‘Some lost everything’: Wildfires in Nebraska leave future uncertain


November 8th, 2012

Lincoln, NE – Wildfires have burned 335,000 acres of Nebraska land so far in 2012. That’s a record for the year, but less than one percent of the state’s total area.

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“It was like you were walking on flour or something,” said Todd Semroska, describing the ash that covered much of his ranch after a string of powerful wildfires scorched the area in late summer. “You would step through … (and) it would kind of poof that ground up. I’ve never seen it ever like that. You just walk down through a canyon, and you might sink in two or three inches. It was something.”

Semroska ranches with his wife Sharon near Toadstool Park in the northwest corner of Nebraska. They’ve been hit by wildfires three different times.

Todd Semroska has already had to sell of some of his herd, with plans to sell more. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

This year is the worst year on record for wildfires in Nebraska, with more than 335,000 acres burned so far. The previous record was 250,000 acres, set in 2000, according to the Nebraska Forest Service.
The hardest hit areas this year were northwest Nebraska near Chadron, and 224 miles east on Highway 20 in the north-central part of the state near Bassett.

That’s where 70-year-old Edwin Hall ranches, on land near the Niobrara River that’s been in his family for more than 100 years.

He recently showed a visitor around his land:

“It’s canyon – rough terrain leading toward the river. They were heavily grown with both hardwood trees and cedar trees … very rough. Very rough and rolling-type country,” he said. “Inaccessible, only by horse.”

The canyons along the Niobrara River that form part of Ed Hall’s ranch north of Bassett, Neb. are scorched, burned by massive wildfires in late summer. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

Now, it looks like something from a different planet – shiny black trees everywhere, their spindly branches impaling the sky, roots twisting into charcoal-grey dirt. Hall said trying to fight the fire felt like being inside a cauldron.

Neither Semroska nor Hall lost cattle – at least, not directly. But they lost valuable pasture at a time when hay comes at a premium, and that hurts.

“Hay, you know, was a lot more plentiful in the 2006 fire,” Semroska said. “And you could buy it for $100 a ton delivered, usually. Now, you know, it’s so short and in demand that it’s $250. And I heard a lady on the radio this morning that had some hay for sale for $325!

“It’s just not in the cards. You just can’t pay that.”

About 25 percent of the Semroskas’ land burned. Between Todd and Sharon, his father and a nephew, they run about 500 cows combined. They’ve already sold 100, and say they’ll have to sell all their calves, too.
“There are a lot of people down in the Chadron area, and more toward Crawford area, that just sold out,” he said. “They just lost everything.”

Rancher Ed Hall examines his land after a 75,000-acre fire swept through it in late summer. Hall ranches along the Niobrara River north of Bassett, Neb. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

But it’s not just land that burned: miles of power lines were fried. Doug Fox, regional manager for FEMA for the Bassett area, said KBR Rural Public Power District out of Ainsworth saw $2.5 million in damage from the fires.

And then there are the fences.

“The cost of replacing this fence, in the canyons, is roughly $3 a foot,” said Hall as he drove his truck along the ranch. “So you can kind of experience what that’s going to cost us per mile.”

Three dollars a foot means about $15,000 per mile; Hall said he lost close to five miles of fence.
Back in Chadron, public forest lands lost 150 miles of fence, said John Griesinger, Pine Ridge District Ranger for the U.S. Forest Service. He estimated more than 500 miles of fence were destroyed on private land.

The Semroskas also suffered damage from a big wildfire in 2006; this land was burned during that fire. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

While the fires are over, the damage lingers, and experts and ranchers said the effects will be felt for at least the next several years.

In a way, that estimate is paradoxically optimistic: It implies the ranches will survive long enough to feel those affects. As Todd Semroska said (only half-jokingly), if Nebraska has another dry winter, there won’t be a need to fix the fences.

“If it don’t rain next spring, we won’t have any cows,” he said in his kitchen, the mood somber. “They’ll all be gone.”

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