Muddy conditions offer special challenges for rural firefighters

Monday, February 19, 2018
Looking for smoldering embers, Red Willow Western Rural Fire Department Chief Bill Elliott, accompanied by his grandson/firefighter Nicholas Cole, drives a four-wheeler through scorched trees and grass after a fire at Hugh Butler Lake north of McCook Sunday afternoon. Some red cedar trees burned; others didn’t.
Connie Jo Discoe/McCook Gazette

McCOOK, Neb. — Somehow, a gust of wind must have found a smoldering ember in a tree pile in a pit at Hugh Butler Lake mid-afternoon Sunday and the spreading fire burned several acres of grass and trees.

Except for some of those really weedy red cedar trees.

The other challenge was the mud and underlying frost. Just envision a 67,000-pound water truck sliding down the hill sideways …

Aric Riggins, the Nebraska Game and Parks superintendent at the lake, said this morning that he cut down some trees two weeks ago and burned them in a pit. “I’ve checked it every morning … put water on it … no more smoke … it’s out,” Riggins said.

He thinks that a gust of wind must have rekindled some embers, and the fire jumped out of the pit and spread through grass and trees just south of the marina.

Riggins has a a truck and a Gator (four-wheeler) to fight a fire around the lake, but, he said, he knew this was going to be more than he could handle, so he called for help from the Red Willow Western Rural Fire Department.

RWW firefighter Billie Cole said this morning that the fire wasn’t easy to access because the ground was soft and muddy and really slippery. “It was mud on top, and frost underneath,” she said. They got the best results with the four-wheelers, “the mules,” fire chief Bill Elliott calls them.

Cole said some of the red cedar trees “went up like torches,” while others weren’t burned at all. She explained that the trees that burned had grass growing up close, while those that didn’t burn had their own needles — wet and soggy — underneath them.

Riggins said the red cedars grow like weeds, and he had planned a controlled burn this spring to rid that area of them. “Just not on a Sunday afternoon, when I didn’t have help,” he said.

“The fire got the vast majority of the red cedars in that area,” Riggins said. “Which is good, because they’re overgrown. They’re like weeds.”

Fire chief Bill Elliott said fighting the fire as well as the mud and the slippery ice under the mud “was a challenge, and quite an adventure. Just think of a 67,000-pound Hemtt (tanker truck) with 8-wheel-drive sliding sideways downhill.” That’s when they turned to the four-wheelers.

“Our mules will go anywhere we want them to. That’s what we got them for,” Elliott said. Yeah, well, mules go anywhere except over the top of really big stumps, he admitted with a chuckle, having to be pulled off of a stump Sunday afternoon.

Elliott said it was lucky they got the fire out before it reached a steep canyon to the east. That would have been really hard to reach, he said, “and it would have burned for a week.”

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