In the aftermath of last week’s wildfire, blackened fence posts, telephone poles and trees stand out against the sand left behind, a reminder of the recovery that lies ahead. —Johnson Publications
Holyoke residents joined together to support volunteer firefighters last week, gathering food, drinks and toiletries to send to Haxtun. —Johnson Publications
Logan fire contained; now recovery begins
Over the first weekend following the wildfire, the smell of smoke lingered and the ditches remained filled with sand, but landowners and neighbors were already busy trying to mitigate the damage. Trailers loaded with hay made their way toward Haxtun to keep animals fed, and tractors dotted the landscape, planting oats to minimize erosion.
The grass fire that started near Proctor Monday, March 6, had people working around the clock to control it until Wednesday, March 8, at 5 p.m., when it was finally 100 percent contained. But work did not stop there.
By then, 32,563 acres were lost. Within that 50-square-mile area, four houses and 13 outbuildings were completely destroyed. Many others were damaged, and it will take weeks to assess the impact of lost animals, hay and land.
Colorado Bureau of Investigation is still investigating the cause of the fire.
Locals on the frontline
Phillips County’s part-time emergency manager Bob Heldenbrand first responded to the wildfire as a firefighter, another role he serves in the community. He explained that Holyoke Volunteer Fire Department first responded to a call for mutual aid, along with Haxtun, to assist Logan and Sedgwick County fire departments near Proctor Monday at 11:55 a.m.
HVFD took one SCAT truck, one engine, one tender and one rescue truck, with 11 personnel, and headed toward Proctor. They never made it that far, Heldenbrand said. The head of the fire moved too fast, and they met it at Colorado Highway 55.
In the meantime, farmers across both Logan and Phillips counties began strategic discing to manipulate the path of the fire and protect as many structures as they could. The dust and smoke, combined with persistent high winds, hindered visibility and made already-dangerous conditions even worse.
When HVFD responds to a fire, they do not have prearranged replacements, but Heldenbrand noted Holyoke started bringing in relief around 5 p.m. and then again later to work through the night. They had enough personnel that night that the volunteer firefighters could take four-hour shifts, getting some rest in between.
All the while, Haxtun ambulance service was on standby, and medical personnel had eye-cleaning stations set up for firefighters. Shanda McAllister, a paramedic, and Kellie Race, an EMT, both responded from Holyoke, serving in Haxtun until late Monday night.
After initially responding to the fire, Heldenbrand reported to the Incident Command Post, set up at the Haxtun Community Center, to serve as emergency manager. At 9 p.m., when it became clear that local resources were not enough to control the fire, the incident was turned over to the State.
At that point, Heldenbrand explained, the State sent an Incident Management Team to the ICP to assume control. The IMT was comprised of individuals from both the Jefferson County IMT and Eastern Colorado IMT.
The State also ordered two strike teams to respond to the fire. Each strike team is made up of 10 engines, equipped with identical equipment and personnel. The strike teams arrived during the night, ready to join the firefighting efforts Tuesday morning.
Heldenbrand commented that the change in fighting the fire from Monday to Tuesday was like night and day. Monday the fire spread quickly, traveling at a rate of about 3 mph, and there were about 70 firefighters present. They worked nonstop to save structures that were in the fire’s path. By Tuesday, the fire was still a great concern, but they had a pretty good stop on it and about 90 firefighters on scene.
On Tuesday, the strike teams were divided into three divisions and began a 12-hour shift at 9 a.m. Local fire support, as well as private tractors and water trucks, were assigned to each of the divisions. One worked on the weak side of the fire, with two sent to the strong side — one in Logan County and one in Phillips, at the head of the fire. Local firefighters worked in four-hour rotations.
Working again through the night, trucks patrolled the perimeter of the fire, while firefighters were stationed at hot spots within.
By 5 p.m. Wednesday, the wildfire was 100 percent contained, and the incident was returned to local jurisdiction. The IMT and the strike teams departed, and local departments continued monitoring areas of concern and extinguishing fires for the next few days.
