Over several days in north central Nebraska I had the opportunity to hear stories from fire fighters and local volunteers who battled 3 large fires through the scenic Niobrara River valley. During the hottest and driest summer for the US in many years, fire continues to be a major threat to many of us suffering from a drought.
The three major fires battled in North Central Nebraska were the Hall, Wentworth, and the largest being the Fairfield fire. All three fires burned approx. 70,000 acres of land, which put homes, livestock, property, and local’s way of life in danger. No one was seriously injured during the week long fires, and although several homes were lost many others were saved. Over 90 volunteer fire departments from Nebraska and South Central South Dakota assisted.
Eventually Federal firefighting crews were called to assist local volunteer fire departments. The most talked about subject of the fire was the “hot shots” or extreme fire professionals if you will. These guys would load up the gear and take off down into the bottom of the canyon where the fire was for hours. Engaging in highly trained fire suppression tactics they try and contain the fire or assist in moving it where it can be contained. These hot shots are incredible fit since they could be battling the fires for hours without much support. Some individuals said they would do pushups and sit ups once they crawled out of the river valley. Another told a story of a mountain lion which was distraught because of the fire and was considering taking his revenge on a hotshot. The hotshot simply used his torch to create a ring of fire around himself and the large cat ran off. I will let you decide if you want to believe these tall tales, I do.
Along with the feds came the aircraft. Helicopters spotted and dumped water on hot spots they got from local ponds or the Niobrara River. Spotter aircraft circled high above to direct efforts most effectively. Even large twin engine beasts dumped fire retardant near homes being threatened by the blaze. These made the journey from Rapid City, South Dakota a 40 minute one way trip. The Nebraska National Guard also assisted with Blackhawk Helicopters transporting water to carefully planned locations. I did not have the opportunity to see this airshow in action but I can imagine it was an amazing sight. Imagine for a minute an area that is fairly accustomed to aircraft flying aloft at several thousand feet but now helicopters are gathering water out of your small farm pond and a large fixed wing Aircraft just dumped an orange fire retardant to protect your house from the fire. What a sense of relief that must have been. Also consider the skill and expertise it would take to pilot these aircraft. Although they are pure professionals and to them it is just another day consider the turbulence above an extremely hot wildfire. Very intense I am sure, and then to precisely drop water where it is needed, awesome. Like my friend and coworker Al Waterloo says great people doing great things in aviation. This statement is very true here. (Forgive me for not naming aircraft by the time I had arrived most officials/aircraft had went home, I only got close to the Nebraska National Guard Blackhawks).
Now with keeping with the aviation story. I was asked to assist in charity flights for local volunteer firefighters to see an aerial shot of what they had experienced the previous week. A very small task compared to the firefighting pilots and firefighters who had been working all week. However, I had several days available so I hurried home excited to share my passion with those in my community affected by the devastation. By this time the fires were mostly contained and only a small amount of smoke remained. The flights were created for volunteer firemen and a free will donation from community members who wanted to view, with the proceeds going back to the local volunteer fire departments. The Piper Cherokee 180 and fuel was donated by Mr. Jim Jackman, (aircraft based at KANW) and scheduling which went flawlessly by Mrs. Andrea Walz, and Ms. Ashley Emerson. Over a period of 2 and a half days operating out of KRBE and KANW we flew 20 hours with over 100 passengers, and raised close to $2000 for local volunteer fire departments. For some the flight was a first and others a first in a long time flying in a “4 seater”. The stories these folks told and pointed where the fire started, the names of creeks and canyons below they sat for days keeping the fire contained, and where the infamous Long Pine fire truck was lost was just as exciting to me as flying was for them. The town of Norden was also a flyover point since part of the tiny town was lost due to fire but the large dance hall had been saved. One gentleman explained how a 500 gallon propane tank had black burn marks on the side but had not ignited in Norden. During those two extremely busy days we saw a lot of smiles from community flyers who had not spent much time doing so the previous week. This is to me is what aviation is all about being able to share flight with others especially during a tragedy such as this. In the grand scheme of things it would have been great to spend more time sharing this adventure, and the money that was raised will not cover a fraction of the fuel costs accumulated by fire trucks. However we do see a common good in a community when devastation strikes. Especially in this case many people pulled together to support our firemen using a tank full of water in the back of a personal truck, delivering food to the front lines, or moving cattle and other livestock from danger. This is just one short story. I know there is a bunch more.
If any readers have any more stories I would love to hear them. Email me at email@example.com