A major wildfire swept north across pastures in northwest Lincoln County Saturday, as planes and ground crews battled for nine hours to get it contained. Two airplanes dumped loads of water on the head and flanks of the fire and more than 230 firefighters worked below, Lincoln County Emergency Manager Dan Guenthner said.
The fire started about 1 p.m. central time in the north end of a shelter belt trees just across the Keith County line, northeast of Sarben. It was quickly fanned by south-southwest winds and high temperatures.
Firefighters arrived from 44 departments, from as far west as Chappel, and far east as Cozad and as far south as McCook. Some departments left a five-day-old wildfire near Crawford to help in Lincoln County.
Guenthner said the airplanes were vital.
“If not for them, we probably wouldn’t have stopped it Saturday,” he said.
Each airplane dropped 500-600 gallons of water at a time. Prairie Trace Road was considered as a landing and refilling place, but the road is too narrow, so one plane filled in Wallace and another near Hershey.
Ranch homes were evacuated but no buildings were damaged, Guenthner said. The fire stopped at the Birdwood Creek near the McPherson County line, just short of endangering several ranches.
Road graders in McPherson and Lincoln counties stood by if needed.
The fire covered an estimated 20,000 acres, Guenthner said.
It was a massive effort on a long, hot day, he said. Crews fought hot spots through the night and into Sunday morning.
Some crops were damaged toward the south end of the fire, but the most damage was to pastures and several hay piles throughout the fire’s path.
Losses are still being calculated. Guenthner said as much as $25,000 was probably spent in fuel and equipment to fight the fire. And, he noted that grass hay is worth as much as $300 a ton, so the losses to ranchers are considerable.
The cause is still unknown. Guenthner noted that Saturday was the opening day of dove hunting season so it’s possible a hunter was involved, but no conclusive evidence of the cause has been found yet.