Standing homes, with burnt outbuilding and windbreaks surrounding them, are a testament to the extraordinary work of the firefighters and farmers to save the buildings.
Just as the losses aren’t yet fully known, it is hard to say just how many people were involved in the effort to stop the blaze. Firefighters from at least 25 departments were present, along with a number of farmers volunteering. Phillips County Office of Emergency Management is currently seeking information from those who volunteered.
Anyone who supplied aid to the firefighting efforts with equipment or other in-kind donations should call the Phillips County Administration office at 970-854-3778. Capturing all the volunteer hours is a vital step in the Disaster Declaration recovery process.
Phillips County Sheriff’s Office has also requested photos that anyone has taken of the fire for investigative and resources documentation reports.
Protecting livestock a unique challenge
While last week’s fire yielded no casualties, 195 head of cattle — mostly cow-calf pairs — were killed in Phillips County, and grazing practices will be affected for years to come.
As the fire bore down on the area, the community banded together to relocate livestock and provide temporary housing and food. Countless individuals and businesses provided what they could for those animals.
By last Tuesday morning, the Northeast Cattlemen’s Association board members had jumped to action, forming a Facebook page called NE Colorado Immediate Fire Relief for Farmers & Ranchers. It is described as a place for farmers to help farmers, and in no time at all volunteers began to respond.
Individuals with supplies, such as animal feed and fencing materials, offered them to those in need. Others with trucks and trailers volunteered their services, getting supplies where they needed to go. Still others provided a place for livestock to stay or help relocating animals and fixing fences.
People not only offered their resources from all around the state of Colorado, but also from Idaho to Georgia and several places in between.
Whatever people had to offer, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, along with the Farm Bureau, Premier Farm Credit and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, helped coordinate through the Facebook page.
Fires a continued concern
This time of year, extreme weather conditions make fires easy to start and easy to spread.
According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, northeastern Colorado was in moderate drought conditions in the days leading up to the fire.
Phillips and the surrounding counties have received many red flag warnings, or fire weather warnings, from the National Weather Service in the last few weeks, indicating that high winds and lack of moisture could create high-risk conditions.
March 4-6, several fire departments responded to Hitchcock County in Nebraska for two separate fires. The first, lasting Saturday and Sunday, burnt approximately 2,500 acres. A second nearby fire took 300 acres Monday.
Then, not 24 hours after the original Logan County fire was contained, another fire began near Sterling at Colorado Highway 61 on Thursday at 11:27 a.m. An estimated 683 acres were burned before the fire was contained later the same day.
The same strong winds that drove that Logan County fire toward Haxtun have stoked numerous wildfires throughout Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, resulting in multiple deaths. Three of the largest fires near the Kansas-Oklahoma border have burned more than 800,000 acres combined.
Even as communities are in the recovery phase of recent fire incidents, Heldenbrand is already looking ahead to preparation for future events.
He speculated that local farmers are probably already thinking about the possibility of future fires themselves, but he hopes people will go a step further and be proactive. In the short term, he suggested mowing and removing dead trees and vegetation.
Thinking long-term, he hopes people will take the fire-prone environment they live in into consideration. During construction and landscaping, choices can be made that reduce the risk of fire. Consider leaving areas around homes without vegetation, creating a barrier between natural fuel items and the house.
When red flag warnings are released, heed them, he said. Think about things such as burn barrels and their potential for starting an uncontrolled fire.
Beyond first responders
While the first responders were crucial, there were countless citizens rallying around them to show their support and do what they could to help.
Trailers and carloads of supplies were gathered in Holyoke before being taken to Haxtun. Tuesday, shoppers could be seen purchasing carts full of necessities and taking them directly next door to a trailer in front of the fire station. There Brett and Josie Murray were making arrangements. They shared that Sherman and Christy Kage had gathered materials and delivered them to Haxtun the day before, so they wanted to take a turn.
