Update on Niobrara River Wildfires – July 24, 2012

Some 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. 

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 ok 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.

Here are some photos from today:

This is a photo looking south from the north side of the Niobrara River. The road in the photo is the Norden Road. The unburned area to the east (left) in the photo is part of the Conservancy’s bison pasture that was burned this spring with a prescribed fire, and was subsequently grazed enough that it didn’t burn this week.  You can click on this and other photos to see sharper versions of them.

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The Preserve Headquarters buildings can be seen in the center of this photo – also taken from the north side of the river looking south. Everything around the headquarters has burned, at least to some degree.

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The house where Preserve Manager Chris Rundstrom lives is surrounded by black, where crews conducted a “burn out” – a controlled burn of the vegetation around the house and other headquarters buildings. The burn out allowed the crews to burn the vegetation in a controlled fashion and protect the buildings before the wildfire reached the site. Even with the burn out, it sounds like yesterday was an exhausting day as crews spent the afternoon and evening chasing embers blowing in from the woodland to the south, and worked to extinguish nearby burning trees.

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The Nature Conservancy of Nebraska’s state director, Mace Hack, surveys the scene on the north side of the river. Most of the pines appear to have been killed by the fire, but small pockets here and there will probably survive.

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This photo looks west past the Norden Bridge, showing extensive burned areas north of the river. Much of the area directly across the river to the south of what’s shown in this photo is still unburned.  It’s too early to tell what damage the oak trees will suffer from the fire. The intense heat will likely kill a number of them, but we hope some will come through ok too. 

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Two small areas of active fire can be seen along the south side of the river in this photo – just to the east of the Preserve Headquarters. These burning areas are within larger areas that have already burned, so they’re just being allowed to burn themselves out. The woodlands on the south side of the river burned extensively, but in many areas, the fire was low enough in intensity that many of the trees will probably survive.  As you can see, thousands of acres of sandhill prairie south of the river have burned.

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Conservancy staff members Mace Hack and Jim Luchsinger stand on a bluff along the north side of the river. The prairie communities in the valley will recover relatively quickly from the wildfire, but large areas of pine woodland will be dramatically changed during the long slow period needed for the trees to reestablish themselves. Those who are familiar with the 1989 wildfire at Fort Robinson State Park in western Nebraska, and what that looks like now, can probably use the recovery of that site as an example of what this area will look like down the road. There will be a diversity of plant and animal species that thrive where the pines burned, but the ecological community will be pretty different than it has been – for at least the next several decades.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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29 Responses to Update on Niobrara River Wildfires – July 24, 2012

  1. Wow, I was just looking at MODIS today, and you can see the burn scar in the satellite image. It looks like it managed to get up into the crowns of the ponderosa pines…hopefully recovery there will be something different from recovery in much of the American West (like the areas in NM where my wife does veg monitoring for the Parks Service). Nebraska is not the same as the West, but I can’t help but worry about the resilience of forests that are already on the edge of their distributional limits in the context of present and future conditions. This link to “The West in Flames” by William deBuys was forwarded to me by my wife, Beth Gastineau, via Craig Allan just today: http://bit.ly/O5AeGv

    –Dan Carter

  2. Malia Robinson says:

    Wow! Thanks for sharing the update and photos. I participated in the Nebraska Master Naturalist training at NVB last month with Tracey and the guys up there. All of who were there fell so in love with the place and are really struggling right now. We are on standby to come up and help get things back in order when the time is right!

  3. Pat Halderman says:

    Sad to see. I am from Southern California and lived in the foothills. I have seen many many fires and evacuated many times from our home in the hills and so understand the heartbreak of so much beautiful land burned. The treasured pines and oaks and the wildlife are gone and it is hard to accept, even knowing they will come back, but changed, always changed. When my beloved Cuyamaca State Park in Southern Ca, burned to the ground, all of it, I cried as I helped clean up trails weeks later.
    Thank you for the photos and insight. If volunteers are needed, send out a call for help.
    Pat Halderman

  4. James McGee says:

    Chris, Thank you for your informative post. I did not know about this fire. It is a shame. I camped there as a boy and enjoyed exploring those bluffs. In a land with few trees, it breaks ones heart to lose so much of the small area that supports them.

