The wind kicked up parched earth, blowing it across drought-stricken fields in southwestern Nebraska. In the dry farmland sits Arapahoe, a town of about 1,000 that has one of the few movie theaters in a 30-mile radius and sits at the intersection of two state highways that stretch for miles across the flat landscape.

It was April 7, 2022, when Brian Sisson got the call.

Fire near Arapahoe.

Sisson had extinguished plenty of fires in his 15 years as chief of the town’s volunteer fire department. One time he helped put out a fire that stretched 1,200 acres. But this was different.

“You couldn’t even fathom what you were seeing, what you’re going through, how fast everything moved,” Sisson said as he remembered flames that reached higher than his truck and smoke so thick it felt like his eyes were always closed. “It was just crazy.”

The wildfire burned 30,000 acres. Two weeks later another fire ignited 15 minutes away near the town of Cambridge and burned 44,024 acres. In total, the two fires burned a chunk of land about the size of Omaha and caused nearly $2.3 million in damage, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. It also led to the deaths of two firefighters. By year’s end, 2022 would be the second-most active for wildfires in state history, according to the Nebraska Forest Service.

Wildfires outside Arapahoe, Nebraska in April 2022. Photo by Brian Sisson.

But a year after the wildfires were extinguished, anxieties still smolder.

Climate change, drought and ecological changes are increasing wildfire risks in Nebraska, experts say. Fighting these blazes also introduces challenges for rural fire departments, which are overwhelmingly volunteer-based as well as for residents who have to adjust to these new natural disasters.

“I think it’s still fresh in everybody’s mind, especially the firefighters I have in our department,” Sisson said. “I think a lot of people have seen a lot of things that they don’t want to talk about and experienced a lot of things they don’t want to talk about.”

‘Close to Hell’

As Sisson approached the wildfire outside Arapahoe, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. By 2 p.m. the blaze, later named the Road 739 Fire, spread rapidly as winds whirled at around 60 mph. State Fire Marshal investigators later determined the fire sparked after a tree branch had fallen onto a power line and spread as it ignited dry grass.

The fire was unlike anything Sisson had seen. The air, thick with smoke and ash, reminded him of a blizzard. Several firefighters fled after their trucks broke down to avoid being engulfed in the flames, he said.

“My best description of the initial attack phase would be Hell,” Sisson said. “If that is anything close to Hell, I would never want to visit.”

Sisson manned a 1,200-gallon tanker truck filled with water, at first using it as a refilling station for other trucks but eventually as a way to fight fires in fields. By the time he returned to the station at 1:30 a.m. he saw other firefighters’ eyes, bloodshot from staring through smoke all day. That night he barely slept. By 7 a.m. he was back running incident command, operating on 12-hour shifts with another chief.

In Nebraska, nearly 90% of all firefighters are volunteers like Sisson and his crew, which comes with obstacles.

“[The department’s] trucks are not normally meant to do what we’re asking them to do. You’re asking it to go through heat and smoke,” Sisson said. “So regular maintenance is key.”

While Sisson said there isn’t much he’d change about how his crew fought the fires, radio communication was difficult. Each truck was equipped with a radio; however, not every station of the dozens of departments that responded to the fire used the same frequency. This made it nearly impossible to communicate, Sisson said.

Statewide only 27 of the 429 rural fire departments and ambulance services have radios that can access the Statewide Radio System established in 2010, according to the Nebraska Examiner. During this legislative session, state Sen. Tom Brewer proposed allocating $26 million to outfit units with the centralized communication tool — which can cost about $52,000 per department. As of this writing the bill has not been passed. 

Since last year’s fires, Sisson has been working to supply each of their trucks with multiple radios in case a similar situation arises — which experts say climate change, drought and ecological changes are making more likely.

“Wildfires in Nebraska are expected to increase in frequency because of drier conditions, with more fine fuels and more ignition from lightning storms,” reads a 2015 UNL report. “Combining drier conditions with higher fuel loads will lead to more catastrophic fires with erratic fire behavior … These fires will be more severe, placing entire ecosystems at high risk.”

Drought conditions in Nebraska as of June 8, 2023. Much of the state is in moderate to exceptional levels of drought.

A combination of factors is increasing these risks, including more available fuel.

“The structure of the forest is changing; the structure of the grasslands is changing. So, there’s more fuel that can contribute to a severe fire,” said David Wedin, an ecosystem ecologist and professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s School of Natural Resources.

Wildfires, like campfires, need to build off smaller kindling, such as dry grass, leaves, branches and other brush. Controlled burns have been used throughout history by Native American tribes to clear forests and grassland of this material, but Wedin said the practice isn’t being utilized enough today. 

In Nebraska’s more wooded areas, species such as the eastern red cedar have found a way to thrive underneath taller pines. If a fire catches in the understory of a forest, the shorter cedars create a ladder for the fire, crawling upward and igniting the larger trees. 

“That changes the way a fire behaves from a low-intensity surface fire into what we call a crown fire, a much more intense fire that’s much more damaging, and they’ll often spread over a much larger acreage,” Wedin said. 

Increased frequency and severity of drought in Nebraska also has an effect. In 2012 and 2013, Nebraska experienced some of its worst drought since the Dust Bowl, and for much of 2023 most of the state has been in a severe level of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor based at UNL. Nebraska’s fire season, which was considered to stretch from early-summer to mid-fall, is now a year-round threat, according to the U.S. Department of Environment and Energy.

