By Paula Damon
On a recent trip to the Nebraska National Forest, in the northwest part of the state, I saw first-hand the devastation of the West Ash Fire, which late last summer destroyed more than 58,000 acres of the forest.
In doing so, the fire affected 80 percent of Chadron State Park. Ten miles south of the City of Chadron, NE, on Highway 385, the 1,000-acre park, Nebraska’s oldest, has been my family’s summer vacation spot for the last 24 years.
After reading news reports of the fire, I tried to imagine what it was like to helplessly stand by and watch such destruction as it was happening. What follows are my reflections of what I saw as I hiked the high plains, hills and dales of the park.
Brandishing, fire cleansed as she dogged ahead, clearing brush and bramble in her way.
Wiped out all of the messes Mother Nature had carelessly left behind. A trail of debris, tired branches, wind-peeled bark, scrappy moss, fire swept it all out of here.
Now, there’s very little to show for the heartache and joy of growing and maintaining this place, as fire, the grand housekeeper, scoured these forest floors. Only black skeletons of trees and rocks remain.
Fire quieted the sky, too, leaving smoldering stillness in her wake.
Like a scorned lover, fire took it all with her. First clutching, and then strangling, as she disingenuously hissed over lush prairie grasses, snuffed out yucca, wasted hiding places and hollows, undressed forest walls, exposed deciduous canopies, creating a barren wasteland.
Madly crackling and whirling unsympathetically, fire went about her destruction business with imperious nobility, handed down from long stuffy lineage, as she strutted about with an air of ought-ness.
Incredulously gaining ground, she muscled madly through narrow ravines, boring wide open once lush caverns where Ponderosa pines and poplars towered proudly.
Fire – a currency that exchanged suppleness for grime.
Traipsing over ancient hills, parading like a grand marshal, on sod tables, she clamored for more.
Hungry, ever pressing forward, leaning on wind to carry her forth, she slumbered not. Racing to the finish, she was a murderous pistol turning woodlands gritty.
As a strong front arrowed her sideways, fire powerfully hurled her deadly aim, levying soot against succulence.
Her subtle wail encircled entanglements of creeping vines and molting cocoons. Her terrible beauty first strolled along deceptively, and then stamped out intentionally.
Staring hard ahead, not glancing back, she let loose her sizzling hot fury. While birthing little chargers, she created a dark veil – an unholy shroud for us mourners to gawk through afterward in disbelief.
Fire split quiet pastoral beauty in two, sprayed flames with her angry tongue, ever on the lookout to devour more.
She didn’t mull over what was, nor boast about what will be, but rather rushed to annihilate what is, fueled by her sadistic, unquenchable thirst.
Fire emptied her war chest, devouring our legendary playground in large nourishing gulps. Swallowing whole our fancifully pine perfumed retreat, rendering it disappeared.
Old wilderness is no more. Fire took it tree after tree. Only charred tracks remain as footprints where she shimmied skyward and snaked across meadows, spraying her dastardly venom, engulfing gulches, laying bare buttes, backbones and brooks.
Fire churned, ever in a hurry to stomp on our old salvation route, now a graveyard.
Fire took care of it.