    James

  5. Sarah Johnson says:

    Thanks for a great overall report Chris. It’s greatly appreciated.

  6. bob mills says:

    Thanks Chris for all the photos and the up date, I have been wanting to get ahold of you to here if the conservancy land was afected, Cheryl and I spend aweek or so in that area every sept. It will look different this year. Thanks for all that you do. bob

  7. Julie Wasser says:

    Thanks for the update, Chris. Thinking of you and everyone working on this.

  8. Steve Clubine says:

    Great photos, Chris; not the kind we would likely see for other sources. The first two and your comments illustrate that patch-burn grazing can function as described, i.e. act as barriers to spread of fire, although it looks like the area on the other side burned from fire that burned around the pb tracts.

    Secondly, some of your readers may not realized that this is a fire adapted ecosystem and protection from fire has been causing it to deteriorate for decades. When were in the Sand Hills and at Niobrara for the prairie grouse meeting several years ago, it was obvious that cedars were spreading rapidly and getting bigger. Nature does take charge when Man fails to manage.

    Steve

    • Ponderosa systems are fire adapted, but not to large-scale crowning. Recovery will require long-distance dispersal from the perimeter, which will take decades or centuries and be contingent on an event like this not repeating over that time. The grasslands, of course, aren’t harmed.

  9. Regards to all at Niobrara Preserve from Australia. Glad to hear people and infrastructure have come through apparently unscathed, and hopefully the cedar has had a bit of a setback. We were there in the mid-1990’s and enjoyed it immensely, especially getting close and comfortable with the bison in their (?)wallows / hollows. Chris, I look forward to a series of photos of the rejuvenation in a year or two, after you’ve had some refreshing rains.

  10. James C. Trager says:

    I’m glad buildings and folk are okay. Looks like you all even managed to save the wood pile by the house (but I’d watch that one!) I can only imagine how utterly wearying fighting fire, or even controlled burning, must be in this heat.
    On the other hand, this makes me even more eager to get up there and finally visit the famed Niobrara Preserve in years to come. There is nothing quite as luxuriant as the recovery of fire-adapted vegetation from a recent fire. Just curious – Is the oak there bur oak?

    (A side note, yesterday I recieved a couple of pictures of the aftermath of a crown fire that raced through Ozark pine-oak forest last week. Very unusual!)

  11. Duke Engel says:

    We were just getting our crew geared up for our annual visit to cut down cedar trees on the preserve this fall. Guess we may be looking at quite a different role this year. However, we aint nuthin if we ain’t flexible. I’m at least grateful that Richard, Doug and Tracey are OK and still have the headquarters intact. It would have been all kinds of hell if we had lost everything. Take care, my friends, and we will be out this fall to do what we can to help.

  12. Carl Wolfe says:

    Chris: Thanks for your update on the fire. I hope you or some of the staff will find time for establishing some permanent photo points so recovery can be followed. What about the wood rat nests and habitat? Carl

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Carl,

      Yeah, I think photo points will be useful too. I’m not familiar enough with the preserve to know exact locations for wood rats. On the south bank of the river, much of the flat grassy areas burned, but the wetter places and much of the deciduous woodland either didn’t burn or just had fingers of low-intensity fires. Parts of the slope with high cedar densities went up pretty well – in places.

