Winslow, NE begins to burn flood damaged homes

June 6, 2023, 5 p.m. ·

Winslow Fire Dept burns flooded home
Members of the Winslow Fire Department stand by as a flood-damaged home burns. (Photo by Bill Kelly/Nebraska Public Media)

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The village of Winslow, Nebraska, last weekend began systematically burning homes damaged by the devastating floods of 2019. By the end of the year, with the "aggressive timeline" suggested by the town board, up to 20 homes and vacant businesses could be leveled by fire and replaced with green space.

If the plan is successful, only a few occupied residences will remain by this time next year.

Moving up the hill

A contingent of civic leaders believes the town should relocate to higher ground, above the Elkhorn River. Others remain skeptical or unwilling to move.

Members of the local volunteer fire department began by using a propane torch to ignite the first of two vacant homes on Sunday. A private contractor cleared out remnants of asbestos and lead days before the burn. Within an hour, only the brick chimney remained of the first wood-frame home burnt.

After the Elkhorn swamped the flood-prone lots in Winslow, the town obtained federal funds allowing residents to sell their damaged homes if they wished. The village now holds title to the property. In exchange, the town must remove the structures using additional state and federal funds.

woman stands outside burning home
Lonnie Kotik watches as the home she left after the flood burns. (Photo by Bill Kelly / Nebraska Public Media)

Fire Chief and town board member Zach Klein explained the program allows communities to "tear the structure down and they green space it, so you can't build on it again." He said the federal program's goal is "to reduce the flood risk for everyone for the foreseeable future."

The big burn was "heartbreaking to watch" for Lonnie Kotik. She lived in the second house going up in smoke on South Street. After the flood, she tried to move back into the waterlogged home, but it couldn't be salvaged.

Standing on the border of the backyard, she could feel the heat as it tore through the light green one-story home and nearby garage. She's also an EMT for the fire department.

While difficult for her to watch, Kotik supports the clearing out of the vacant homes, now overgrown and a haven for vermin and vandals.

"This town needs to move on," Kotik said. "We need to be up on top of that hill."

The hill is the elevated plain above the temperamental Elkhorn River. Some in Winslow launched the effort to relocate three years ago, driven by the fact the village had flooded eight times since 1912. The levee couldn't be rebuilt. A study prepared by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln students concluded that the village's only other options were to move any remaining residents to higher ground or disperse and level the remaining buildings.

A slow burn

The plan stalled months ago, faced with limited funding to rebuild civic infrastructure and resistance from residents who would prefer to remain at their Winslow addresses, even if the town elects to unincorporate and disband.

Firemen outside of burning home
Winslow Fire Chief Zach Klein at one of the houses intentionally set ablaze. (Photo by Bill Kelly / Nebraska Public Media)

Don Heinke refurbished his home after the flood. He told a visitor on the day of the fire, "This is all I got. Why would I want to start over at 75 years old?"

He does applaud the village for moving ahead with the burn, even if it means a score of empty lots surrounding his well-kept home. He says, "It's a real good thing" because the now-burning house across the way had become "trashy" after it was vacated.

"I hate to lose my neighbors," Heinke said, "and lost a lot of other neighbors, but there's a few of us here sticking together. We're going to make good out of our town.

Meanwhile, Fire Chief Klein calls the demolition of Winslow "a mutually beneficial thing for the fire department and the village." As the pair of houses burned, members of the 20-member department watched and learned how smoke and flame changed as the fire developed. Some practiced their hose skills when entering the burning house.

With so many buildings still to be torched before year's end, Klien intends to call on the state fire marshal's office and other fire departments to take advantage of a unique training opportunity: helping burn down the town that's willing to destroy itself in order to survive.