Area firefighters battle Nebraska blazesColome and Winner volunteers working for no pay at 3 fires.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
COLOME — Firefighters from two towns in south-central South Dakota are helping battle a series of fires burning just across the border in Nebraska.
The Winner and Colome fire departments are sending firefighters and equipment to extinguish the blazes. The firefighters, all volunteers, are doing so without any promise of compensation.
Colome Fire Chief Glenn Sealey said almost all his 21 firefighters have taken a turn on the fireline, and temperatures that have soared above 100 have made the work even more difficult.
“It’s been pretty brutal,” Sealey said.
He said when the firefighters return to the Colome station, they look as if they have been “brought through the doorknob backwards.”
Three fires were burning in north-central Nebraska Tuesday afternoon and had blackened nearly 100 square miles and destroyed at least 10 structures, including two homes. They have been named the Fairfield Creek, Wentworth and Hall fires. All are near the Niobrara River. The fires are burning in ravines and draws on sides of the river, through heavy grasses, brush and cedar and small pine trees, according to Nebraska Emergency Management Agency public information officer Mike Wight.
“Those burn very quickly and very hot,” Wight said. “They are hard to control.” All three fires are believed to be started by lightning, he said. The Fairfield Creek and Wentworth fires started Friday evening and the Hall Fire sparked to life Monday night. Three firefighters have suffered minor injuries, Wight said. He called the weather conditions “just horrible — too hot, too dry and too much wind.”
Temperatures hit 107 in the region Tuesday.
The Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team 2B is working to control the fires. The interagency team is coordinating the fire suppression effort with about 30 other units that are involved. Wight said.
The largest by far is the Fairfield fire, which has covered approximately 90 square miles. The Wentworth and the Hall fires have rolled and jumped across another 6 miles.
Colome Assistant Fire Chief John Hofeldt, 48, has been a firefighter for 28 years and the No. 2 man in the department for 20 years.
He’s a veteran of battling blazes and has fought wildfires in the Black Hills a few times, he said Tuesday. But Hofeldt said working amidst canyons and thick trees makes this a dangerous and tricky endeavor. They are back-burning to remove brush and shorter trees, he said, trying to keep it from jumping the line.
“When the fire gets going in those trees it creates its own updraft,” Hofeldt said. It can change direction and send embers floating through the area. Last weekend, fire crews were trying to save a “high-dollar home,” but it wasn’t possible, he said, since there was too much fuel around the place.
“It just wasn’t savable where it was at,” Hofeldt said. “There was nothing they could do, they had to get out and let it go.”
The Colome and Winner firefighters are working as a team.
They go to the fireline together and are using a four-wheel tanker, which holds 1,225 gallons of water from Colome, and a pumper truck from Winner, according to Fire Chief Sealey.
The community is rallying to support the firefighters, donating water, juice, ice and food, Sealey said.
The firefighters are volunteers and are not being paid for their efforts.
In fact, Hofeldt, a rural mail carrier, took a vacation day Tuesday to keep working on the fire. The state of Nebraska does not allow volunteers to be paid, Wight said, but departments can be compensated for their expenses.
Colome lost a $500 nozzle Saturday night while trying to protect a home, Sealey said. A house Colome’s firefighters were trying to protect was overtaken by the fire and they had to leave the scene quickly, he said.
So far, no South Dakota firefighters have been injured, Sealey said. They are tired and suffering from heat exhaustion, but he said they won’t stop.
“Nobody’s said anything to me and they won’t,” he said. “They want to go down and they will go down again.”