Firefighter containing wildfire in between trees
Gering firefighter Dick Cochrane creating a fire line along the edge of the Hay Creek Fire in Montana in July 2021 to help contain a grassland fire. Photo Courtesy of Nathan Flowers

Farmers and ranchers struggle to recover financially from recent panhandle wildfires that damaged their crops and infrastructure along with forcing a relocation of cows and calves.

Two wildfires burned more than 8,200 acres of pasture and cropland in Scottsbluff and Gering. The panhandle of Nebraska is an open, dryland where fires easily start in canyons from wind and brush. More than 11,000 acres burned from wildfires this past year due to severe drought and heavy winds that caused brush to ignite. Wildfires often result in financial peril for landowners and ranchers. For many, it takes years to recover. 

Gering Fire Chief Nathan Flowers said fires spread rapidly before the fire department can arrive.

“Entire pastures are burned, and farmers have no place to put their cattle,” Flowers said.

Flowers said certain fires are difficult to contain as they spread fast in hard-to-reach areas. Gering is located in the Nebraska Pandhandle.

Since last year, we have been in a drought process,” Flowers said. “Usually in drought years, we see bigger fires that are more destructive to agriculture, infrastructure and road systems.”

Doak Nickerson, northwest district forester for the Nebraska Forest Service, said it has been a fairly active wildfire season based on climatologists’ predictions from the spring. Climatologists and meteorologists are able to look a year in advance at what the upcoming wildfire season will be like. Nickerson said wildfire is just as bad, if not worse, than other weather events.

“Wildfire is never welcome on the farm or ranch because it is an event I would put in the same category as a tornado or flood,” Nickerson said. “Grass crop is the driver of all agricultural production and energy that powers the farming industry. When wildfire burns grass crops, it burns farmers’ livelihood.”

When crops burn, farmers and ranchers have to relocate their cattle to sustainable grassland which is an unexpected mobilization cost. Fences and infrastructure devastation are a long-term recovery effort and cost. Farmers lost their haystacks due to wildfire, and now have to find more hay to feed cows and calves through the upcoming winter. 

“It is important to understand the stress they’re going through,” Nickerson said. “They’ve had their operations disrupted not just for this year, but for five to 10 years down the road.”

Drought is an effect of extreme weather that western Nebraska experiences, causing increasingly devastating wildfires.

“Drought is the nemesis to farming and ranching,” Nickerson said. “Farmers and ranchers need financial help, and hopefully they have a bank to work with them to get them through this rough patch.”