Josie Murray said that they posted to social media that they were gathering supplies, and the community just responded. She kept the post updated with which items were most needed — drinks, eye drops, deodorant — and the donations showed up. Centennial Mental Health joined in, helping load the donations.
Across town, Merle and Monica Powell helped set up the First Christian Church as a site to collect donations to take to Haxtun.
Merle Powell heard from fellow pastor Jeremy Woodhouse that the Berean Bible Church in Haxtun was helping feed approximately 300 people. Powell offered to transport donations and put the word out to the congregation and the Holyoke Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber spread the word to the community, and the food started arriving. Six carloads of food and drinks were delivered to Haxtun by the end of the day.
Monica Powell noted there are still 15 families who cannot return to their homes for fire-related reasons, and the two churches will continue to work together to provide meals for those families for as long as they need.
Donations of toiletries, cleaning supplies, clothing, furniture and housewares were collected at Pro Till (the former Smith Hardware building) in Haxtun, where the overwhelming number of items have been arranged and made available for anyone who has been directly affected by the fire. Community volunteers are being sought to staff the store 12 hours a day, seven days a week, throughout the initial recovery phase.
Paying it forward
Donations poured in so quickly and met needs so thoroughly that surplus items were loaded into a trailer and sent on to Ashland, Kansas, whose residents are facing their own devastating wildfire.
Phillips County Sheriff’s Office shared on Facebook that they are “incredibly proud of our community’s resiliency that in such a time as this, our own community crisis, we have chosen to lift up others because we know what they are experiencing.”
How to donate
Prompt donations to meet the immediate needs of displaced people, firefighters and other volunteers last Monday and Tuesday helped keep people going while the fire remained a threat. Now that the fire is contained, the need for physical donations has subsided, but there are still ways to give to victims of the fire.
There is an ongoing need for hay, manure, crop cover, oats and fencing supplies. Contact Dan Firme regarding feed/hay at 970-520-0949; Jeff Plumb about fencing at 970-520-6157; Dave Gibson for manure/crop cover at 970-571-5383; and Justin Price about trucking or any questions at 970-580-6315.
Financial donations can be addressed to the Haxtun Chamber of Commerce through the Haxtun Community Federal Credit Union at 229 S. Colorado Ave. Donations can be earmarked for farmers and ranchers in need by noting “agricultural fire relief” in the memo line or to a specific individual or family.
Contributions to the Colorado Farm Bureau disaster fund for farmers and ranchers can be made at https://www.coloradofarmbureau.com/disasterfund or by mail to Colorado Farm Bureau Foundation, Attn: Disaster Fund, 9177 E. Mineral Circle, Centennial, CO 80112. Note “Disaster Fund-CO Wildfire” in the memo line.
GoFundMe pages are still active to receive donations for several fire victims. Search for “Pam Adams Fundraiser,” “Firme Family Fundraiser,” “McConnell Fire Recovery,” “Bill Bruntz Fire Recovery Fund,” and “Lawler Barn Fundraiser” at https://www.gofundme.com.
Help available at Disaster Assistance Center
A Disaster Assistance Center will be held Thursday, March 16, 3-7 p.m. at the Haxtun Community Center at 125 E. Wilson St. All wildfire victims, from both Phillips and Logan counties, are invited.
The purpose of the DAC is to provide an opportunity for individuals to talk to federal, state and local agencies that have resources that might help in recovery.
Agencies represented will include Centennial Mental Health, Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Colorado State Forestry, Farm Service Agency, Logan County Economic Development, Northeastern Colorado Health Department, Natural Resources Conservation Service — Conservation Reserve Program, Red Cross, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, Small Business Administration, Pro Till and a CSU Extension area livestock agent.
County offices will include Phillips County Economic Development, Phillips County Office of Emergency Management, Phillips County Planning & Zoning, Phillips County Assessor and Phillips County Commissioners.