Massive fire thankfully spares Red Cloud campus, Pine Ridge

posted on September 7, 2012

A devastating wildfire that began in Nebraska and roared onto the reservation this past weekend came too close for comfort, but the campus mercifully escaped without any damage.

North and west of campus, however, the blaze scorched tens of thousands of acres, threatening numerous homes in the reservation communities of Slim Buttes, Lakeside, and Oglala, and burning several structures to the ground.

The wildfire, dubbed the Wellnitz Fire, burned nearly 90,000 acres (150 square miles) before finally being brought under control earlier this week. At its peak, the blaze was being battled by over 650 firefighters from all over the region, including volunteer units from 40 different Nebraska communities.

Red-card trained crews specializing in particularly volatile and dangerous fire situations were brought in to help get the situation under control. Air support was also crucial to the effort, including slurry planes, a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, a CH-47 Chinook Helicopter and a UH-72 Lakota Helicopter. The helicopters were a common sight in the skies above Pine Ridge as the fire raged, flying back and forth between lakes (where they would scoop up water in massive buckets) and the wildfires.

The Wellnitz Fire was one of several large blazes that were started by the same dry lightning storm late last week. Dubbed the Region 23 Complex, the fires in total burned over 285 square miles in northwest Nebraska and southwest South Dakota – an area larger than the city of Chicago. The other wildfires also burned massive acreages, and resulted in the evacuation of numerous Nebraska residents in their paths.

Doubtless there will be long-lasting effects from the conflagration, as communities and rural residents continue to work on the business of recovery. The price tag from the fires is estimated at $3.2 million. Included in the damage was Camp Norwesca, a popular spot for Red Cloud student and staff retreats, which lost seven cabins, but whose main lodge remained standing.

Red Cloud graduate Shelby McGhee (’10) was one of the firefighters called to assist as the situation worsened. She got to the fire on Friday afternoon, and remained on it until Saturday night. She recounted,

“When we first got there, the smoke was very heavy. The wind was blowing hard, and the fire was almost crossing the road. We got on the other side of the fire and got the hose ready. I held the hose out the window and sprayed water while my partner drove us through the flames. My adrenaline was running! I wasn’t scared; I just felt like it was something I had to do. By then the flames had already headed up the hill on the other side of the road. We continued to chase it throughout the night and into the next day. Fortunately a lot of homes were saved!”

Tribal president John Yellow Bird-Steele lauded such heroic efforts in a recent statement, saying, “On behalf of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, I would like to say how proud I am of our firefighters for their brave and courageous actions taken in protecting our tribal homelands and minimizing the destruction of homes in the past couple of days.”

Red Cloud Indian School echoes the sentiments of everyone in the region when we say “Thank you!” to all of the firefighters who risked their lives, worked 24-hour shifts, and otherwise gave their all to protect these homes and communities.