Firefighters from throughout the Panhandle continued Friday, Sept. 17, to battle a wildfire south of Gering that began early Thursday evening.
Gering Fire Chief Nathan Flowers said that an estimated 3,600 acres from Robidoux Road to Derringer Road were burned. The fire was considered to be 80% contained as of 5 p.m. on Friday.
Crews from more than a dozen fire departments from throughout the Panhandle were among the departments have responded and provided aid during the fire.
Flowers said firefighters were using mechanical containment lines, which is using graders and dozers to create lines where firefighters can’t be put in, and then using direct lines, or firefighters directly suppressing flames. In other parts, they are using aerial application, or Single Engine Air Tankers, to drop retardant to keep the fire from “slopping down the ridge.”
The SEAT planes “help us keep fires small and allow us to be able to utilize them to protect values at risk,” he said. “We did evacuate some homes due to the wind-driven fire behavior through yesterday (Thursday) into the night.”
SEAT planes are stationed in Chadron or Valentine during the summer, and Banner County Fire Chief Tim Grubbs said the process to request the plane is actually fairly simple, which has been beneficial to area fire departments as this week’s fire is the fourth larger fire that crews have faces this year. Two additional SEAT planes out of Rapid City, as well as airplanes and helicopters with the Nebraska National Guard, are also available resources. Helicopters from the Nebraska National Guard were expected Saturday. Firefighters remained in the area overnight and Saturday to monitor the fire.
The fire has crossed into multiple fire districts, resulting in it being managed by Unified Command between Gering, Lyman and Mitchell Fire departments. The priority part of the fire was the north and east portion as it was impacting residents along Derringer Road, Flowers said. The residents were allowed to return to their homes at 6 p.m. on Friday.
Grubbs said there were one to two areas that were addressed by three SEAT plane drops Friday because of rugged terrain which couldn't be accessed by fire trucks — that have hot spots smoking.
“The majority of it (the fire) is in the grass,” he said of the fire activity Friday. In anticipation of wind activity, he said fire crews focused on a downwind corner of the fire to make sure that it was sealed up “as best as we could.” Grubbs was also among persons who flew over the fire scene Friday morning, looking for areas that had smoke activity to aid in mapping out areas that had activity that needed to be addressed.
Flowers and Grubbs said that no structures have been damaged in the fire. Grubbs said that some power poles in the area were damaged. The fire is believed to have originated due to a downed power line, he said.
Firefighter Ministry has been assisting with efforts on the fire south of Gering, organizer Carissa Schank said.
Schank advised that volunteers assisted with meals and provided items, like water, to firefighters. She said that plenty of donations given in past wildfires are able to be used for the effort.
“We already have a warehouse of items,” she said.
If people would like to donate, she encourages cash donations to Firefighter Ministry as those funds can be used to purchase supplies that are needed by the ministry at any time, for any fire.
Volunteers also assisted with notifying residents who needed to evacuate on Darringer Road. She said that none of those persons needed to be housed by the ministry.
For cash donations, they can be dropped off at the Oregon Trail Community Foundation or mailed to P.O. Box 531, Scottsbluff, Nebraska, 69361.
The Crawford area has also been affected by a wildfire, the Post Fire, which prompted evacuations.
Both Banner and Gering firefighters were on scene at the Crawford fire when they were notified of the Vista Trend Fire. Banner County firefighters were actively fighting the blaze, and were unable to leave the scene of the fire until 9 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 16. Gering firefighters had been on a strike team of nine different departments that had just arrived on scene when notified of the Gering fire.
“We ended up returning after we found out that there was some significant values at risk,” Flowers said.
According to an incident summary update issued Friday morning by the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), the fire has damaged an estimated 1,000 acres and 30 primary structures were evacuated.
Residents in an area four miles south of Crawford — within the area west of Highway 71, south of 4-mile Road, east of Deadman Road & north of West Belmont Road — were advised to evacuate Thursday. Deputies with the Dawes County Sheriff’s Office notified residents. In an update on Friday, about 7 p.m., NEMA reported that pre-evacuation warnings for 4-Mile Road, north to Paddock Street in Crawford had been issued. Emergency plans are in place to assist with evacuation, if needed.
Forty-two fire organizations and more than 100 responders fought the fire. A Small-Engine Air Tanker plane provided air attacks Thursday and the fire had been declared a Type 3 Incident.
Summaries provided Friday said that crews worked Friday to strengthen fireline after overcoming difficulties due to shifting winds Thursday. Challenges of dry weather conditions, high wind challenges, as an anticipated red flag warning were expected for Saturday.
NEMA sent a team of six to Crawford to assist with unified command and the State Operations Center had been partially activated, assisting on both the Vista Trend Fire near Gering and the Post Fire near Crawford. State resources traveled to Gering.
“Two simultaneous wildfires requiring similar resources necessitates the careful coordination of available assets,” NEMA Assistant Director Bryan Tuma said. “We are working with local, state and federal partners to minimize the impact these fires will have on western Nebraska."
Burnout operations were successful for ground crews, a suppression tactic used to stop fire spread. Resources from across the state are scheduled to provide assistance. Additional air assets were ordered to assist with suppression efforts Saturday.
Flowers and Grubbs both acknowledged that it has been an arduous summer for local firefighters.
“We’ve had years when we run ourselves ragged chasing wildfires, but as for the size of the fires, we’ve had an unusual year,” Grubbs said.
Gering firefighters began fighting wildfires in July, responding to Montana, and Flowers estimated that there has been only about 21 days this summer that the department hasn’t had firefighters involved in battling a wildfire.
“It’s been a unique year,” he said. “I think this year is going to rival our largest year, in 2012, at least down here in our neck of the woods.”