Volunteers spend second day on grassfire

Thursday, June 14, 2012
An airplane from Red Willow Aviation, above, in McCook and Top Hat Ag in Benkelman dumped water on the flames snaking their way through dry grasses and scrub evergreens and heading northeast with gusty winds. (Connie Jo Discoe/McCook Daily Gazette)

CULBERTSON, Nebraska -- The man in the yellow bunker gear sounded tired, and a little discouraged, standing on the county road late Wednesday afternoon watching a grass fire that just wouldn't die.

Neighbors in a nearby driveway had their bags packed, ready to grab their little dog and flee if the fire refused to give up the fight.

Dennis Chambers, a firefighter for the Culbertson and Hitchcock County fire department, said of what had become a two-day grass fire, "We mopped it up last night, and we thought it looked really good. Now ... now, we're strugglin' again."

Culbertson/Hitchcock County, Nebraska, firefighter Dennis Chambers late Wednesday afternoon radios information to fellow firefighters battling what had turned into a two-day grass fire in pastures and canyons about a mile east of the historic Stone Church south of Culbertson. (Connie Jo Discoe/McCook Daily Gazette)

Chambers said the wind was firefighters' worst enemy Tuesday afternoon, evening and through the night and early morning Wednesday, after a late-spring thunderstorm rolled through, its lightning starting fires, but most of its rain falling far down-range.

The wind shifted three times through the night, Chambers said, a north wind eventually pushing the fire back onto already-scorched ground, helping firefighters' efforts to snuff it out.

But the wind Wednesday played the bad guy again, rekindling hot spots and sending the fire north again through a rugged canyon about a mile east of the historic Stone Church.

"That rock ledge is going to be our salvation on this side," Chambers said, motioning to the outcroppings on the western edge of the canyon. A field of bright-green irrigated corn sits in the fire's path, but it hasn't been irrigated yet, so it could burn easily, too, he said.

Chambers said airplanes from Red Willow Aviation in McCook and Top Hat Ag in Benkelman helped ground firefighters get a handle on the fire.

The smaller plane from Red Willow Aviation was able to land on Highway 17, just west of the fire scene, and on the baseball field in Culbertson to reload quicker that returning to home bases.

"I'd hate to guess how many trips those planes made," Chambers said, or how much water they dumped.

Roger and Pat Brown, whose home and farmyard sit northwest of the burning canyon, are both familiar with the rough canyon. "We walk through the canyon," Pat said, "and it's rough enough, we have to climb to the top to see just where we are. It's mostly pasture," she said. "And scrub cedar trees," Roger added.

Roger hunts the canyon, and knows it's rough-going even in the best of times. Firefighters have had a devil-of-a-time getting equipment in and out, and maneuvering the rough terrain. Tanker trucks hover on the far east perimeter.

Red Willow Western rural firefighter Billie Cole said Wednesday morning that a pickup owned by David Anderson, whose father, Marty, owns the canyon land, burned up in the canyon fire. A RWW grass rig lost its steering, she said, and she and assistant fire chief Mike Allen found themselves surrounded by flames with only a left-turning truck. "We're in quite a predicament here," Allen said over the radio. Cole said they were able to "baby the truck" through already scorched ground, and then out-run encroaching flames.

Roger and Pat stood at the south end of their long drive late Wednesday afternoon, watching the flames move away from their home and keeping an eye on airplanes from Red Willow Aviation, from McCook, and Top Hat Ag, From Benkelman, dip down and dump water on low-crawling flames.

At one point, the couple glanced up to discover an anvil forming in darkening thunderstorm clouds in the southwest. Rain we could use, Roger said. "Wind, and more lightning? We hope not."

"We've got a couple bags packed," Pat said. Roger said that Pat grabbed "a couple of the (photo) albums of the old pictures ... and I hooked onto the boat. I figured if I was going out with the pickup, I might as well take the boat too."

"We'll grab Penny (the little dog dumped in their yard a year ago) and her house," Pat said.

Roger said, about 5:30 p.m., "I think they're gaining on it. Not too long ago, there were red flames all along the rim." The fire did as Chambers said it would -- it burned to the rock ledge and, on the western front, stalled out.

Chambers said it was a combination of that outcropping, the airplanes and enough trucks and firefighters and water on the ground that finally defeated the last of the stubborn flames. "We're hoping it's out," Chambers said mid-morning today. He kept a couple trucks and Herndon kept another couple trucks on the fire scene through the night. "We drove through it 'til the wee hours of the night ... just keeping an eye on it," he said.

Throughout the two-day ordeal, Culbertson/Hitchcock County firefighters got help from firefighters and equipment from Red Willow Western, Trenton, Bartley, Indianola, Beaver Valley and Hayes County in Nebraska, and Atwood and Herndon in Kansas.

Dana Lucero, another Culbertson fire department volunteer, was touched by the outpouring of help for the firefighters. "We had so much help with food and water," she said. "We really appreciated it all."

Chambers said it's difficult to know exactly how much land burned. "Road 706 on the south to Road 710 on the north," he said. "Three-and-a-half, four miles. How wide, I don't know."

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