Fire In the Hole
By Rev. Ray Wilke
Summer of 2012, Springview, Ne. The fire, black, yellow, green and orange, curled and snarked above our heads to a height of more than three hundred feet. We’d been in the canyon twenty miles west of Springview all morning looking for cows, our four-wheelers sometimes negotiating the steep walls of the canyon and sometimes not.
After several hours of searching, we finally came upon thirteen cows with their calves, grazing in a narrow patch of grass near a small stream that ran through the middle of the canyon. Thirty-seven cows with calves seemed to have disappeared in the fire that consumed the entire east wall of the canyon.
The front of the fire, now moving south and consuming all pines, cedars, grass, and a cabin in its path, was two miles south and seemed to be continuing in that direction. We drove to the plateau atop the canyon walls trying to assess the path of the fire, then made plans to move back into the canyon to try to rescue the cows and calves that we’d spotted. We were within one hundred yards of the cows when the inferno came hard upon us. Undetected, the wind had shifted toward the northwest and was driving the fire up the west wall of the canyon at a reported speed of thirty-five miles per hour. In two minutes it charged like a locomotive on fire directly upon us. Somebody hollered, “Let’s get out of here!” All four scooters revved with a single roar as we scampered up the canyon wall, the heat of the fire warming us from behind.
Atop the canyon wall, the young girls in our troop wept quietly as they watched the fire roar north, consuming the entire west wall of the canyon. They were certain that the cows they’d help calve out last March were now lying dead in the bottom of the canyon alongside their babies.
As we were leaving the area one of the ranchers asked if we’d help move five hundred cows with calves out of the path of the fire should it jump highway twelve and move into the refuge where the herd was huddled. Five separate herds had run together as they fled the fire. Now it threatened the section north of the highway. A half dozen scooters and pickups roared across the prairie as we attempted to move that massive herd of mixed cows east and out of harm’s way. Five gates and two miles later the cows settled down to await the whim of the fire. Sure enough, within half an hour, the fire, sparks flying aloft, did leap the highway and made its unwelcome way into the pasture where the big herd had formerly taken temporary refuge.
It was four days later when we got word that someone had spotted some black cows down in the scorched canyon. They were the ranchers whose cows we’d moved to safety. They went searching for our cows all morning Friday last. Then came the welcome news that they had found all fifty cows with calves at side, five miles up the scorched canyon. The cows had run ahead of the fire and moved onto the black fire-land as the fire drove northward. Two bulls came trailing after.
How moving to watch rough-hewn ranchers and ordinary town-folk work in total harmony against a common enemy. Water, food, hay, comfort, relief, a shoulder to cry on, whatever needed, there was someone at hand to lend a hand, and with a good-natured smile to boot.
As we were loading the cattle to haul them home I asked one of those magnificent fellows if there was anything they needed with which we might help. Without any hesitation at all they all chimed in, “We need posts and wire to fix the miles of fence that the fire ate.” So Orphan Grain Train is trying to put together semi loads of posts and barbed wire. We are able to get the best possible price by going directly to the manufacturer and then haul directly to the ranchers. It would be great if you could help.