Opportunity from the Ashes: Fire at the Niobrara Valley Preserve


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Smooth sumac appears to be recovering quickly and vigorously. The prairie has always had large patches of sumac, but at 7,200 acres, the east bison pasture can absorb fairly large patches of shrubs without losing its open, grassy nature. (Chris Helzer/TNC)

By Jill Wells and Chris Helzer

Wildfires touched nearly every corner of Nebraska this summer. This is the story of how the Fairfield Creek blaze affected The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Summer is always a busy time for young visitors at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, and July 20 was no exception. There’s a lot for a kid to see at this 56,000-acre preserve (commonly called “the NVP”). More than 600 plants species and 85 butterfly species have been documented there, along with 268 species of birds. Bison herds—reintroduced to the preserve in 1985—fascinate young visitors as they roam thousands of acres of pasture.

In fact, Tracey Nelson, NVP operations and outreach coordinator, and Richard Egelhoff, bison manager, were taking middle-school campers with the Niobrara Council out to see the bison when they got an urgent call on the radio. Doug Kuhre, NVP cattle manager, and Mike Vigoren, NVP maintenance coordinator, asked if they had seen any smoke. Just moments later, they did. They quickly got the kids to safety, and then spent what turned out to be the seven of the longest days of their lives fighting to protect people, buildings and livestock from the blaze.

The prospect of a wildfire had been on everyone’s mind. Conditions were dry, and humidity was very low. Temperatures had climbed over 100 degrees. Once lightning struck the ground it found plenty of fuel to carry the fire. One fire turned into four different fronts as it moved into the Niobrara Valley. The entire wildfire complex touched an estimated 76,000 acres in north-central Nebraska; 29,824 of those acres were on the Niobrara Valley Preserve—about 46 square miles or an area half the size of the city of Lincoln.

Egelhoff, Kuhre and Vigoren work at the Preserve and live nearby. As things quickly got serious, they were pressed to fight the fires not only at the preserve but also at their family homes.

“Our staff had personal property at stake in this fire,” said Mace Hack, state director. “Even so, they stayed up for days to protect the preserve.”

The rest of the Nebraska conservation staff and fire teams from The Nature Conservancy’s Iowa, Missouri and South Dakota programs assembled to help. They joined hundreds of volunteer and professional fire fighters from all over Nebraska and across the United States, as well as the National Guard and federal incident response teams.

“We are amazed and grateful that no one was seriously hurt,” said Nelson. “The community response to all of this—and the outpouring of support from people who love the preserve—has helped us through a very stressful and trying time.”

Losses for People, Losses at the Preserve

An Omaha World-Herald article (July 31) reported that the state would be potentially looking at a $4.5 million cost for firefighting alone. Fourteen dwellings were destroyed, along with 47 other structures such as barns. Ten miles of public power district lines would need to be replaced.

The conservancy suffered some serious economic losses, too. The most significant structural losses were the many fences that will have to be rebuilt or repaired. Posts burned, and fence was cut for firefighter access on an estimated 50 miles of fence. Like many of our neighbors, the preserve’s balance sheet relies significantly on income from grazing and grazing leases. About 700 cattle had to be shipped home, putting a strain on their owners and greatly diminishing lease income for the season. The conservancy is still assessing the damage, but losses are estimated at a minimum of $500,000—a figure that could climb a lot higher.

Fortunately, no cattle or bison were lost in the fire. In a drought year, though, the loss of so much grazing area meant that in addition to early termination of cattle leases, the conservancy had to sell off a portion of the bison herd before they ran out of grass.

The Good News

This ground cherry is re-emerging from the base of its old stem.  (Chris Helzer /TNC)Ecologically speaking, the ecosystems along the Niobrara are built to withstand and recover from fires—even severe fires like these. “Things will be different,” said Chris Helzer, the conservancy’s Eastern Nebraska program director, “but it’s not really accurate to talk about those changes in terms of destruction.” 

The biggest changes will take place in some of the pine woodlands on the north side of the river, where crown fires (those that advance through canopies of trees) wiped out large areas of trees. Through a combination of seeds already present in the soil, seeds from the few surviving trees within those burned stands and seeds from nearby unburned areas, the pines will reestablish themselves—but it will be several decades before the area begins to function as a woodland again. While thousands of acres of pine woodland burned, many more thousands of acres along the river are still standing, providing abundant habitat for the species that rely on them.

The oak savannas on the lower slopes near the river will look pretty different as well. In some areas, most of the oaks will probably die from the intense heat—especially where eastern red cedar trees were abundant in the understory. Those areas will become more open grasslands, with scattered surviving oaks. Over time, more oak trees will reestablish. However, on the north side, and especially on the south side of the river, many oaks will survive, and the fire will have removed much of the underbrush beneath them. Those more open oak woodlands will support a more diverse community of plants and animals than they did before the fire.

On the south side of the river the woodlands burned very unevenly. In a few places the fire roared through the crowns of densely packed cedar trees, taking out pines, oaks and other trees with them. This will create some openings in the previously continuous woodland that will provide habitat for those species that thrive in sunshine. Over time those areas will close back in with trees, or remain open, depending upon how they are managed through future use of controlled burns and other techniques. Many parts of the woodland south of the river didn’t burn at all—or burned only at low intensity through the leaf litter beneath the trees. Those areas that burned at low intensity will see an increase in the grasses, sedges and wildflowers growing in the understory, adding to the diversity of those areas and the woodland as a whole.

At least half of the acres burned in the fire were grasslands—particularly the sandhills prairie south of the river. Fire is an important part of prairie ecology, so this fire will not be anything these prairies haven’t seen before. While the broad extent of the fire will mean that some animal and insect species will have to recolonize burned areas from relatively long distances, that colonization will be helped by scattered unburned patches within the larger boundaries of the fire and by the many thousands of acres of unburned prairie that wrap around the south side of the preserve (not to mention the 11 million acres or so of sandhill prairie that cover about one-third of Nebraska!).

The fact that this fire took place in the summer makes it different from most controlled burns that occur in the spring or fall. However, the conservancy has conducted summer prairie fires on the preserve in the past, so we can predict the results of this one with some confidence. Summer fires suppress the vigor of those plants most actively growing at the time, and invigorate those plants that can move in quickly to grab territory from those suppressed individuals. During the next year or two, there will be an extra abundance of short-lived plants in the burned prairies, but that will subside as the perennials recover and reassert their dominance. The speed with which those perennials recover will be regulated by rainfall.

What’s Ahead

“We want to take what we’ve been given and use it to our advantage,” said Helzer. “One of our biggest challenges prior to the fire was the widespread encroachment of eastern red cedar trees. Now that we’ve had a sudden and substantial reduction in our cedar-invaded acres, we want to be sure we design and carry out a plan to prevent reinvasion.”

“There is a lot to learn from this fire, and as a nonprofit conservation landowner, the conservancy hopes to leverage our facilities and ability to set up long-term monitoring—something that the average private landowner could not accommodate,” said Mace Hack, state director.

The conservancy also plans to design some evaluation and tracking protocols to see 

whether and how our prior cedar control efforts affected the intensity or spread of the wildfire, and follow the recovery of the various ecosystems in and around the preserve over time. Stay tuned for more on this effort.


For now, the Niobrara Valley Preserve is closed to visitors until the necessary work has been done to make things safer for guests. In the meantime, please stay in touch at www.nature.org/nebraska or like The Nature Conservancy on Facebook. For a more in-depth look at—and discussion about—issues like this, check out www.prairieecologist.com.

Image Credits: Chris Helzer/TNC.

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