A Major Loss: Family Visits Home Destroyed in Carter Canyon Fire

4 Aug 2022, 6 a.m. ·

A stove and fireplace wall is all that remains of a home after a fire in Nebraska's Wildcat Hills
A stove and fireplace wall is all that remains of Dave and Carolyne Ewing's home after a fire in Nebraska's Wildcat Hills. (Photo:: Bill Kelly)

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Fire crews brought the Carter Canyon fire under control mid-week. It didn’t last long, but it was a ferocious blaze that cost three families their homes.

One parcel of land overwhelmed by the flames had been home to four generations of the Ewing family. They moved to the canyon south of Gering almost a hundred years ago.

It was Saturday night when thunderstorms moved across the Nebraska Panhandle.

Carolyne Ewing was watching TV when she heard the lightning bolts explode across the Wildcat Hills.

"I heard a couple of lightning strikes, and my first thought was, ‘oh dear.’ It's very, very dry, but then just ignored that and said, you know, not here," she said.

Dave and Carolyne Ewing talk with a neighbor in front of their home destroyed by fire.
Dave and Carolyne Ewing, center, talk with a neighbor in front of their home destroyed by fire.
A melted thermometer hangs from a fence post following a wildfire.
One of the Ewing's thermometers passed 100 degress before melting as the fire raged. (Photo: Bill Kelly)

But it did happen, and nearby.

Three lighting strikes ignited fires which eventually covered over 15 thousand acres of sparsely populated canyon land.

Dave Ewing was driving back from Gering when he noticed the clouds over the hills starting to turn deep orange. He texted Carolyn a picture from his point of view, showing flames spreading across the side of the ridge.

She stepped outside and immediately realized this was a dangerous situation.

"I stayed until the first flames up there on top" of the ridge behind their home. And then I got the car out of the garage and could hear the fire start to roar." she said.

"As soon as I saw flames on the ridge, I said, I'm getting in the car. I'm leaving."

She left with one of their cars and little else.

"In my heart, I was thinking I'll be back tomorrow morning," she recalled. "Life will be normal, except we might not have any power. So, I didn't make wise choices of what I threw in a bag. Like I forgot my toothbrush and my prescriptions."

Dave returned and tried to pump water on the house as the flames drew near, but the power lines were down, making the water-well pump useless. He got out with the other cars.

"It would endanger fire crews getting trapped up there. So they just pulled them out," Dave said. The houses were at the Lord's mercy there, and thankfully, most of them made it through."

He stopped on the county road a couple of miles south of cedar-covered hills and watched. "It was really kind of interesting to see the change in the smoke," he said. "It just kind of looked like a rolling fog enveloping the hill."

"We stopped and prayed that the Lord would split the fire around the houses up in the canyon. Every other house up there, against all odds, got bypassed, and I believe in no small part because of the prayer."

He understands his prayers were only partially addressed since his family's home did not escape the inferno.

“So, we're gonna say it's a blessing, and we were going to find out how that all works out.”

Four days after the fire, Dave and Carolyne drove with a visitor back to the home. They'd seen it briefly the day after the fire but could only take in so much before leaving.

"It's gonna be hard," said Carolyne. "This is a hard trip."

Pulling into the driveway, the mailbox on a four-foot pole was nearly the tallest thing left on the property.

The visitor asked what they would have seen a week ago pulling up the driveway.

Leaning forward from the backseat, Carolyne conjures up a memory.

"On your right, where you are pointing, you would have seen a three-car garage. The one at the end when was a shop. The tin you're seeing over there was a lawn mower shed. There was a roof over a well-pit that is now just a deep hole. Straight ahead of you was the greenhouse. And that all that's left is the block structure. And to the left were our home and garden sheds."

"Was," Carolyne repeated, emphasizing the past tense.

A scorched file cabinet stands stands in the burnt remains of a home claimed by a wildfire in Nebraska.
The Ewing's scorched file cabinet stands in the burnt remains of their home. (Photo: Bill Kelly)

Nothing remained of the home but the fireplace, twisted metal, and the skeletons of a few appliances.

"There’s nothing left there," Dave said, standing at the foundation of the home he grew up in during the 60s. He moved in with Carolyne over 20 years ago.

"There is what's left of our bed."

Carolyne and her son-in-law Troy Medina spot the broken remains of her huge coffee mug collection.

"When the shelves burned, they fell down and broke," she said. "There’s in some might be saveable, actually."

A few mugs did remain, including an aqua-blue souvenir of the couple's 50th anniversary trip to the Cayman Islands. The intense heat made the cup so brittle, the handle snapped off.

"It's one of those memory things that's not expensive. It's probably not even usable anymore, but it's the memory," she said looking at the four ash-covered coffee mugs.

There was something else lost in the fire. The view from a deck that has vanished and picture windows in shards on the ground.

"It was a million-dollar view," Troy said, wistfully. "It was completely lush. You couldn't see this lower half, because it was so full of growth."

Troy and his wife, the Ewings’ daughter, showed the visitor a picture of snow-capped cedar trees that once stood across the gourge. Standing in the same place today it was a stark contrast to the spindly black stalks visible after the fire.

Carolyne recalled sitting on the deck with a cup of coffee on the deck on warm mornings, watching the seasons change.

"That view changes every day. Every day, not just with the seasons every day, there's a little bit of different sunlight. I've looked out there and said, ‘Lord, how did you make so many greens?’ There are so many shades of green. Amazing testimony of His creative power."

There were hints of green on this day, but now gray ash covers the canyon floor.

Some things did survive. Everyone stopped to admire a troupe of big-horn elk making their way along the ridge to the east after escaping the blaze. Wild turkey crossed the roads looking for whatever food remained.

Dave Ewing holds Smokey, the survivor of the Carter Canyon wildfire.
Dave Ewing holds Smokey. (Photo: Bill Kelly)
Smokey, the survivor of the Carter Canyon Fire in Nebraska.
Smokey, the survivor of the Carter Canyon Fire.

But one impossible survivor has been a tiny "ray of hope" for the Ewings.

As the couple walked around the ruined ranch buildings, they both heard what they thought was a cat. Following the sound, the couple discovered a tiny, tiny dark grey kitten sheltered inside a cinderblock. The cement was still warm, meaning the hideout must have been hot as an oven as the fire raged around the kitten.

His new name is Smokey. They recognized him as part of a litter roaming the area. Smokey stood out as the smallest and the loudest.

Smokey is now Dave's constant companion.

"I have never been much for being close to cats but this one's different," he said, holding the noisy cat in a towel. "He comes to bed with me and he's still a little bit traumatized. His feet hurt him and he’s burned on the end of his nose and all his pads are burned off. We're going to have to keep him in swaddling cloth for the most part."

Carolyne says the family agrees Dave's attachment to this tiny survivor makes sense. "It’s an emotional, a healing thing with him," addInc that her husband "can help this kitten. He can fix this. There's nothing else that he can fix. And he is a fixer.”

The insurance agent was on site that day. He let the couple know their coverage may not meet the costs of the damage done, the clean-up, and more.

Dave seemed resigned, telling the visitor, "we'll have to count our pennies and try to get something back together."

Their friends have been generous. A Go Fund Me page established to raise money to rebuild has already collected almost half of the $50,000 goal.

In the meantime, Dave and Carolyne have been staying with friends in Gering.

"You accept it by knowing that can't be changed," Carolyne said. “Knowing that together and with your family you will rebuild your life and having life is the precious gift."

Charred cedar trees are all that remain in the once densely forested Carter Canyon in Nebraska.
Charred cedar trees are all that remain across the once lush green canyon visible from the Ewing's home. (Photo: Bill Kelly)