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Game and Parks grateful for firefighting partners

Volunteer firefighters and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission staff join forces to ignite a back burn during the Hubbard’s Gap Fire. (Photo by Justin Powell)

ALLIANCE, Neb. – The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission credits the outstanding work of volunteer fire departments and other responders in limiting damage from two Panhandle wildfires in late August.

The Hubbard’s Gap Fire in the Wildcat Hills south of McGrew burned about 4,000 acres, including more than 60 percent of the land at the 1,829-acre William’s Gap Wildlife Management Area. During the same period, the Aristocrat Fire burned about 400 acres in the Pine Ridge 3 miles south of Chadron.

Along with air tankers, helicopters and dozens of responders on the ground, more than a half-dozen Game and Parks employees sprang into action with their wildland firefighting rigs, known at Type 6 engines, and other equipment.

Wildlife manager Matt Steffl of Chadron said a strong working relationship with local volunteer fire departments, the U.S. Forest Service and the Nebraska Forest Service was key.

“Our staff training on fire behavior and prescribed fire techniques, along with wildfire courses and past practical experience, all played into this,” Steffl said. “The equipment that we use for land management, including burn units and hand tools, was ready and immediately put to use. We also have several agency personnel who have the coursework, practical experience, and certification to work directly with U.S. Forest Service crews on federal properties.”

Steffl said experience from the Pine Ridge’s catastrophic wildfires of 2012 helped ensure preparation this time around.

“After the 2012 fires, we used funds from NGPC, Nebraska Big Game Society, National Wild Turkey Federation and Nebraska Environmental Trust to purchase and furnish a wildfire response trailer with two skid units, drip torches, hand tools, and other equipment,” Steffl said. “One of the skid units along with hand tools was deployed for the Chadron fire. Basically, this is a quick way of turning a standard pickup into an impromptu grass rig for wildfire or prescribed fire.”

Wildlife biologist Justin Powell of Alliance also was thankful the Game and Parks personnel and equipment could contribute to the effort.

“We had to draft out of stock tanks a lot throughout the first night of the Hubbard’s Gap fire,” he said, in reference to the process used to draw water from a static water source. “There was a point where a fire engine wasn’t able to draft correctly, so we ended up drafting from ours and using our hose to fill them up. It felt good to know that a wildlife rig was able to help fellow firefighters continue to do their job.”

Powell also said education and experience was critical.

“Education on fire behavior was big on this for me,” he said. “Between the Wildland Fire Academy, Chadron State College classes and job experience, I felt comfortable fighting some intense fires. There were a couple of head and flank fires that we attacked, and knowing safe approaches and how to attack was key, especially in the middle of the darkness of the night.”

With much of the Panhandle in extreme fire danger, officials are urging the public to avoid any activity that might ignite a wildfire.

About Justin Haag

Justin Haag has served the Commission as a public information officer in the Panhandle since 2013. His duties include serving as regional editor for NEBRASKAland Magazine. Haag was raised in southwestern Nebraska, where he developed a love for fishing, hunting and other outdoor pursuits. After earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Chadron State College in 1996, he worked four years as an editor and reporter at newspapers in Chadron and McCook. Prior to joining the Commission in 2013, he worked 12 years as a communicator at Chadron State, serving as the institution’s media and public relations coordinator the last five. He and his wife, Cricket, live in Chadron, and have two children.

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