A massive grass fire broke out eight miles west of Thedford Friday, and with visions of 1999 still looming on his mind, Thedford Fire Chief Russ Riser didn’t mess around. He called in reinforcements.
By the time the fire was over, 28 fire departments had answered the call, two firemen were hurt and at least two ranchers took refuge in a stock tank while the fire burned over the top of them.
Comments from area ranchers ranged from ‘freaky’ to ‘just plain awful.’
“It was horrible,” said Riser. “The wind kept rolling the fire back across the black area. We had to have the area swarming with fire fighters just to keep up.”
The constant among the conversations is that the Thedford community is very appreciative of the efforts of the fire fighters and all of the volunteers who came to help. The fire in 1999 burned from Mullen to Thedford and no one wanted a repeat.
Riser said he started calling for mutual aid on his way to the fire and just kept calling.
The fire started on Mike and Janelle Finney’s with the first call coming in from Mike Finney at 2:56 p.m.
“I was two miles north of the house on horseback when my son called. The UTV (ultra terrain vehicle) he was driving started the fire.” He knew the conditions were terrible and was fast to call it in. “We are very fortunate. We ended up with great help and a lot of it,” he said. “We will never be able to thank everyone enough.”
The Finney’s worked to get their cattle out of the way and were initially worried about their house, but the fire shifted east. Finney said they lost roughly one-third of their pastures.
“Fear is what goes through your mind,” said Mike. “The first thing you worry about safety.”
Riser believes 8-10 ranches were impacted by the blaze.
Carolyn Warner is one of those ranchers with a story to tell. She, her husband Frank, and a neighbor, Kyle Yrkoski, grabbed the sprayer as soon as they saw smoke, and went out to move some cows out of the way.
They had backed the pickup to the tank to fill up the sprayer when the wind changed directions, and the line of fire came straight at them.
Carolyn and Kyle jumped into a 30’ horse tank and Frank took refuge on the other side of the windmill. The fire went over top of them. It was moving that fast.
They weren’t hurt but did end up wet, and being wet was just fine, said Carolyn. With the wind and the fire, they didn’t stay that way very long.
Carolyn did note that they lost their summer pastures, so are looking for grass to rent for about 100 pairs.
Two firefighters from Valentine were not as lucky. One was transported to the hospital at Valentine, and the other to the burn unit at St. Elizabeth’s in Lincoln, reported Incident Commander John Thomas. One of the firefighters was released Saturday, thankfully, said Thomas, the other was due to be released the next day.
“They were lashing out at one of the fingers (of the fire) when the fire broke out behind them,” Thomas said.
Riser reported that the firefighters had plenty of water, and great help. The fire pretty much stuck to the top of the hills and that was good, but it was the wind that got them.
“It was one of those days when everyone dropped what they were doing to drive to Thedford to help put out our fire, and we’ll sure do the same for them,” said Thomas.
“The majority of those folks are volunteers. They do it for their communities and they did it for ours. About everyone who had a spray unit was out there doing something.”
Pilot Ace Jungren was one of those called in to fight the fire from the air. He readily talked about the wind.
“It was really, really wind,, with gusts of over 50 miles per hour,” he said. He reloaded each time at the Thedford Airport and said he didn’t need the entire runway to take off.
“We got eight loads on the fire and got it stopped.” The ‘we’ he is talking about is his airplane and himself, and the massive number of volunteers.
“We’re in this together,” Jungren said of his plane. “It’s a partner in this deal.”
The wind was blowing so hard the sand was blowing off the top of the hills drastically reducing visibility. He was in the air a little over three hours.
“I was more tired after those three hours than a full day of flying,” he said. “It took a full time effort just to keep the plane right side up.”
There were a lot of folks out there with gunny sacks and 4-wheelers, he added.
He said it took 45 minutes to get to Thedford because of the wind but only 20 to get home.
The fire was declared under control at 6:04 p.m., with some spots burning through noon Saturday.
The goal was to keep it off the structures, and to keep it south of Highway 2 and west of Highway 83.
The team effort of everyone involved is what made the difference, said Thomas.
“It was the combined effort of everyone that made this day not turn into a disaster. “