Update on Niobrara River Wildfires

News on the Niobrara Valley Preserve

Johnstown, NE | July 26, 2012

Update, August 15
Even with good grass regrowth in the fall, the bison herd had to be reduced in order to get them through the winter.  Click here to learn why and how this was accomplished.

Update, August 4
The Preserve is still closed due to danger from falling trees. 

Things are starting to green up a bit already, despite the fact that there still hasn't been much rain.  Conservation staff are working to determine what this fire will mean for the long term ecological health of the Preserve.  Click here for some thoughts by Eastern Nebraska Program Director Chris Helzer.  

Update, August 1
The Preserve is still closed.  There are still some dangers - falling trees, etc.  Staff are pretty focused on fixing fence in the bison pasture.  We ask that people refrain from smoking due to the continued high fire danger.  Thank you!

Eastern Nebraska Program Director Chris Helzer has written more about what we can expect going forward.  See some photos and read his blog here. 

Update, July 30
The three wildfires burning in north-central Nebraska are now considered 100% contained!  It is still essential to keep an eye out for flare-ups since the weather is still very dry and conditions still merit caution.  The Niobrara Valley Preserve is still closed for now as staff continue to survey conditions and make emergency repairs.  For example, we have lost at least 50 miles of fencing.  Thanks for your continued support! 

Update, July 26
Conservancy fire teams from Iowa, Missouri, and South Dakota were a great help.  Despite not having rain, the weather has eased up a little bit and the overall fires are said to be 50% contained with the picture improving bit by bit. Active fires are thankfully out at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, and “mop-up” work – monitoring embers and smoldering branches – will continue for the next few days. Although we are not expecting more flare-ups, it is hard to predict. 

Eventually volunteer work days will be scheduled. It is not safe for visitors right now. Roads aren’t open yet and tree fall will be a continual hazard. Mop-up has to be completed. We need to finish evaluating the scope of work and needed supplies. We will keep you posted about this.

In addition to mop-up, fences are being repaired as the day's events permit.  Fencing is going to be a big job.  THANK YOU for your concern. 

Eastern Nebraska Program Director Chris Helzer reports from the Niobrara Valley Preserve, July 24

Most of you are aware that there are several wildfires burning along the Niobrara River in north-central Nebraska. As of this morning, the combination of fires had burned an estimated 58,000 acres, and several areas are still actively burning. The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve is included within the area affected by these fires and much of the land within the Preserve has already burned.  Our thoughts now are with the firefighters still battling the blaze and those who have lost homes and livestock.

See a Slideshow

I drove up early this morning to see if I could be of help. By the time I got here, the fire on the Preserve had settled down quite a bit, and the main tasks now are to mop up remaining hot spots and watch for new flare ups. Crews from the Conservancy’s Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri chapters, along with local fire departments and others have been here since late last week. Yesterday was the worst for the Conservancy, as crews worked extraordinarily hard (and successfully) to prevent the Preserve headquarters from burning while embers rained down from the burning woodlands to the south.

While things have settled down quite a bit around the Conservancy headquarters, the fires are still active and dangerous elsewhere. As far as I’ve heard, no one has been seriously injured by the fires, but several homes have been lost and a couple towns have been evacuated. Temperatures continue to be over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with very low humidities and gusty winds.

On Conservancy land, all of the staff are safe, and we think all of the bison and cattle made it through the fire okay too. I’ll post more later when we’ve had more time to assess the situation and think about next steps, but I wanted to get some photos and information out to people who have contacted me (and others) with questions and concerns.

In terms of The Nature Conservancy’s land – which is all I have much information on – the quick summary, as I understand it, is as follows. Most of the Preserve north of the river has burned. About half of the west bison pasture and the majority of the east bison pasture burned, along with a lot of the cattle pastures. As I said earlier, the headquarters buildings are unscathed. I don’t know much more than that at this point.

It’s too early to discuss the ecological implications of the fire very much - the immediate focus needs to be on the health and safety of the people in the area, their land, homes, and businesses. That said, the ecosystems along the Niobrara River will recover. It will look different in the coming years – especially in the woodland areas that burned – but there will be many species and ecological communities that will thrive in the aftermath of this event. For now, however, let’s get this fire put out. 

-Chris Helzer

How To Help

We are so grateful for your calls and emails of support.  In the days ahead we will better be able to assess our needs for volunteers, support, and donations at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  Donate to Niobrara Valley Preserve clean-up efforts today or contact Jill Wells at jwells@tnc.org or (402) 342-0282 x 1002. 

To support the community, the North Central Development Center in Ainsworth is accepting donations for fire departments providing assistance, supplies and support to families in need, livestock feed, and fencing materials. Donations are tax deductible and can be made through PayPal.  Their phone number is (402) 387-2740.  THANK YOU!

The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the web at www.nature.org. To learn about the Conservancy’s global initiatives, visit www.nature.org/global. To keep up with current Conservancy news, follow @nature_press on Twitter.

Contact information

Jill Wells
(402) 342-0282 x 1002

Jason Skold
Director of Conservation Programs
(402) 432-3599

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