areas well-known to hunters, birders, hikers, mountain bikers, campers and anglers.
Combined, the Douthit, West Ash Creek and Wellnitz fires consumed about 255 square miles of public and private Nebraska land.
For an idea of how uniquely valuable this part of the state is to public recreation, consider that Nebraska has less land in public ownership — only 3 percent — than nearly any other state. Most of that public land is concentrated in the northwest corner of the state.
While there remain tens of thousands of acres unburned, the fires took a toll on some of the areas most popular with the public, including Chadron State Park and the Bighorn and Metcalf Wildlife Management Areas. The fires spared Fort Robinson State Park.
With the embers still smoldering, it's too soon to know the fire's effect on the region. The intensifying drought adds to the uncertainty.
“We're still trying to figure out what losses we've had,” said Todd Nordeen, wildlife manager for the northwest district of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. “There will be some long-lasting impacts to the landscape.”
Part of the difficulty in assessing the damage is that the fires burned erratically.
In some places, especially where trees had been thinned, the fire stayed on the ground. That means recovery could be rapid. Elsewhere, fire exploded from treetop to treetop, resulting in a complete kill.
Don Westover, fire program leader for the Nebraska Forest Service, said the Douthit and West Ash Creek fires are classified as one blaze, making it the largest and most damaging in state history.
“The damage has been severe,” Westover said.
A team of experts from various disciplines is assessing damage and looking for ways to move forward and minimize future destruction.
Rain — if it comes soon enough — could rejuvenate the grassland and help stressed trees. But it also could erode hillsides and wash choking ash and dirt into fishing streams. Forestalling this type of damage is a top priority for the recovery team.
Some wildlife, including deer and turkey, have been found dead in the wake of the fire. Others have been injured, including bighorn sheep, Nordeen said.
“As fast as the fire moved, wildlife just couldn't get out of the way.”
But plenty of survivors have been spotted, too, he said. The surviving deer, elk, bighorn sheep and other wildlife likely will alter their range for better foraging, Nordeen said. That movement could continue if the drought persists.
Eventually, healthier grasslands will replace those that burned, especially in areas where ponderosa pine had become overgrown.
With fewer trees to compete with, grasses will be able to spread farther. And with the fresh growth that occurs after a fire, the grass itself will be more nutritious.
Phil Dobesh, a wildlife biologist for the Pine Ridge District of the Nebraska National Forest, said a more open canopy has been necessary for bighorn sheep to thrive. As a result, these fires likely will improve habitat for bighorn.
“It's going to change the ecological system out here, there's no doubt about it,” Dobesh said. “How much of an impact it's going to have on different species, we're still learning.”
Birders, he said, might now have a better chance of spying a Lewis's woodpecker, a bird that is drawn to fire-damaged woodlands. But pygmy nuthatch, a bird that favored the old growth of the ponderosa pine, might become less common in the burned areas.
Like others, Dobesh said the loss of ponderosa pine may be permanent.
“Some areas will recover pretty quickly,” he said, “but other areas may never recover and may revert to grassland.”
Nordeen said the fires may simply mean that people, like wildlife, will have to find new favorite spots in northwest Nebraska.
“We didn't lose it all,” he said. “There are still opportunities out here. It will just be a matter of looking around and finding a temporary location until some of it recovers.”
Kesselring said that before people abandon plans to come to the region, they should call ahead to see how their intended destination fared.
By Friday, Chadron State Park had reopened. By Saturday, so had the Hudson-Meng Bison Kill Research and Visitor Center.
“They call this area the Badlands and Pine Ridge for a reason — it's a land of extremes,” said Kesselring, who has trekked through many a canyon in pursuit of deer.
“It's also a land of deep treasure that's still here. The surface is charred, there's no doubt about it. But Mother Nature and the folks who live here are working to make things right.
“It will heal.”
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