Nebraska Cooksley Complex Fire burns over 37,000 acres

Jessi Mason was trying to get to her sisters home to help evacuate when the fire forced her to stop. Photo by Jessi Mason

Spring has blown into central Nebraska, endless days of strong winds are sucking the winter moisture from the ground. Prairie fires are already blazing across the region. The afternoon of Wednesday April 12 members of the Cooksley family were fencing near the railroad tracks along Highway 2, near Merna, Neb. They watched smoke roll out of the railroad right-of-ways after a Burlington Northern/ Santa Fe train passed. The family were able to knock down the fire initially and watched it through the night. Believing it to be out they left to care for their cattle. But high south winds fanned the fire back to life about mid-day Thursday. “When I got the call, I spent a good hour calling locals who I knew had sprayers and could come help us,” said Mark Finney, first assistant fire chief of the Anselmo Volunteer Fire Department. “It burned clear up to the Middle Loup River east of Dunning. We thought we had it kind of under control but straight west winds of 40 to 50 miles per hour came through Thursday evening and it ran east another 10 miles towards Milburn. We were really gaining on it when the lightning and wind hit us. We could have had 500 guys and it wouldn’t have helped.”


To complicate the fire fighting efforts the storm with the strong winds in the evening was accompanied by dry lightning, sparking three more fires. One burned through the historic McGinn Ranch and the main home and a bunkhouse were lost to the blaze. Fortunately Matt McGinn’s home, shop and barn were saved. The McGinns were some of the neighbors who were helping to fight the Cooksley fire. That fire also jumped Highway 2 and eventually joined the Cooksley fire. Two more fires were south and north of the small town of Brewster.

Jessi Mason was trying to get to her sisters home to help evacuate when the fire forced her to stop. Photo by Jessi Mason

Twenty-three fire departments from across the state came to the aid of the Anselmo volunteer firemen and hundreds of volunteers. The Fertilizer Plant in Merna, stayed open to fill trucks with water and Country Partners Coop donated $2,000 worth of fuel to the fire departments. Donations came in of food and drinks also. Highway 2 was also closed for several hours.

“We fought the fire till 3 a.m. and the weather service said we would have northwest winds starting at 3 and they nailed it. We were probably within an hour of having control but the wind took it another three to four miles east. We were so spread out,” Finney said.

Finney said this was his first experience fighting this large of a fire and he is very thankful for all the help they received. “We were so spread out, we called air support Thursday afternoon from Arrow Aviation out of Broken Bow. They helped with suppression with two or three planes and they were back at daylight on Friday.”

Finney said the cooler and more humid weather on Friday was a blessing and with the fire under control the volunteers spent the day working on equipment in preparation for another call.

The Nebraska State Patrol brought in their Drone Response Team and helped map the fire with the official report for the Cooksley fire at 37,000 acres burned of mainly summer pasture, feed, shelter belts, fences, but thankfully minimal livestock losses have been reported.

The burn map from the Nebraska State Patrol Drone Response Team showed that over 37,000 acres burned.

Crews ran shifts through Sunday evening April 16 mopping up and watching for flare ups.

“The fire was grand, we were really lucky here, it bypassed the vast majority of the cowherd who were still on winter range but 90 percent of the summer range is gone,” George Cooksley said. “It burned into the feed pile, but the loss of feed is less than what it could be. It burned probably 500 bales and hundreds of tons of silage, corn and distillers grain. The community came together and they were lining up feed so we could feed cattle the next day. They are as good as it can get.”

Cooksley said some of their worst losses are the mile and a half of shelter belts that burned and their decimated fences. “Some of the posts burned over night and it’s about as bad as I’ve ever seen.”

He said so far they only lost a couple of calves as they were able to get most of them moved out of the way. “My nephew picked up a calf about covered with sand and ash. He carried it around until he came back to life and put him back with his mom. We had 600 calves locked up on the sand around the barn. Some cattle are coughing but with the way the fire was traveling it should have been everything. We calve mainly in May and June so we will utilize the winter range for that and try and get through as much of the summer as we can, then winter the best we can.”

Cooksley is very thankful to the hundreds of people who put themselves in harms way to try and control the fire. “Our hills are soft and rough and not easy to get around in. When I see the tracks of where they went, I’m amazed of what they were able to do.”


He said this was the first railroad fire they’ve experienced in over 20 years. “We used to take care of the right-of-ways they were on our side of the fence but about 15 or 20 years ago the railroad took them back and moved the fences. They have not been managing the fuel loads, they haven’t mowed or trimmed  and there is brush and trees growing along the tracks but they are not taking care of it.”

The railroad shut down the trains for a period of time when it was burning along the tracks but they resumed operations running on both tracks but at a slower speed which greatly hampered the firefighters efforts as water trucks and firefighting rigs were forced to wait on slow trains before crossing the tracks. “So far the railroad hasn’t spoken to us, even the crews watching us fight fire wouldn’t talk, so we are still waiting on them.”

Jessi Mason owner of Market and Mill the local grocery store and soon to open a coffee shop in Anselmo, Neb., heard about the fire and headed to her business to start preparing sandwiches. “I posted on Facebook and within minutes probably 15 people arrived and started helping. We started with a goal of making 150 sandwiches and probably 15 people showed up just as quickly to start assembling them. We ended the evening with 300 sandwiches and later got called back in to slice more meat around 1 a.m.”

People came by the store and dropped off money, supplies and drinks. “The donations just came in, Facebook is a powerful tool. A lady from Kansas was going through on Highway 2, stopped and gave cash. Another lady was from here who now lives in Alaska called and gave. A lot of the firefighters wives were here most of the night making and prepping food. Volunteers filled coolers and dropped of food to various points around the fire. The firemen were well taken care of,” Mason said. “As tragic as this fire was, the outpouring of support was overwhelming. While the firefighters were bravely battling the fire, countless others were making sure they would be fed and cared for. To experience our community’s generosity and dedication to each other to that extent was humbling to say the least. We were all on the same team, all with the same goal, all fighting the same fire. It really does take a village; and wow, am I thankful for ours.”

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