Two Hastings Rural Fire Department firefighters were among volunteers who responded to the state fire marshal’s call for assistance to help battle a pair of wildfires that broke out Thursday in the Nebraska Panhandle south of Gering and near Crawford.
Firefighters Mitch Linder and Jay Kort were among a team of six units sent to monitor and combat the Crawford blaze, which has destroyed 5,444 acres and caused evacuations of several structures. The Crawford fire was considered 50% contained as of Monday morning, Adams County Emergency Director Ron Pughes said.
Linder said he and Kort were part of the Division One Bravo team which inherited a fire that appeared to be relatively under control.
“There really wasn’t a lot going on at about 7:45 a.m. Mountain Time when we got out to the fire zone (Saturday),” Linder said. “Some hot spots needed to be mopped up, but everything was pretty much burned at that time. The relative humidity was pretty high, and temperatures and wind conditions were down.
“We just kind of spent a little time mopping up spots and monitoring a couple areas that were a concern.”
By 10 a.m., conditions became increasingly more volatile, as relative humidity fell to single digits and high winds began to fan the flames, with temperatures climbing rapidly.
“We really started having a lot of active fires going on in our division,” Linder said. “We got as much knocked down as we could. Some spots way up in the canyons and draws we just couldn’t get to.
“We did a lot of it on foot with chainsaws, shovels and pick axes. The spots we could get to with the truck we’d get knocked down, but a lot of it was fighting it by hand.”
Air support provided by four National Guard helicopters and a forest service-contracted helicopter helped firefighters gain control of the situation by early afternoon, he said.
“At that time, our division head felt comfortable enough for us to leave our division and go help Division 2 Bravo,” Linder said. “The relative humidity was extremely low, and the fire danger was critical. Conditions were going downhill quick. It was difficult to get to a truck, so that was all hands on with hand tools.”
Working with the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency was an invaluable tool for the two firefighters — one they will be able to share with their own department to aid in combatting future fire incidents, Kort said.
“It was a new experience,” he said. “It was very impressive. We’d never been under a command system like that.
“The way they fight fires out there is way more difficult than how we fight them back home, where we’re able to get into a lot of these spots with trucks and hoses and can put it out with water. Up there it’s literally hand tools and walking. You definitely got a workout for 12-13 hours. And some of these departments had been out there for days.”
Kort said that the scope of the project was much larger than any he had experienced before. While the fire’s intensity varied from location to location, his team stayed focused on controlling its one section of the blaze.
“When we got on it, they had it fairly under control on our side,” he said. “We were initially monitoring, then moved more into preventative mode, going inside cleaning up areas that were still flaring, trying to get them knocked out.
“We were maintaining a wet line in the front, and they were doing air drops behind it to knock it back. It was a pretty long day.”
Working with ample sources on the scene, Kort said, he felt assured that the situation was as in hand as it could be under the circumstances.
“Our part was pretty well controlled,” he said. “You definitely had to be alert, and if conditions had changed, you would have been in an area where you needed to know your way out. But what they had given us with resources and other trucks we had a pretty good confidence that the threat of danger was pretty low where we were at.”
No updates were available on the Vista Trend Fire near Gering as of Monday morning, though Hughes said there has been no additional assistance requested for that fire, which reportedly has burned nearly six square miles with zero containment.
“They took a truck up there (Crawford) and helped based on what they were assigned at the post,” Pughes said. “They were done after a 12-hour mission and returned home safe early Sunday morning.”
The cause of the fires remains under investigation, though lightning has been mentioned as a possible instigator, Pughes said. The Crawford fire was expected to reach 70% containment by Monday afternoon, he said.
Damp weather and humidity are aiding in keeping the situation contained at this point, he said.
The Crawford fire has been designated a disaster area by Gov. Pete Ricketts, Pughes said.
“It’s a very hilly, wooded part of Nebraska,” he said. “You’re dealing with more than we deal with down here in a field fire. There’s rough terrain and steep terrain, kind of a volatile, high-ignition source type area with all the evergreen trees and underbrush.”
Linder and Kort were the only volunteers from Adams County called to the Type 3 incident, a designation given to conditions where an incident’s needs exceed available capabilities. Such an incident may require significant resources and extended attack until containment/control is achieved or the incident escalates to a Type 1 or 2 level.