Andrew Wegley – Lincoln Journal Star, Neb.
Oct. 25—KRAMER — Though the full extent of the damage caused by a pair of Sunday wildfires in southern Lancaster County remained unclear Monday, officials emphasized that the quick actions of scores of firefighters and area farmers prevented further devastation.
The fires — one near Firth and the other surrounding the Olive Creek State Recreation Area — threatened residents and their possessions for much of Sunday afternoon, injuring two firefighters, destroying at least three homes and prompting evacuation orders that lasted into Monday.
“Farmers in the area did a great job of, on their own, getting into tractors, getting their discs out and creating firebreaks around residences in that area,” Sheriff Terry Wagner said at a Monday morning news conference, where he appeared alongside representatives from the county board, the county engineers office and the Lincoln-Lancaster County Emergency Management Agency.
“It speaks volumes for the volunteers, of the farmers, knowing what to do and just doing it,” the sheriff added. “It wasn’t organized at all. But it was well-orchestrated.”
Officials estimated at least 100 farmers mobilized Sunday afternoon — before and after officials asked residents to turn on irrigation systems to help to slow the blaze.
The worst of the damage came from the fire nearest Olive Creek Lake, which burned a 6-square-mile area between Southwest 86th and Southwest 100th streets from Gage Road to Panama Road, sheriff’s Capt. Mike Scriven said.
At least two of the three houses destroyed were in the same stretch of West Wendelin Road, just off Southwest 100th Street.
The other fire, near Firth, was contained by 6 p.m.
Two firefighters — both of whom were volunteers with the Crete Fire Department — were injured after the wind shifted and a strong gust blew the flames toward them as they fought the Olive Creek fire, Crete Fire Chief Tod Allen said Monday evening.
Firefighter Brad Elder suffered burns on 20% of his body — mainly his legs and lower back — and remained hospitalized Monday evening, Allen said.
Elder, who is a biology professor at Doane University and oversees the university’s prescribed burn program, is well-known in the firefighting community and has nearly three decades of experience conducting controlled burns and fighting wildfires.
The other firefighter suffered blisters to his face, Allen said.
“We’ve got some worn-out firefighters,” said Allen, who noted that his crews didn’t get home until 3:30 a.m. Monday. “I just couldn’t be more proud of them. They had a fight on their hands and they stepped up and handled it, along with all the other departments. This thing put up a hell of a fight.”
Officials did not offer damage estimates Monday morning, but Scriven said at least three homes and several outbuildings were burned. No civilian injuries were reported.
Heather Dahlke’s acreage was spared, but the 35-year-old Lancaster County woman watched as a barn burned at her nearest neighbor’s acreage along Southwest 100th Street.
Dahlke and her husband, a sheriff’s deputy, had been traveling to Omaha on Sunday when a dispatcher called and warned that the wildfire was nearing their home, where their dogs were.
Near Waverly when they got the call, the couple turned around and began to make a plan for what items they needed to grab when they arrived back home.
They arrived home after the first evacuation order — which came at 2:44 p.m. — had already been broadcast, packing a few belongings as they watched a wall of smoke descend toward the house they’d built in 2017.
“We sat, and I said, ‘As soon as it hits our tree line, we’re out of here,” Dahlke recalled from her front porch Monday afternoon. “And then literally right when that happened, the fire department came down and they were like, ‘Hey, you guys have got to get out of here.’”
The Dahlkes fled to a friend’s house a few miles north and waited for news.
A neighboring farmer and friend disced near their property line, and firefighters hosed the treeline separating their acreage from the flames. Authorities knocked down a wall on the couple’s 32-foot pool, drenching the land behind their house.
“They saved this from getting much worse than it could have,” Dahlke said of the area farmers, before referencing the neighbor who disced her family’s land. “He literally saved our house.”
It’s unclear how many county residents had to flee Sunday afternoon, officials said. Lincoln Southwest High School opened its doors as an evacuation center, but only one family had arrived there when Wagner stopped by the school at 8 p.m. Sunday, the sheriff said.
LPS has an agreement with the Lincoln-Lancaster County Emergency Management Agency that allows the agency to use school buildings in case of emergencies.
Southwest was chosen Sunday because of its proximity to the evacuation zones.
The Lancaster Event Center allowed area farmers to use its northeast Lincoln facility to house livestock overnight. Scriven said at least 70 head of livestock had been relocated to the fairgrounds. And at least a dozen dogs were rescued and taken to the Capital Humane Society.
The Lancaster County Emergency Management Agency declared a disaster at about 6 p.m. Sunday, director Jim Davidsaver said. The declaration allowed local authorities to request help from state and federal agencies — including water drops from state aircraft — but Davidsaver said those resources weren’t available Sunday evening.
The fire was fueled by exceptionally dry conditions, unseasonably warm temperatures and a ceaseless wind.
A red flag warning had been in effect for central and eastern Nebraska, including Lancaster County, until 8 p.m. Sunday. The National Weather Service said winds from the south gusted as high as 55 mph.
That same wind may have spared the area from lingering air-quality issues.
Sean Flowerday, a Lancaster County commissioner, said air readings were deemed acceptable soon after the fire was contained at about 9 p.m. Sunday. He indicated the high winds played a role in the quick dispersing of air particles.
At least 120 firefighters from 19 agencies responded to the fire, officials said Monday. And close to 50 law enforcement officers from Wagner’s office, the Nebraska State Patrol and the Saline County Sheriff’s Office were also deployed.
“It came together so quick,” Flowerday said. “That was really the amazing part of all this, was that everyone showed up so quickly to try to address this pretty massive issue that, frankly, could have been a lot worse.”
County engineers worked overnight to inspect bridges in the area, all of which were cleared for travel. The State Fire Marshal Agency will investigate the cause of both fires, which remained undetermined Monday.
The sheriff cleared area residents to return to their homes at about 9:30 a.m. Monday, but the area remained restricted to nonresidents as authorities worked to clear debris from roadways, wrangle loose livestock and make sense of one of the largest wildfires in Lancaster County history.
“Not in my memory,” said Wagner, who has been sheriff since 1994. “I don’t remember a fire of this magnitude occurring.”
The sheriff personally checked in on the Dahlke family as he surveyed the fire’s aftermath Monday.
The flames nearly made it to an outbuilding on the Dahlkes’ 31-acre property and had caused minor damage. Dahlke’s husband had stayed up all night to keep watch, finally falling asleep at 10 a.m.
And Heather Dahlke spent her Monday morning the same way she’d spent much of her Sunday: watching droves of cars and tractors drive down Southwest 100th Street, where neighbors and strangers had come to help.
“It’s just — a good place to live,” she said. “Really good people.”
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