  13. Michael Lance says:

    Glad everyone is ok (so far) and the buildings are functional. Priority to extiguish is #1 from my standpoint also. For everyone viewing (and I know I’m preaching to the choir here) shouldn’t this event be welcomed from the ecological standpoint (not the way–just the outcome)? The pretty or picturesque tree lined scenes before were really not indicative of pre white settlement were they? A prescribed fire is close but it is still not like the “real thing”. Have done some burning of the small CRP’s here in the eastern part (100-500 ac/shot) and can say that when an uncontrolled burn occurs on these CRP’s or grassed areas of any size, they produce different initial plant community composites than the ones you are “done with by 5:00 p.m.”. My (limited) observations and hunches show the situational back fires, the directions, durations, fuel amount/position, intensities, post moisture occurance etc.etc.on the uncontrolled ones (fires), govern/produce different specie density and the type of inital colonizers/survivors (more so than on the “controlled” ones). Which I was taught, is supposed to be the way it was before we showed up. During one of these events I suspect that there was a lot roaring but also lot of whispering and slow poking with hops and skips and jumps affecting the plant communities. The “wetland areas” had to fluctuate wildly with the extensive vegetative border expansion and contraction due to the simple hydrology change. I’m not a professional ecolgist but the ones I know, would be dancing and singing (if silently only) for a once in a lifetime chance to view a renovating landscape, of this magnitude, with no other plan in place than Mom’s to follow and note. Extinguish first…………… then observe and don’t dwell over the ash.
    P.S. #2 son (my back burn specialist) is on standby with his National Guard unit to aid if called.

  14. wintersl8944 says:

    I’m familiar with the Preserve (I worked there in the 90’s) and the region in general and, like some of the other commentators, I’m inclined to think the damage that was done was primarily to human property (homes, structures, fences, stored forages, livestock grazing capacity this season) and human values (how we think nature should behave, how we think succession should or should not proceed, how we think grasslands and forests should look). As one of the commentators noted, the herbaceous communities will recover very quickly – as soon as it rains sufficiently things will green up. It may green up before that, I’m not sure how much of a drought they’ve had this year compared to some other parts of the country.

    With regards to the forests (deciduous on the south valley slope, coniferous on the north valley slope), I suspect the post fire conditions in the next few years (even decades) may be closer to a “historical” state than they have been in the last 25 years. The forests on both sides of the valley have been changing dramatically, both in terms of species composition and structure (tree density) as a result of the lack of fire.

    When we talk about ponderosa pine ecosystems being characterized by frequent surface fires and infrequent crown fires, part of that is a function of the fact that frequent surface fires result in a tree density that makes a crown fire difficult to sustain. For many years now, the situation in many parts of the Niobrara Valley (and parts of the Pine Ridge as well) has been one in which tree density has exceeded that point, where it’s only a matter of time before a crown fire occurs.

    So far, society hasn’t been willing or able to restore historic fire regimes in these areas, yet historic fire regimes may be the critical factor in restoring or sustaining biodiversity in them. While I unhesitatingly acknowledge the very real threat that wildfires of this type pose to human health, safety and property, I very strongly believe that efforts to conserve biodiversity in these same landscapes got a substantial helping hand from these seemingly catastrophic events. Even in the areas where pine mortality is high or nearly complete, the resulting ecological communities will for many years be closer to what a restoration practitioner would have directed it towards, with unlimited resources at their fingertips, than what they have been in the recent past. The thing that makes me cringe the most about these fires is what the likely response will be in many areas – a massive misdirection of conservation resources to the planting of new trees. I hope the Conservancy doesn’t engage in that on the Preserve.

  15. Kristen Pelz says:

    Thanks for posting. I was out in Bassett with TNC this spring for prescribed fire training. Have any areas that were burned during prescribed fire operations in the last decade or so burned in this fire? If so, any anecdotal observations about their effects on fire behavior/effects?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Kristen – too early for me to know about the fire behavior and effects. Yes, areas that had been burned in previous years burned again, but I’m not sure if there are differences in the way this fire burned through those areas. It was SO hot and dry, everything just whipped through just about everywhere. The only exceptions were prairies that were burned this spring and then grazed short by bison/cattle. Those mainly stayed unburned this time around.

