Lessons learned amid wildfires in northwest Nebraska

On Aug. 30, my boss called and said I needed to pack and get to Chadron ASAP.

His call came at 3 p.m. Wildfires were out of control and burning thousands of drought-stricken acres in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

Flames burn through portions of the Ponderosa Wildlife Management Area near Crow Butte on Friday, Aug. 31, 2012.

I stopped along the way to pick up reporter Erin Golden, and we drove through the night, arriving in Crawford just before sunrise. We worked through the day to cover the fires, chasing flare-ups and driving off-road to find people affected by the fire.

A Crawford resident, Larry Olson, was kind enough to invite us into his home for the duration of the event. We didn’t know him, but he treated us like family from the moment we stepped into his house. I worked what photos I had from the day and then Larry suggested he knew some back roads that might give me a different view of the devastation.

Flames of the West Ash Creek fire light up the night as they race through Dawes County, burning land and homes near midnight on Friday, Aug. 31, 2012.

We stepped out into the night and saw the orange glow of the flames of the West Ash Creek fire, just a few miles away. A wind change might mean Larry’s home would be in danger. And as a postman, he needed to be up early to deliver the mail. Still, he stayed with me until after midnight.

I finally hit the sack at 3 a.m. for a few hours of sleep before sunrise. The next day Erin and I rushed about on the back roads and highways between Chadron and Crawford. There were three fires and much to do.

Burned toys are visible in the ashes of a home that was destroyed near Chadron State Park.

Riding on adrenaline and about three hours of sleep in the previous two days, we encountered countless individuals that helped us with our report despite their own lives being turned upside down by the fires.

Sandy Riggs loads her family’s camper as they prepare to evacuate.

Again, Erin and I posted stories and photos until early in the morning, slept a few hours and then headed to Hay Springs and Rushville before sunrise. I left a note for Larry, but no words could express the gratitude I felt. I had just met the man two days earlier and already felt he was a trusted friend.

A rattlesnake was caught in the West Ash Creek fire after it raced through the Crow Butte area.

Erin and I posted stories and photos from a gas station in Rushville. The governor had just been through shaking hands with residents, and I was on the phone with a meteorologist in Omaha when a woman walked up to me and thanked us for coming. The call was important, so I quickly thanked her and continued the conversation.

Ralph Reece of the Harrison volunteer fire department drinks a cup of juice for breakfast while putting out hot spots on the Douthit fire.

While on the road back to Omaha, I couldn’t help but start to fade. Fearing that Erin was in the same shape, I talked to her through the long ride to help keep us on the road. No radio, just the sound of my voice all night – who could sleep through that?

Grant Severson and Matt Hessler, volunteers with the Gering (Neb.) Volunteer Fire Department, get a quick homemade meal from Laura Douthit. She brought the meal to firefighters near the ranch where the fire was started by heat lightning near Crawford.

Of course, we learned a few things about the fires. But what I really learned was that the world is full of kind people. People willing to help strangers even in their darkest moments. Firemen came from as far away as Arizona to help fight the flames. Many of them had been fighting fires throughout the west all summer, living in tents and missing their families. Families helped one another as evacuations forced them from their homes. Ranchers took food and drink to firefighters while they worked in remote areas to push back the fires.

World-Herald staff writer Erin Golden conducts an interview in the car while chasing the Wellnitz fire near Hay Springs.

In the last picture I took in Crawford, I was trying to show something that illustrated the hope people were feeling as the firefighters worked to contain the fires. Larry dropped what he was doing and drove with me to Fort Robinson State Park.

Black Hawk helicopters sit unused at Fort Robinson State Park at sunset as the fires calm and rain hits Dawes County, helping firefighters to contain the fires.

The thought I had was to take photos of Black Hawk helicopters on the ground or a sunset shot – anything I could find that showed the worst was over. As I photographed the helicopters, the clouds broke in the west and a rainbow appeared. I was out of position, so I began to run. I ran to an opening in the fence and started to take pictures of the brilliant rainbow against the smoke-darkened sky. I came back to the car knowing I had a good shot. Larry told me I had moved faster than any fat man he had ever seen.

Blayne Anderson checks family land that burned in the West Ash Creek fire.

I will never forget the kindness of these people. And the lesson I hope I have learned is that the best way to deal with a fire is to forget your troubles and help someone in need.

Mark Davis

About Mark Davis

I have been with the Omaha World-Herald since 1999, spending the past few years behind still and video cameras.
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  1. Jodi says:

    Awesome article! Thanks for covering it. Great pictures!

  2. Loni Deines says:

    I grew up in Hay Springs and this article is “spot on” regarding the people of northwest NE. You won’t find more friendly, compassionate or resilient people anywhere.

  3. Mark Davis Mark Davis says:

    Thanks for the kind words. I hope to make many trips to the area in the coming years. Mark

  4. Delanie Hudnall says:

    I grew up south of Crawford on the ridge. I couldn’t have said it better. I wish more people in Nebraska could understand what was lost. Thanks for writing this. I hope to make it home soon to see the area and visit family soon.

  5. Tessa Boggs says:

    It wad born and raised in the Crawford area and still live here today. This article touches my heart so very deeply. Thank you so much for you coverage not only on the fires but on all of the individuals affected by this very tragic event. I am very glad my little town made you feel at home! My husband and several family members are on the fire department and I know this article will bring some tears and smiles to their faces!

  6. Tera Gasseling says:

    What a great article, I lived at the end of Dawes county. The area burned was like my “backyard”. It breaks my heart to see so much gone. But friends and helping hands is so much to us out in Western Nebraska. Helping one another is what we are made of out here.
    Thanks Again for great coverage.

  7. Tish Kloch says:

    What great pictures you have and what wonderful words! I grew up in Crawford and you definitely described the people of Western NE spot on! My little sister and her husband and his family lost a lot in the West Ash fire. My continued prayers for all who were affected. What a beautiful part of the country!

  8. Jack Sutton says:

    As afrequent visitor,and,one-time resident,Iloved the article,but,wonder why people are so impressed by these folks. Heck,They’ve been that way for at least 60 years that I know of.

  9. Robin Retzlaff says:

    So many Hero’s out west! Originally from Rushville and reside in Alliance now. These firemen and women deserve so many thank you’s. Awesome article and the words you used to describe most of the folks out west were spot on! Great pictures of the devastation in western Nebraska.

  10. Kim Clark says:

    wonderful story…thankyou for the dedication and long hours to put on facebook.I have lots of fond memories up east ash road where my grandparents lived. So glad I have those memories and so sad for friends and families that took their losses. God Bless the firefighters and good people in this surrounding area!God bless all of you.

  11. hello
    It’s a good post.Thanks for sharing.