April 17, 2018 is a day that will forever be seared into my memories.
That day had a high wind advisory with high fire warning for Eastern Colorado and Western Kansas and was the day of the Badger Hole Fire that permanently changed my neighborhood.
The fire began when the wind picked up in the middle of the afternoon. At first the wind pushed the fire away from my fifth generation farm and was 17 miles away. We were concerned, but not worried.
I was 90 miles from home, but quickly returned upon news of the fire. My farm crew had been through a similar fire in 2011 that burned nearly 20 miles and threatened the towns of Manter and Johnson City, so they got our equipment ready, just in case.
The fire appeared to be nearly out shortly after I arrived home, but the wind soon shifted, blowing the fire toward the town of Manter and closer to home, so I decided to go check on the status to see if any of our equipment or man power would be helpful.
The fire line had progressed and was now as close as seven miles from home. When I got to the fire it became apparent that we would need to join the fight.
I attempted to return home to get our disk and tanker, headed to the fire when the wind shifted again, this time pushing the fire straight toward my home where my wife and daughter and farm crew were waiting.
The fire crossed the highway, forcing me to quickly turn around and head away from home. Cell signal is terrible in this portion of eastern Colorado but I was able to get a few calls in warning the neighbors and my family and getting someone to move our equipment into place to help fight. I had to travel nearly 30 miles to get to my home that was eight miles away, because the flames and smoke made most roads impassable.
When I got home, Kelly and Bailey, my wife and daughter, were leaving the yard heeding the sheriff’s evacuation order. I looked around and saw my main hand preparing for the fight and told Kelly that I was going to stay and fight.
Our tractor and disk was positioned shortly after the fire began in the town of Manter, so we could protect the town. This turned out to be a bad decision, because from the time the wind changed directions and we got the tractor home, the fire had already passed our farm headquarters and nearly made it impossible to get our best defense into the fight and protect what five generations had worked to create.
While I waited on the disk to arrive, I began assessing the threat, in order to tell my Uncle, who was driving the disk, where to go to work. I found the fire was about two miles north of my home, but the smoke was terrible. You couldn’t see the flames until they were upon you.
My guess is that the wind was blowing 50 to 60 mph with higher gusts. One of my neighbors called, and all I could tell her was that her dad’s house was in the direct line and the flames were about 0.5 mile away. There was nothing I could do to help.
Another neighbor called. I hurried a mile east to assess the risk to their homes and feed yard. As I made the final turn toward their farmstead, I quickly had to turn around as the flames were suddenly lapping at the pickup door. I could see that their feed yard was fully engaged with fire. Again, there was nothing I could do except quickly leave and pray that I didn’t get stuck in the sand as I turned to flee.
It was clear, all we could do was protect our farm and homes. We fought the fire with our water tanker, tractor pulling a disk, a payloader and road grader starting at about 7 p.m.
The smoke was terrible, making it impossible to see the flames. My job, after running the payloader for a while clearing crop residue around our home and farm headquarters, was to assess the threat. For the next several hours I directed our equipment to attempt to stop the hellacious fire that was quickly demolishing our neighborhood.
At one point, our tractor hit an electric power pole breaking it over causing the power lines to land on top of the tractor. The fire was right beside the tractor. Luckily, the tractor was able to back away and get free of the power lines. The power was out so danger was only from the fire, but the wires ripped off our two-way radio antenna, making cell phones our only line of communication. The power outage or smoke and wind made our normally poor cell signal almost nonexistent. Now directions had to be delivered in person.
We disked a fire break 150 feet wide which we thought would protect my home and our farm HQ. At this point I went to our closest neighbor to see if we could move our equipment to help protect his place. As I approached his driveway, the wind suddenly switched again, and within seconds, the flames were at the front of my pickup. Again, I quickly turned around and prayed that I wouldn’t fall into the sandy ditch and get stuck. Again, nothing I could do to help.
I had a friend call me shortly after we began fighting the fire to ask if he could help with his tractor and disk, and I said we could use all of the help we could get. This was around 7 p.m. The reality was no one could get to us to help. A normal fire has a single starting point and is driven by the wind in one direction. This gives firefighters two boundaries and the leading edge of the fire to fight.
This fire, when it changed directions, had multiple leading edges and several boundaries. I had a farm crew 15 miles away that were not able to get back to HQ to help fight the fire for three full hours.
Around 9:30 p.m., the fire breached our first fire break, and we stopped attempting to keep the fire from our fields but instead concentrated on saving the equipment and homes around HQ.
As I sat watching the fire approach our second fire break, I could see the neighbors brand new home over the top of the flames fully engulfed in fire. Tears filled my eyes as I prayed that we weren’t next. My wife, Kelly, was able to get through on my cell phone at that moment and asked if we should evacuate. I regret what I said next. The fire was blocking any road exit north, south, east or west. At this point the fire was within a half mile to the west and north of our home, a quarter mile to the south and one mile to the east.
I said to her, “I don’t know if we can.”
The cavalry showed up to help at 11 p.m. My friend with his disk and another farmer with a disk were the first to arrive. Shortly after, several fire trucks, road graders and tankers showed up and quickly put the immediate danger to rest.
I then attempted to drive around and assess any more risks to see if our equipment was needed elsewhere. The smoke was still terrible but now the dirt was blowing and making passage nearly impossible. I tried to go to my closest neighbors home, the one I watched burn as the flames were lapping at our fire break, but the dirt was so bad I had to drive from ditch to ditch to find the road, again quickly deciding, nothing I could do.
I finally headed to Johnson to my parents home at 2 a.m. when everything appeared to be under control. At this point two of four neighbors’ homes were destroyed. Other neighbors lost out buildings, feedlots, equipment, fences and farm animals.
When I returned to assess the damage the next morning, another home had burned during the night. Now three of the four closest neighbors’ homes were lost. Luckily, animal losses were minimal, but the cost to fight the fire and to rebuild and to stop the dirt from blowing will be tremendous.
I have wondered often since the fire, should I have evacuated with my family? What possessed me to risk everything to stay? Why did my crew stay and fight without a request from me? The only answer is that is what we do.
So that you get a better understanding of this fire; the firefighters, all volunteers, were all positioned to fight the fire before the wind changed directions. Everyone was on the wrong side of the fire to help those of us in the path to the south. The fire was 11 miles wide on the south and my farm sat in the very middle. That is why it took so long for help to arrive. Firefighters that attempted to get around the fire when the wind first changed said they were traveling 80 mph and weren’t able to get in front of it.
Before the fire was over, it had destroyed at least eight homes in Colorado and Kansas and had burned over 50,000 acres. The main threat ended nearly 12 hours after the fire began. The neighborhood, though, will never be the same. Most of the homes will not be rebuilt. The neighborhood will be forever changed by one 12-hour period.
I now have a better understanding of what so many farmers and ranchers have faced these recent years of high fire danger. I will always wonder if I should have evacuated. My guess, if I am ever faced with this danger again, I will stay and fight. Farmers fight for their farms everyday. It isn’t always fire, it is drought, poor commodity prices, labor shortages, hail, wind, blizzards and so much more. We fight because it is what we do everyday. Neighbors helping neighbors; all of us trying to preserve the way of life we have worked generations to develop and maintain. This lifestyle is worth fighting for and that is what we will continue to do, day in and day out.