Longtime Benkelman Fire Chief Relegene Zimbelman says the wildfire that forced the evacuation of the community early Friday ranks #1 as the most intense and scariest call he’s been on. Zimbelman has served on the Benkelman Rural Fire Department for 49-years and 30-years as Fire Chief. “People don’t really know how close we came to losing the west side of Benkelman and maybe even more,” Zimbelman said. “Every minute and man counted.”
What could have happened didn’t. Homes could still be smoldering, but they are not. Lives could have been lost, but they weren’t. Benkelman could have been lost, but it wasn’t.
The Circle B Motel and Skyline Grill Restaurant sustained significant smoke and soot damage and clean up will take the owners time. Skyline will have to be closed for a few weeks and Circle B only has a few rooms left to rent out until they can get everything repaired, replaced, and cleaned. That will take at least 3-weeks according to owner Craig Kerchal.
The fire call came about 12:30AM. Two Dundy County residents called it in. Mo Burrell, who was working for Southwest Public Power District and Nathan Behlke a farmer who lives with his family near wear the fire originated about five miles northwest of Benkelman. Zimbelman said once they got the trucks out of the fire barn and he reached the top of the hill near the KWIK Stop and could see the flames, he knew it was going to be bad. “I called back to dispatch and told them to call every fire department in a 50-mile radius.”
Fourteen departments, 80 men, and 40 trucks responded from southwest Nebraska, Northwest Kansas, and Eastern Colorado.
The fire started near a burn pit on a farm owned by Brian Fries near Twin Lakes northwest of Benkelman. The pit was last burned after a 4 inch snow on December 16. Fries called in to the fire department and got a legal burn permit that day. He then buried the pit after it burned that day. Chief Zimbelman said he did everything right. Four weeks later, with winds gusting to over 70mph, an ember started burning again.
With the dry grass and hurricane force winds the fire burned almost straight north along the edge of a canyon. Chief Zimbelman said the wind switched enough that the flames turned more northwest and spread quickly into a corn field and CRP ground and head straight toward the airport and Benkelman.
The conditions were horrible. Zimbelman said the only thing foremen could see was the orange glow of the fire. Otherwise there was zero visibility. He said the had to wear goggles over their eyes. Firemen’s faces were blasted by soot dirt, and sand. The Circle B and Skyline Grill was the last line of defense for the wildfire. Zimbelman said is was likely that if either one of those two businesses would have burned, so would have homes in Benkelman. “We concentrated our efforts there,” he said. Kerchal said he at one point he counted 25 fire trucks around the motel.
By 1:30AM neighborhoods on the west side ofd Benkelman were inundated with smoke, soot, and dirt, You couldn’t see anything. The Hester Home and the Hospital evacuated patients. The fire departments were using Skyline as a staging area. By 2:30AM the first wave of flames burned through the airport and reached the tree line that ran directly behind the Circle B. Dundy County Emergency Management ordered the evacuation of Benkelman.
Craig Kerchal said they cleaned the tree line out and cut and removed the branches on the bottoms of the trees behind the motel last year. The wind pushed the flames under the trees, but didn’t catch most of them a fire. Kerchal did lose a fence and a couple of sheds that had a riding lawn mower, a push mower, a slow blower, tiller, and garden tools.
BY 3:30AM a second wave of fire swept toward Skyline Grill and the home of Stan and Phylis Jones. The flames forced the fire departments to move their staging area to the Frenchman Valley Service station. Fire fighters were able to keep the flames from from burning Skyline and the Jones home. The fire reached the edge of Highway 34 and embers blew across and started flare ups near Owens Ace Hardware. A larger area caught fire near the home of Stacy Waters in the trees just to the northwest of the high school football field. Fire crews responded quickly to extinguish those flames before they could spread.
It seemed by 4 to 4:30AM the fire departments had gained the upper hand. Chief Zimbelman when the sun came up by 6:30AM to 7AM he felt it was safe enough to start sending fire departments home. The evacuation order was lifted shortly after 7AM.
The Dundy County Stratton School District called off classes, but the elementary was opened to serve breakfast to firemen. Helena provided water trucks to help out. Zimbelman said the community support was fantastic and the response from the other fire departments was great. He said he was very proud of how his department, the sheriff’s department, and other local emergency responders helped out. “No trucks or personel got hurt,” he said. “Other than the garden sheds, no businesses, homes, or structures were lost. Every minute counted.”
The community feels for the damage that was done and for those most effected. It could have been so much worse. Those who lived on the west edge of Benkelman thought they were going to lose their homes. Stacy Waters, who may have came the closest to losing her house, summed up everyone’s feelings. “I just want to reiterate how thankful I am for the volunteer firemen,” she said. “They were warriors.”