Halsey: A Camp Engulfed, a Spirit Unyielding

Halsey: A Camp Engulfed, a Spirit Unyielding
One building of seventeen remains at the Halsey 4H Camp after last week's Bovee Fire.

HALSEY – How simple it is to accept death as a fact of life until one can see the ghosts. For the past week, 5,130 acres of Halsey National Forest was sent to cinders, further scarring a landscape which in recent years has seen its woods melt away by nearly 50%. And at the heart of it all, bright as a bullseye, was the Halsey 4-H Camp.

The camp’s staff house.
One of the camp’s sixteen structures destroyed by the Bovee Fire.

The staff house, almost inexplicably, was the sole survivor of 17 structures. Eerily, it stands entirely untouched; its windows are free of soot, clear as soap bubbles, and plastic chairs lounge on the concrete patio like a pair of old friends comfortable in silence and heat.

And not 30 feet away, the camp’s lodge, incubator, nursery, and cradle for central Nebraska’s collective memory, is a kingdom of ash and mangled tin, its borders grids of charred nails, still holding the shape of beams and walls long after they had burst into smoke.

Surveying the almost lunar craters and skeletal pins of what once were cedar trunks, 4H Foundation director Stu Shepherd points to a knot of rust-colored wreckage.

“Yesterday, when we were, that one was still burning, smoldering. You might still see that.”

4H Foundation Director Stu Shepherd (right) and Rocky Mountain Complex Incident Management Team Information Officer Brian Scott evaluate the extent of the fire’s destruction.

For 15 years Shepherd has nurtured the growth and well-being of the camp and campers; he knows every path, stone, and branch throughout the grounds. Today, however, he pokes at the dust with an absent foot like a child trying to recall the spelling of his middle name.

The placard, unearthed by Shepherd.

He pulls a battered placard from the soot no bigger than an index card.

“Somewhere right here was a tree, but a family had said, ‘We bought that tree in memory of our daughter,’ and I came up here knowing I had to look, and I found it right now.”

At a community meeting held on Thursday, Forest Management Officer Tedd Teahon, an anchor of the 45 fire department coalition’s defense against the Bovee Fire since its Sunday outbreak, relayed to Halsey that the small contingent defending the lodge was simply overwhelmed by the magnitude of the blaze, though fought nonetheless as if saving their own homes.

“They were starting to get a little progress, and then another tree went up. And then at that time, I believe it got into the eaves or the walls and smoke started coming out the front windows. Then the back windows blew out of the building, and they had no other choice but to leave. If you see those guys, it’s kind of hard; we all thought there was a chance.”

The lodge’s dedication plaque.
The lodge’s chimney.

For Halsey, for the forest, and for Stu Shepherd, the path forward promises growth, even if it starts small.

“I’m always the forever optimist. When we were up at the camp today, there’s grass coming up through the ashes, there are new pine cones on the ground, and those are all signs of hope that there will be a good tomorrow.”

The Forest Service is already weighing repopulating the experimental forest without the troublesome eastern cedar, summer plans for 2023 campers will be changed only in terms of location, and central Nebraska will once again convene at the camp for months of cleanup to build and rebuild new memories.

Below: Aerial photographs courtesy of the Nebraska State Patrol.