How a Nebraska Golf Club Survived a Wildfire | Sports Destination Management

How a Nebraska Golf Club Survived a Wildfire

Apr 25, 2024 | By: Andrew Hartsock

This aerial shot shows how a wildfire burned “right up to the edges” of the GrayBull Golf Club, but the course itself and all its critical infrastructure were saved, thanks in part to the quick actions of the golf maintenance team. Photo courtesy of the Dormie Network | Reprinted with permission of GCM

The following article was originally printed in Golf Course Management and is reproduced here with permission. The original article can be found at this link.

Tales of the exploits by Michael Sheely and his crew at the soon-to-be-opened GrayBull Golf Club during a wicked wildfire that tore through the Nebraska Sand Hills in February have taken on a biblical bent.

“The joke, and I hear it from my colleagues, is to compare me to Moses parting the Red Sea,” says Sheely, GrayBull’s GCSAA Class A director of agronomy and 20-year association member. “The fire went right round us. It just exploded. It’s surreal.”

Thanks to the quick actions by Sheely and his crew, those tales were more Old Testament than the end-of-the-world apocalyptic versions that could have come to pass. The Betty’s Way Fire, believed to have been sparked Feb. 26 by “mowing operations” near North Platte, Neb., burned through roughly 70,000 acres over the next several days. It paled when compared to the enormity of the historic and deadly Smokehouse Creek Fire — which torched a record 1 million-plus acres (larger than Rhode Island) — almost simultaneously in Texas and even, as of deadline for this issue of GCM, still wasn’t 100% contained.

But that didn’t make it any less harrowing for Sheely and his team when Betty’s Way, driven by 40-to-50-mph winds, bore down on them.

Sheely recalls at 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 26, he could see a smoke plume about 15 miles to the west.

Wildfire at Dormie
Photo courtesy of Dormie Network

“I didn’t think a whole lot of it,” he recalls. “Wildfires out here are fairly common. Last year we saw a few here and there. The sky’s so big here, you can see so far.”

An hour later, he received word it was eight miles way.

“At that point I was getting a little concerned,” he says. “I checked, and there was nothing crazy yet. At this point, I was in our new agronomy building and not really outdoors.”

Around noon, he received a text from assistant superintendent Katie Kramer, who was warned by a connection in the North Platte fire department that the wildfire was nearing the property and advised the maintenance team to turn on all the irrigation.

“So I go outside, and there’s smoke everywhere,” Sheely says. “Me and my equipment manager (Tyson Kramer, Katie’s husband) jump in the cart, and by 12:15, the fire’s on the property and burning. We flew to the pump station and kicked all the pumps on.”

But the irrigation was still winterized, and though it was partially charged to allow for winter watering, the two scrambled to open up laterals and kick on every sprinkler available. Then Sheely and the Kramers jumped in tractors and a skid steer to carve fire breaks in the land around the property.

“I wasn’t concerned about the golf course,” Sheely says. “We had the sprinklers running for hours. So, our focus turned to the structures, the cottages and clubhouse, and started making fire breaks.”

By 8 p.m., Sheely was confident the inferno no longer provided a threat. All the key infrastructure was untouched, as was the golf course. The only damage was to some construction material and four green covers that need to be replaced.

“We were pretty fortunate,” Sheely says.

Just as GrayBull, which is still on track for a mid-August opening, was fortunate to have the irrigation system and the crew it did on-site. 

The irrigation featured an underground decoder rather than the more-common above-ground satellite-based system. If it had had the latter, Sheely says, the satellites would have been torched and the irrigation system crippled.

Further, the Kramers were natives of the area and familiar with wildfires. And Sheely, as part of his schooling at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, took a course in native management, where he experienced prescribed burning. And his previous posting, ArborLinks in Nebraska City, routinely practiced managed burns.

“So I had six or seven years of experience with that, so I knew a little about fire and fire behavior,” he says. “But nothing prepares you for a wildfire. I told everyone our instincts kicked in, and we all knew what to do.

“None of us got real excited. It seemed almost normal the way we reacted. After all is said and done, oh, gosh, you hate to say it was fun. But the adrenaline goes, then you have the letdown after it’s all over. It was scary, and the smoke inhalation was pretty bad. We felt the effects for two to three days afterwards. I wouldn’t say I’d want to go through it again.”

Chances are, he might.

Meteorologists and climatologists warn a warming world is driving more extreme weather — higher highs, lower lows, more and more-dangerous storms and droughts — which all provide fuel for more and more-dangerous wildfires.

“It’s always a concern going forward,” Sheely says. “This year, most of it has already burned. There’s not a lot of fuel left. But in a couple more years … I’m thinking we might end up purchasing a water truck to have something on site, maybe add some hydrants to help the fire departments. We are going to host a training day for all the volunteer departments so they know where to go on property to fill up their trucks if there’s nobody on site. This really opened our eyes.”

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