Up in Smoke

Residents in central Nebraska could not have been happier to see rain come last week. “Friday was the first day in more than a week that we didn’t see a fire truck rolling through town,” said one Arnold resident. Dry conditions and high winds sent a number of fires out of control last week, causing destruction and devastation across the area. The largest and most devastating of those fires was near the town of Stapleton in Logan County, where for awhile residents were concerned about saving their community. More than 50 fire departments and numerous volunteers battled an out-of-control fire which began Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 4, south and west of Stapleton. The Stapleton fire department was the first to get the call, at about 3 p.m. Tuesday, when it was reported a combine harvesting a bean field had started a fire one and a half miles east of U.S. Highway 83 and just south of the Garfield Table Road. Residents of Stapleton watched the billowing cloud of smoke moving closer. A voluntary evacuation was issued at around 5 p.m., and the Keith County Communication Center’s Code Red Alert via cell phones and land lines was sent out. The fire jumped Highway 83, as it continued in a northwesterly path. It jumped a section of Highway 92 about one mile west of town, where it was stopped at the South Loup River. When the fire was finally contained, the blaze had consumed one home, outbuildings, between 20,000 and 30,000 acres of crops and pastureland, machinery and winter feed. The home and barn of Dennis and Trudy Brosius, located on Highway 83, was lost in the fire. Denny and Trudy were in Taos, N.M. at the time. “It is overwhelming and the process of healing will take time, be we are doing well,” Trudy said in an interview with the Stapleton Enterprise Friday. She says all six of the Brosius children and their families made plans to return to the home. “This has been their home since 1965, and they need to see it,” Trudy added. “We will be rebuilding and go on from here.” The blaze also threatened the home of Trudy and Denny’s daughter and son-in-law, Tony and Bell Meyer, but firefighters stationed at the residence were able to save everything except a small outbuilding and some trees. Gov. Dave Heineman issued a proclamation Wednesday, Oct. 5, declaring a state of emergency in Nebraska in response to the fires in the Stapleton and Logan County area. “This action is necessary as high winds and dry conditions are presenting an imminent threat to local government’s ability to respond,” Gov. Heineman said. “This proclamation allows us to take steps necessary to protect the people and resources of the State of Nebraska.” The response to the fires has included numerous local and volunteer fire departments, the State Fire Marshal’s Office, the Nebraska State Patrol, the Logan County Sheriff, Red Cross, Salvation Army, local emergency management, NEMA, and the Department of Roads. “Early damage estimates are reaching $4 million,” said Al Berndt, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency. “We have reports of damage to 12 pivot irrigation systems; cropland and as many as four homes have been affected. The emergency declaration will help support local response operations.” Air operations were suspended in the fire fight because of high winds. More than 14 loads of water totaling 3,000 gallons were dropped prior to suspension of the air operations. Winds continued to blow Wednesday and Thursday, occasionally gusting up to 50 miles per hour, and worn out firefighters continued to be concerned about flare ups. Two other separate fires broke out near Stapleton Thursday, but were brought under control. One injury was reported from the Tuesday fire at Stapleton. Rodney Winder of North Platte, was transferred to North Platte hospital for smoke inhalation and burns to his eyes. He was life-flighted to Saint Elizabeth’s Burn Center in Lincoln, however his mother reports he has returned home and is recovering well. The fire came right up to the Winder home, where some bales and pasture were lost and damage was done to a granary. While the fire was very devastating and one family has lost their home, firefighters and local residents all know it could have been much worse. The firefighters were able to save 26 homes, sometimes completely surrounding a home just to protect it. Volunteer fire departments from the area who assisted the Stapleton department included Broken Bow, Callaway, Merna, Mullen, Thedford, Anselmo, Arnold, Dunning, Halsey and Oconto. They also received assistance from Custer County Emergency Management, and Ace Flying J of Broken Bow. Many of the Custer County fire departments responded to Stapleton after fighting their own backyard fires. A corn field near Callaway, a soybean field near Sargent, and at least two other fires broke out that same day, with harvesting being blamed for a number of them.