AINSWORTH, Neb. — Mike Tuerk watched his north-central Nebraska home go up in flames Sunday, but he said he didn't have time to fret about details such as where he would stay the night.
“When this gets over, I'll know then,” said the Keya Paha County Board member. “We're just fightin' fires right now.”
Tuerk's home near the river on Turkey Creek Road was among a half dozen destroyed in a rabid brush fire in the rural Niobrara River valley bordering South Dakota.
All residents of the valley from the Norden Bridge east to U.S. Highway 183 have been told to evacuate.
Officials said Monday that more fire crews have been sent to help battle the flames.
Susan Ford, a spokeswoman for a federal interagency management team that's been dispatched to help local and state agencies with the wildfire, said three more ground crew teams of about 20 firefighters each are expected on the lines soon, replacing some local volunteers.
Winds gusting to 30 mph are expected to fan the flames.
Ford said an overnight aerial survey using infrared technology provided officials with an updated estimate of about 50,000 acres burned, compared with previous estimates approaching 100,000 acres.
She couldn't confirm a previous estimate that the fire was about 50 percent contained.
Officials on Monday also said a vehicle accident injured two firefighters. Further details were unavailable.
A U.S. Forest Service management team took charge of the fire after officials elevated it to a Type 2 on Sunday, said Douglas Fox of the Region 24 Emergency Management Agency. In that scenario, an incident commander is called in to coordinate efforts with the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency and local officials.
Tuerk said he fought the blaze until about 12:30 a.m. — saving his horse and vehicles — and then the wind shifted, ending that battle.
“It shifted, and almost instantly, everything went up in flames,” Tuerk said.
Dismissing his nonstop work on the fire since then, Tuerk said any accolades should be directed to volunteer firefighters.
“They're tremendous,” Tuerk said. “They've worked nonstop, in some cases for over 48 hours.”
At least 300 people from more than 35 fire departments across western Nebraska have been battling what authorities are calling the Fairfield Creek Fire. The fire began with a lightning strike Friday morning in neighboring Brown County before jumping the Niobrara River from south to north and moving through the village of Norden.
Three Black Hawk helicopters from the Nebraska National Guard have emptied 16,416 gallons of water in 27 drops, said Jodie Fawl, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.
“There are more firefighters than I've seen in a lifetime, I can tell you that,” said Paul Carpenter, a volunteer helping Sunday at the Ainsworth Fire Hall.
Most of the professionals and volunteers came from South Dakota and surrounding counties in north-central Nebraska. Residents fortified them with food and cold drinks — which were vital, as temperatures climbed as high as 105.
Dozens of the firefighters stopped Sunday at the Turbine Mart in Springview to fuel their vehicles and pick up water, Gatorade and food. It was one of the few businesses open Sunday where such items could be grabbed. Someone set up a grill in the store's parking lot to provide a quick, free meal.
Business is typically bustling at the convenience store on a hot summer Sunday, manager Kayla Schrantz said. But the usual customers are Niobrara canoeists.
Most of the firefighters battled the large blaze west of Springview that consumed miles of canyon terrain. Others headed to a smaller fire east of town.
The hot, dry weather has provided fuel for other wildfires in Nebraska. And in some cases, rain has not helped.
Four fires, believed to be triggered by lightning, broke out in Nebraska's Dawes County in rugged terrain with limited access for vehicles, Fawl said.
Two other fires broke out in Grant County, near Ashby and Hyannis. Their cause had not been determined.
New storms developed in the Panhandle on Sunday, but authorities were not certain if they would help douse any of the wildfires or spark new ones with lightning strikes.
In Keya Paha County, firefighters stopped their efforts about 7 p.m. and were to resume today, Fawl said.
“We're estimating that the fire is 50 percent contained,” Fox said about 5 p.m. “But we don't know what will happen tomorrow when the big winds come back. We could be right back where we were Saturday.”
Brad Fiala, chief of the Ainsworth Volunteer Fire Department, told KBRB Radio on Sunday that some residents didn't want to leave the area. He said Monday's forecast of winds between 20 and 30 mph mean the fire could spread very quickly.
“(Residents) don't want to leave, but if you wait for the fire to get to your house, it's too late,” Fiala said. “We're praying we can get it stopped.”
One of the homes destroyed was in Norden, a village that sits on the western edge of Keya Paha County and has a population of less than 50, and four others along the Norden Road.
Cheryl Evenson was frantically making plans Sunday to drive from Omaha to Keya Paha County to be with her husband, who she said was left with just the work clothes on his back.
Evenson said the home she and her husband had been building for eight years along Norden Road was obliterated. Their kittens were burned in the fire. Their canoe melted. Their camper was left “twisted up in the air like a statue.”
“I am crushed. I am shocked,” Evenson said. “We have been like pioneers. For eight years we've been building ...”
Evenson said her husband, Lyle Dencklau, was staying with someone overnight but had spent most of Sunday at his job at the Prairie Club outdoor recreational area.
He had been at work Friday, and before he could get home, it was gone.
Jerry Mundorf on Friday morning was with friends repairing fences when he saw lightning strike. It was dry — only sprinkles fell — but they saw lighting and heard thunder. Smoke appeared to have been rising from south of the Niobrara River, he said.
His house and ranch of 2,600 acres of leased and owned canyon land sat on the north side. But by afternoon, the wind shifted and the fire jumped the river.
The change was so quick that Mundorf evacuated the house with just the clothes he was wearing. He said some of the hardest things to lose were the home's wood cabinets, furniture and finishes he handcrafted.
In an interview Sunday, he said he was bewildered by the brush fire that destroyed the ranch house he built more than 30 years ago, but left untouched a nearby woodworking shop and gazebo and three rental cabins on his property.
“It's kind of a crazy fire,” the rancher and semi-retired educator said. “It took some things and left others.”
Firefighters built three firebreaks Sunday, Fox said, with the first one leading from the river up to the ranch land above the north side of the Niobrara River and about five miles west of the unincorporated town of Meadville where eight families live. The other two firebreaks were built in canyons near the Cherry County-Keya Paha County line and the Cherry County-Brown County line.
Later Sunday, the wind had shifted and the fire got past one of the man-made firebreaks, said Tuerk.
The Black Hawk helicopters stayed busy carrying water from the Cub Creek Recreation Area, about 10 miles west of Springview, to dump on the fires.
No life-threatening injuries have been reported, said Tuerk and others. He said there have been other fires in the area, “but nothing like” the latest.
The fire was six to seven miles wide as it moved through Keya Paha County north of Nebraska Highway 12 on Saturday.
The fire jumped the river again Saturday night — that time north to south — and consumed two more homes about eight miles west of Norden.
On Sunday, about 85 area residents were staying at a Red Cross shelter that was opened at the Ainsworth High School. Other people who had evacuated were staying with relatives or friends.
Fox said two Ainsworth firefighters were injured and taken to the Cherry County Hospital in Valentine. He described their injuries as broken ribs and lacerations. Other firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion.
About two dozen Springview residents set up tents and tables near the intersection of U.S. 183 and Nebraska 12 to grill food for firefighters. Donations of water and sports drinks were being dropped off at the fire halls in Ainsworth, Springview and Valentine.
World-Herald staff writer Jeff Beiermann contributed to this report.
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Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that FEMA would take over the firefighting operation.
This report contains information from the Associated Press.