  16. James C. Trager says:

    Hurrah for these last two thoughtful comments! While I understand the love of place and the quite natural sadness one might have about losses of what is familiar, ecologically, this does represent a renewal, a resetting of the clock and the trajectory, and an opportunity to learn more about the resilience of natural ecosystems, a subject that is near and dear to our blog host. I expect we will hear from him on that point as time goes on, when he recovers from the exhaustion and initial stress reaction to fighting this fire to save important structures and to maintain fire history diversity … (Right, Chris?)

  17. I’m inclined to think that a fire eliminating a solid stand of trees that has reduced understory diversity might lead to a diversity increase, but I am also inclined to think that a savanna state rather than a complete kill at reasonably large scales of the types of trees that are natural to the area (although widely interspersed) reduces opportunities over the coming decades to maximize diversity, because savannas contain more environmental gradients than open grasslands. The resident species pool there is likely much different, but where large swaths of Ponderosa have been eliminated in New Mexico (and not only in the last two years, but even on fire scars from late from 10-30 years ago) many areas are thickets of Robinia and Gambel oak with no regenerating pines and almost no herbaceous layer. Admittedly I am not as familiar with that area, but I am familiar with Ponderosa forests in the west, where large scale crowning is leading to fundamental and persistent changes, and the rate at which new areas are being lost is faster than historic fire regimes can be restored and trees and the understory plant communities and associated fauna can recover.

    I am not saying this because I like to look at forest, I am a prairie guy, and I work in a region where woody encroachment has demonstrably reduced diversity. That said, open Ponderosa woodlands and savannas (or areas that historically there) are something increasingly precious, and in a period of profound and rapid global change, populations near the edges of ranges are particularly vulnerable and also valuable, because of their potential to harbor unique genetic resources for broader conservation.

    I view overly dense stands of Ponderosa the same way I would view an overly dense stand of trees in with a few big oaks on a former savanna in Eastern Iowa…I would love to see them thinned, but I would mourn large scale losses of all or most of the trees, because they are part of the definition of the landscape and essential to the livelihood of a subset of other species they occur with.

    I also don’t view historical conditions as universally sustainable targets (emphasis on universally). The climate is measurably different now from the pre-settlement climate, and it is impossible to escape elevated N and CO2 fertilization and the effects of introduced species. In 80-90 years the best estimates tell us that the mean temperatures where I live, Northeast Kansas, will be approximately what they have been this year (warmer to date than any year in 120 year record). It is obvious that this will profoundly change things (this year asters and big bluestem bloomed in May). And this is precisely why diversity is of maximum importance, and not just diversity of species, but diversity of land cover types, and perhaps one could argue that this fire increased the diversity of land cover types, and that would warrant pondering. I think as people we are too attached to history, and that attachment is defeating to the preservation of the diversity, the species, that we love.

  18. Thanks for providing this information. I’m glad the headquarters and home there are OK. On the news, they said there was some rain last night that helped get some of the fires out. I hope things are going much better today.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Today was pretty low key. Fixing fence and ignoring the remaining little plumes of smoke that are all over – they can’t go anywhere because everything around them is black!

  19. James McGee says:

    To some people trees are not an experiment. They are an oasis of shade in a hostile land. When that comfort has been removed, it is only human to lament the loss.

    James

  20. James C. Trager says:

    I gather that in this case, some good acreage of pine and pine oak stands remain because fire was not allowed to spread into them (maintaining diversity), and that it appears some bigger pines might have survived the fire (affording the opportunity for eventual regeneration). But the climate and atmospheric chemistry changes may throw a monkey wrench into the works.

  21. ewstahlin says:

    Sounds like TNC’s Southern Rockies WFM might be able to help you out as well. Hope you keep them in mind, they are getting released from the Arapaho fire tomorrow. Hope our past Rx efforts helped out…..

  22. Karen Hamburhger says:

    OH………….. FOR THE LITTLE ONES WHO DIED!!!
    PEACE

    Karen

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