In their own words: Tales from the Road 702 wildfire

April 29, 2022, 5:45 a.m. ·

A hole in Road 409 in rural Furnas County
The hole used to be a bridge that allowed cattle to cross underneath from pasture to pasture. It collapsed last week during the Road 702 Wildfire. (Photo by Will Bauer, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Ryan Cramer looks on what’s now a gaping hole in Road 409 about 7 miles south of Cambridge in Furnas County.

The hole used to be a bridge that allowed cattle to cross underneath from pasture to pasture. When the Road 702 Wildfire swept rapidly north from Kansas last weekend, both sides of the gravel road were in the fire’s destructive path. So was the bridge, but it wasn’t obvious to Ryan’s brother, Drew.

"You don't really see them...because they're usually covered over in dirt and gravel," Ryan said. "It's just one of those things when you drive over it and pass over them, and stuff like that, you don't think about it, really."

The wildfire would eventually destroy the wooden bridge and scorch 43,582 acres across southwestern Nebraska's Furnas and Red Willow counties, according to state estimates. The fires also destroyed at least six homes in the area, countless pieces of farm equipment and so much more. What happened at the bridge reflects just one of the many terrifying stories that Nebraskans encountered this past week.

Ryan Cramer stands next to his ATV in front of his family's home in Furnas County
Ryan Cramer helps out with his family's farm just south of Cambridge. (Photo by Will Bauer, Nebraska Public Media News)

Precarious Pickup

Ryan and Drew had been in the fields late Saturday night trying to keep the fire from the family’s home. At one point, Ryan said he went out by foot and grabbed a shovel to stamp out existing hot spots and small fires on his family's property. The fires got within a few hundred feet but didn’t damage the house. It was after the brothers decided to call it a night that the hole in the road came into the picture.

Drew lives back in Cambridge and wanted to head home that night. The brothers debated: Does Drew take the Highway 47 back to town? It had been closed earlier because the fires made it impossible to see. Or does Drew take the small gravel road north?

He decided on the gravel road and drove his blue Ford pickup north through the rolling hills of pasture land that, by that time, was blackened in the wake of the wildfire. But Ryan couldn't see much so late at night.

Ryan was just a mile north of his family's home when, according to Ryan, Drew saw what he thought was an orange cone in the dark night.

Drew Cramer's pickup straddles a large gap in Road 409
Drew Cramer's pickup straddles with large hole in Road 409. (Photo courtesy Ryan Cramer)

"Before he realized that, he felt like this really hard bump, like you're hitting something really hard," Ryan said. "And he said he slammed on the brakes. And, incidentally, his back tires are on one side and his front tires are on the other side."

The bridge had caved in as Drew’s front tires crossed over the bridge, and Drew had braked quick enough to keep his rear tires from falling into the hole. A matter of mere inches could have changed the pickup's possible decent into the hole.

When Drew opened his door, Ryan said, what lied below was nothing but a 10 foot drop.

"He said he climbed onto the hood and jumped off the front," Ryan said. "That's how he got out onto the road again and then walked up the road and called me from there."

As Ryan looks on at the gap in the gravel road, he said he just feels thankful the situation played out the way it did.

"What would have happened if we would have waited a little bit longer and then tried to send you?" he thinks out loud.

The pickup was eventually saved from its precarious perch. With the help of some locals, a backhoe and another pickup, they were able to lift up the Drew's stranded pickup by the rear and pull his pickup to solid ground.

'Gigantic torch'

Just a few miles southwest of the Cramers, Pam Frecks and her husband are now back on their acreage, working through repairs.

She and her husband’s farm also sat in the middle of the fire's path as it raced toward the northwest. They’re acreage sits on the Red Willow side of the county line. What Pam saw Friday night was something like she’d never seen before.

Pam Frecks stands on her property that's been scorched by the Road 702 Wildfire
Pam Frecks stands on her charred lawn, aftermath from the Road 702 Wildfire. (Photo by Will Bauer, Nebraska Public Media News)

"It just looked like somebody had a gigantic torch," she said. "It was traveling that fast that it just ignited – just the whole thing. I'm glad I wasn't here to see it."

Pam had been substitute teaching in neighboring Arapahoe last Friday when the fires picked up. She and her husband left their home shortly after Pam arrived home. They watched in their pickup from a safe spot on the other side of the fire, toward the Village of Lebanon. The Frecks sat in their pickup overnight. Pam said she tried but couldn’t sleep.

The fire would claim the couple’s hunting cabin and a companion barn about 3 miles south of the farm. What used to be a place Pam and her husband rented out to hunters from all across the country is now reduced to rubble and ash.

She and her husband came back to the farm early Saturday morning to check in – and they arrived to good news: The fire had stopped 100 to 150 feet short of the house.

What used to be Pam and Gary Freck's hunting cabin in Red Willow County. The burned foundation of a home with bare trees around it.
The rubble and chimney from what used to be Pam and Gary Frecks' hunting cabin in Red Willow County. (Photo by Will Bauer, Nebraska Public Media News)

"All in all, we were so thankful that the home was here, even though we'd lost a lot of other other things," she said. "So, thought it was a miracle. Praise God. That's what we did."

The fire burned a good chunk of their long line of cedar trees that served as windbreak for the property. The couple had also put some farm equipment in a neighboring wheat field, thinking the fire wouldn’t ignite the green crop.

Unfortunately, like many in the area learned last week, the Road 702 Wildfire couldn’t be predicted.