Mark Svoboda, a climatologist and director of UNL’s Drought Mitigation Center, said he can’t predict the severity of a wildfire season based solely on drought levels, but consistent rain lessens the odds.

“I don’t have a crystal ball,” he said. “We need … good rains to keep down that fire risk as things warm up, dry out and get windy.”

‘I Don’t Know if You Can Say We’re Fully Recovered’

In the week it took to contain the wildfire near Arapahoe, Sisson watched his community come together. Ninety different fire departments, as well as the Nebraska National Guard, converged to quell the fire from April 8-12, he said. Firefighters spent 10 to 12-hour shifts dousing flames or running communications while local farmers joined to protect their own property. Without them, Sisson expects the number of homes lost could have gone from seven or eight to 20.

“I just couldn’t believe how much help we received and how everybody came together and we had one common goal,” Sisson said.

But two weeks later, a second, more severe burn formed 15 miles west near Cambridge, which would later be called the Road 702 fire. Sisson and his crew were once again deployed.

“Everybody was exhausted already from two weeks prior, and we were still fixing trucks and everything,” Sisson said. “It just took the wind right out of me.”

That fire burned up another huge swath of land and led to the death of retired Cambridge Fire Department Chief John P. Trumble, 66. Trumble was acting as a fire spotter when he swerved off the road and was overcome by smoke and flames.

Darren Krull, 54, the Elwood Volunteer Fire Department chief in Gosper County, died in a head-on collision on April 7 in the Road 739 fire. Justin Norris, 40, emergency manager for Phelps County and Sisson’s brother-in-law, was hospitalized with life-threatening injuries from the crash. Sisson and around 15 other firefighters were hospitalized for smoke inhalation.

Those deaths, lost property and memories of wildfires that turned farmland into infernos still linger in southwestern Nebraska.

“On the surface, the community of Arapahoe is doing very well, and if you were not from the area, you would most likely not know that it ever happened,” Arapahoe Mayor John Koller said in an email. “Although, beneath the surface, it is very much a memory that will be on the minds of this community and surrounding area for a very long time.”

Koller said many people in the community are now more aware than ever of the risk factors for wildfires. 

“Especially when the wind blows,” he said.

Many kids from the area also have memories of the blaze, said Reid Stagemeyer, technology director at Arapahoe-Holbrook Public Schools. 

The school quickly became an evacuation site during both the Road 739 and Road 702 fires, housing families and community members who had been displaced due to mandatory evacuation orders. At least one student lost their home, Stagemeyer said.

Sisson and his wife have had their three kids speak to a counselor following the fires.

“If I put myself in my kids’ shoes and I saw that, how would you digest that? You don’t know exactly what’s going on. All you see is smoke. You see orange glow and flames,” he said. “So, a lot of kids, mine included, we ended up taking them to counseling.”

To this day, the fire department tries to warn the school before firefighters ring their sirens, Sisson said.

“I don’t know if you can say we’re fully recovered. I know there’s still a lot of emotion,” he said.

As fires burn Nebraska farmland, pastures and homesteads, local farmers feel an already-volatile industry become more harsh, according to John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union and secretary of the Nebraska Farm Crisis Council.

Calls to the council’s Rural Response Hotline, which connects people with mental health resources in addition to food, legal and other types of assistance, have been increasing. In 2019, the council helped distribute 2,200 vouchers for free mental health consultations. In 2022, the number was 8,600, Hansen said. The vouchers are provided by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, Hansen said, one of the Nebraska Farm Crisis Council’s many partners, which also include the state’s Department of Agriculture, United Methodist Church, Farm Aid and Legal Aid of Nebraska.

The increase could be due to a variety of reasons, according to Hansen, such as more awareness of the program, accessibility to vouchers and advertising. However, the COVID-19 pandemic, inflation and weather have all had impacts on farmers’ mental health.

About half of rural Nebraskans are concerned about more extreme droughts and temperature increases and agree that humans are contributing to climate change, according to the 2022 Nebraska Rural Poll from UNL. Research from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, University of Minnesota and University of Iowa as well as federal agencies also found drought is a major contributor to farmers’ stress levels and recommended early mental health intervention when droughts are identified.

Hansen said if you want to gauge a farmer’s mood, the forecast is a good indicator.

“Tell me if it’s going to rain,” Hansen said. “If so, how much and when and where?”

‘A Lot of Sadness’

In the year since the fires, Sisson said life has moved on for the Arapahoe Fire & Rescue Department. They’re still working on repairing damaged equipment. Sisson also had to let go of the truck he used to fight the Road 739 fire when he passed it on to the Dunning Volunteer Fire Department in central Nebraska.

“I ran in that truck for almost 12 hours, me and another guy, and we had our ups and downs with it,” he said. “By the end of the night, it took us home, and it got me home.”

Sisson has also been working to design and install decals in memory of the two who lost their lives during the fires on every truck at the department in Arapahoe, as well as trucks at other fire departments that helped fight the wildfires. 

At his home, Sisson has framed and hung the American flag that flew above the Arapahoe Fire & Rescue Department during Road 739 and Road 702 fires — moments in his life he will never forget.

“There’s a lot of sadness in these fires,” he said, “and it’s just unfortunate that a lot of bad things had to happen.”

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