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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.