'Some lost everything': Wildfires in Nebraska leave the future uncertain

Twenty-five percent of Todd and Sharon Semroska's land was burned in late-summer wildfires. The Semroskas ranch west of Chadron in the far northwest corner of Nebraska. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Todd Semroska has already had to sell of some of his herd, with plans to sell more. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
The Semroskas also suffered damage from a big wildfire in 2006; this land was burned during that fire. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Land burned in the recent wildfires on Todd and Sharon Semroska's ranch west of Chadron, Neb. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
The almost-black dirt at the front of this picture is land that was burned in a massive wildfire in northwest Nebraska this summer; the field behind it survived unscathed. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Sumac is about the only plant that's made a comeback in areas of Hall Ranch burned by wildfire in late summer; rancher Ed Hall worries invasive species like sumac will fill the ground before the native grasses can recover. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Rancher Ed Hall didn't lose any cattle to the wildfires that swept through the Niobrara River Valley this summer, but faces upwards of $75,000 in fence repairs. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Rancher Ed Hall examines his land after a 75,000-acre fire swept through it in late summer. Hall ranches along the Niobrara River north of Bassett, Neb. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
The canyons along the Niobrara River that form part of Ed Hall's ranch north of Bassett, Neb. are scorched, burned by massive wildfires in late summer. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
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November 8, 2012 - 6:30am

Wildfires have burned 335,000 acres of Nebraska land so far in 2012. That’s less than one percent of the state’s total area – but it’s 85,000 acres more than the previous record. For today’s Signature Story, NET News reporter Hilary Stohs-Krause traveled to Sioux, Dawes, Keya Paha and Rock counties to talk with those affected by the flames.

“It was like you were walking on flour or something,” said Todd Semroska, describing the ash that covered much of his ranch after a string of powerful wildfires scorched the area in late summer. “You would step through … (and) it would kind of poof that ground up. I’ve never seen it ever like that.  You just walk down through a canyon, and you might sink in two or three inches. It was something.”

Semroska ranches with his wife Sharon near Toadstool Park in the northwest corner of Nebraska. They’ve been hit by wildfires three different times.

This year is the worst year on record for wildfires in Nebraska, with more than 335,000 acres burned so far. The previous record was 250,000 acres, set in 2000, according to the Nebraska Forest Service.


"Experts say Nebraska's massive wildfires could be a 'new age'"

Wildfires ravaged hundreds of thousands of acres of Nebraska land in the last few months, but while the flames have been quenched, the damage remains – and experts say this isn’t the last we’ve seen of major wildfires. NET News reporter Hilary Stohs-Krause has more on the recovery process – and lessons learned – in this Signature Story.

Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause,
NET News

Rancher Ed Hall examines his land after a 75,000-acre fire swept through it in late summer. Hall ranches along the Niobrara River north of Bassett, Neb.  

The hardest hit areas this year were northwest Nebraska near Chadron, and 224 miles east on Highway 20 in the north-central part of the state near Bassett.

That’s where 70-year-old Edwin Hall ranches, on land near the Niobrara River that’s been in his family for more than 100 years.

He recently showed a visitor around his land:

“It’s canyon - rough terrain leading toward the river. They were heavily grown with both hardwood trees and cedar trees … very rough. Very rough and rolling-type country,” he said. “Inaccessible, only by horse.”

Now, it looks like something from a different planet – shiny black trees everywhere, their spindly branches impaling the sky, roots twisting into charcoal-grey dirt. Hall said trying to fight the fire felt like being inside a cauldron.

Neither Semroska nor Hall lost cattle - at least, not directly. But they lost valuable pasture at a time when hay comes at a premium, and that hurts.

“Hay, you know, was a lot more plentiful in the 2006 fire,” Semroska said. “And you could buy it for $100 a ton delivered, usually. Now, you know, it’s so short and in demand that it’s $250. And I heard a lady on the radio this morning that had some hay for sale for $325!

“It’s just not in the cards. You just can’t pay that.”

About 25 percent of the Semroskas’ land burned. Between Todd and Sharon, his father and a nephew, they run about 500 cows combined. They’ve already sold 100, and say they’ll have to sell all their calves, too.

“There are a lot of people down in the Chadron area, and more toward Crawford area, that just sold out,” he said. “They just lost everything.”

But it’s not just land that burned: miles of power lines were fried. Doug Fox,  Emergency Management Agency director for the area burned, said KBR Rural Public Power District out of Ainsworth saw $2.5 million in damage from the fires.

And then there are the fences.

“The cost of replacing this fence, in the canyons, is roughly $3 a foot,” said Hall as he drove his truck along the ranch. “So you can kind of experience what that’s going to cost us per mile.”

Three dollars a foot means about $15,000 per mile; Hall said he lost close to five miles of fence.

Back in Chadron, public forest lands lost 150 miles of fence, said John Griesinger, Pine Ridge District Ranger for the U.S. Forest Service. He estimated more than 500 miles of fence were destroyed on private land.

While the fires are over, the damage lingers, and experts and ranchers said the effects will be felt for at least the next several years.

In a way, that estimate is paradoxically optimistic: It implies the ranches will survive long enough to feel those affects. As Todd Semroska said (only half-jokingly), if Nebraska has another dry winter, there won’t be a need to fix the fences.

“If it don’t rain next spring, we won’t have any cows,” he said in his kitchen, the mood somber. “They’ll all be gone.”



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