The first five or so miles of the Paxton fire's path.
Early in the morning of Oct. 19, hours after a swift-moving fire swept through Sonia Orr’s rural Keith County home, she, her family and friends were on hands and knees sifting through ash and rubble – all that remained – in search of her wedding ring.
“I just need to find that,” she said.
The fire ultimately scorched 10,000 acres and destroyed three homes, including Orr’s and Willie and Judy Welch’s. The blaze consumed numerous outbuildings, several pieces of farm equipment and acres of crops.
It was first reported shortly after 2 p.m. Thursday. The fire started a mile north of Interstate-80 mile marker 138, between Roscoe and Paxton.
The flames, fanned with harsh northwest winds, quickly spread southeast, jumping I-80 and burning a path 12 miles long and up to a mile and a half wide in Keith County and into Perkins County. Paxton Volunteer Fire Department Chief Kyle Gartrell said the fire traveled the 12 miles in about two hours.
Orr, who was home as the fire raced southeast toward her home, said she was cooking when she smelled smoke. She turned around and saw her bedroom on fire. She said when she ran from her house, the smoke and dust were so thick that she had no idea what direction she was moving.
“I couldn’t go for help because I couldn’t see the road,” she said.
Orr said in those seconds of helplessness, she prayed to God.
“I just prayed and prayed. I said, ‘God if it’s my time, then it’s my time.’ Then, all of a sudden, the wind switched direction and I could see.”
Orr was able to get to her car, and using the edge of the road as a guide, drove away.
“Then, here come my neighbors,” she said.
Together, they watched her house burn.
“It is my home for 24 years,” she said.
Orr said she appreciated the help and caring from her stepson, granddaughter and neighbors.
And, while the loss of her home is tremendously sad for her, she also is grateful.
“That’s one thing, you know, I’m alive,” she said.
Gartrell said the wind blew burning leaves far ahead of the fire’s path.
“There was more than one fire,” he said. “It would start in separate places and burn back together.”
According to National Weather Service Meteorologist Shawn Jacobs at North Platte, wind gusts topping 70 mph were reported. Extremely dry conditions as well as blowing dust and soot contributed to the low visibility.
“We have had reports of zero visibility in Keith County and in areas where tilling had been done,” Jacobs said.
The wind and blowing dirt are also blamed for several vehicle accidents.
According to Nebraska State Patrol Sgt. Jeff Crymble, troopers in the area handled several accidents on Neb. Highway 26, which fortunately did not result in any serious injuries before the road was closed for the afternoon.
Stevens, whose deputies also responded to the vehicle accidents, said the wind definitely was responsible for the accidents.
“The wind and blowing dirt on Highway 26 was so bad, at times you could not see the front of the patrol car,” he said.
In addition to Highway 26 being closed part of the day, I-80 between Sidney and Big Springs and several other area highways were also closed.
According to Nebraska State Fire Marshal Ryan Sylvester, the fire was caused by “the careless disposal of smoking materials” at Korty Cabin, which is owned by Nebraska Public Power District.
Sylvester said the fire was accidental in nature.
While a firm estimate of damages has not yet been determined, the fire marshal said three houses, numerous outbuildings, a combine, a tractor, bale piles and crops were destroyed.
“It’s going to be extensive what the dollar damages are,” he said. Initially, Sylvester estimated the damage at least at $1 million.
“But, I’m sure it’s going to be much higher than that,” he said. “We’re definitely into the millions as far as total damages.”
While no serious injuries caused by the fire were reported, three firefighters were treated for “eye problems.”
In addition to the Paxton, Ogallala, Keystone-Lemoyne and Brule, firefighters and equipment from the departments of Arthur, Benkelman, Culbertson, Elsie, Grant, Hayes Center, Hershey, Hyannis, Imperial, Indianola, Lamar, Madrid, Mullen, North Platte, Red Willow, Stapleton, Sutherland, Trenton, Tryon, Venango, Wallace, Wauneta and Wellfleet helped.
Ogallala firefighter Ken Knoepfel said he has probably been on hundreds of grass fire calls during his career.
“But, I never saw a fire move as fast as this one,” he said.
Hard to keep ahead
Knoepfel said what was crucial in preventing the fire from claiming homes and other property, and possibly lives, was the work from private landowners using their own equipment to create fire lines around property.
“Several farmers had disks out ahead of the fire,” he said. “They took it on themselves. Originally we (firefighters) tried to pinch the (fire’s) flanks, but we decided we needed to do structure protection and had to virtually let the head fire go. There was a truck or two up there, but it was mainly the disks.”
Gartrell said farmers teamed up, disking the same path more than once to bury all flammable residue.
Gartrell said the fire was mostly contained by midnight, although many departments worked throughout the night patrolling the area and extinguishing all remaining fires.
“It was a community-wide effort to get that fire stopped,” he said.
Also providing assistance by alerting residents of the potential of having to evacuate were members of the Keith County Sheriff’s Office, who along with Perkins County Sheriff ’s Office deputies, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission officers and several Nebraska State Patrol troopers went door-to-door in the fire area.
Keith County Sheriff Jeff Stevens said it was stressful. It was difficult to stay ahead of the fire.
Wind speeds averaged 39 mph from the northwest, with gusts to 67 mph recorded at Lake McConaughy.
Jacobs said Ogallala had a peak recorded gust of 69 mph at 11:35 a.m., and wind gusts up to 60s were common throughout the day.
American Red Cross disaster relief workers also were on scene Thursday and into Friday, providing food and drink to those battling the fire, as well as assisting a family that had lost its home.
A fund has been established in the Pony Express Community Bank at Paxton to help the families who lost their home, including Willie and Judy Welch and Sonia Orr, during the fire. Donations may be brought to or mailed to the bank at P.O. Box 128, Paxton, NE 69155.
Bulletin Editor George Lauby contributed to this report.