The drought-driven wildfires that scoured much of the American west in the summer of 2012 hit home in late July for the founding director of the St. Ambrose Master of Physician Assistant program.
What has been called the Niobrara River Valley Fire blackened 76,000 acres of sand hills and canyon land in northwest Nebraska, including the 160-acre farm that Clare Kennedy and her husband, Joel, have called home for nine years.
The couple and their pets escaped unharmed. But on July 24, the fire burned three of their five buildings to the ground, including a 90-year-old guesthouse where the Kennedys stored appliances, pictures, scrapbooks and her grandmother's antique furniture. Also gutted by the blaze were a barn and garage containing a 50-year-old tractor.
Saved by preventative measures taken by firefighters were the modular home in which the Kennedys reside and a century-old house on the property's outskirts that they were in the process of renovating.
"There literally was black on the ground up to the walls of the buildings," said Clare Kennedy, who was less than a month into her job at St. Ambrose but rushed back to Nebraska when she learned that the Niobrara blaze, which had been sparked by a lightning strike, was nearing her home. "They bulldozed the entire front yard to save the house. I give those guys credit because I would have been hightailing it out of there."
The Kennedys had evacuated to a motel as the fire first approached, but were allowed to return when the fire line appeared to be holding. But the line didn't hold and when the final order to evacuate came, the Kennedys packed their four dogs and four cats and as many precious mementos as they could fit in a car and left. On July 24, they learned the fire had found their farm. They returned around noon that same day to assess the damage.
"We skirted around where the active fire was and came in to see what we had left," she said. "There were flare-ups everywhere. There were stumps on fire and, when we got to our place, it was still smoking and there were several little fires.
"Nothing could prepare you. You think there might be something you could sift through and save, but there was nothing."
In the days since, Kennedy said she and her husband have learned the lost buildings were under-insured and that damage to the land is not covered. They had planned to sell the farm in the fall and move to Davenport but the property now is worth less than they owe, she said.
Joel will continue clean-up efforts there through winter while Clare has returned to St. Ambrose.
"We keep telling ourselves that the material things we lost are just that - material," she said. "But many of those things did hold sentimental value and can't be replaced. The big loss is our land. To see things black and burned has been difficult."
Even the fish in their ponds have been killed by the run-off of soot and ash, she said. But poignant reminders about life's resilience do help.
"I always fed the deer in back of the house," she said. "One of the days I was home after the fire, I looked out the back window and there were deer that made it through with their three fawns. They were all scorched, but they were alive.
"It was one of those sights where you go, ‘Well, you just move on."'