Mike Wright, Daniel Parker and Jake Schwarting were the first on the scene of Thursday's house fire in Neligh. They helped one occupant get out safely and also saved a dog inside a burning kennel.
The first photo taken of the Blecher fire.
The back of the garage where the kennel was just before firetrucks arrived.
Brian Hain from the City of Neligh arrived within minutes of the call to cut power to the home.
Jake Schwarting about 10 minutes into fighting the fire - soaking wet - getting equipment for his fellow firefighters.
Fire Chief Mike Mortensen commands the scene early in the fight on Thursday afternoon.
The back of the garage, showing the kennel, as firefighters work to save the structure.
The flames can be seen having spread across the roof of the garage, moving toward the rest of the home.
Firefighters continue working to save the rest of the home.
A pickup was pulled from the garage. Inside, it was a continuous source of fuel working against the firefighters.
By 2:15 a.m., the fire had flared back up due to a hot spot and took little time to light up the night sky.
By Friday morning, what was once considered a save is now ruled a total loss.
A trio of Neligh first-responders were at the right place at the right time Thursday afternoon. Not only did they help a teenage occupant out of a burning home, but they also saved the family dog that was penned inside of a burning kennel.
Neligh Police Chief Mike Wright, Nebraska State Patrol Trooper Daniel Parker and Neligh Fire Third Captain Jake Schwarting were first on the scene of the fire at Mike and LouAnn Blecher's home at 807 E. 3rd Street.
Coincidentally, all three are members of the Neligh Volunteer Fire Department.
"We were just doing our job - what we've been trained to do," said Schwarting, a 14-year veteran of the fire department.
Although all three men downplayed their actions, they each played vital roles that afternoon.
First On The Scene Parker, who lives just a couple houses up from Blecher's on 3rd Street, was getting ready to go on duty with the Nebraska State Patrol when the call came in. He saw smoke out of his kitchen window at the same time his pager went off.
Schwarting was already on 3rd Street, driving a semi back to work when he saw a puff of smoke belly up from behind the home. He stopped at the corner, put his flashers on and sprinted to the home as the sirens started to blare.
"I ran behind the house to see what was burning. I saw the siding on the garage on fire and noticed a dog in the kennel, so I let him out," Schwarting said.
Wright was on duty with the Neligh Police Department and was dispatched to the scene. He and Parker arrived at about the same time - seconds after Schwarting. Wright asked if anyone was in the home. Schwarting was unsure, and the pair ran to the front door.
They yelled several times into the home. It was around 3:45 p.m. Both adults were working and the children would have been barely out of school on a typical day. But Neligh-Oakdale dismissed at 1 p.m. Thursday due to Bruce Hild's funeral.
"We were leaving the house when Brittany popped up from the couch. She had taken a nap after school and was asleep," Schwarting said. "I told her to get out - the house was on fire. She didn't know what was going on."
With the Neligh-Oakdale freshman and another dog and cat, the firefighters took everyone outside of the burning home. Although the fire began in the garage, smoke was already creeping into the rest of the house.
City of Neligh utility worker Brian Hain responded immediately and was cutting power to the home as firetrucks arrived with nearly three dozen firefighters to battle the blaze.
"It felt like it took forever for them to get there," Schwarting said. "It was actually just a couple of minutes, but when you're on that end of it, time slows down. Everything is happening around you."
Everyone Has A Job The three first responders went different directions - all doing different jobs. Wright took Brittany Ingalls to her father at Green Line Equipment, Schwarting started attacking the fire and Parker left with the burned Golden Retriever.
Remember the dog in the burning kennel?
"His back was black and he had scrapes on his face, so I knew he had to get to a vet right away," Parker said. "I put him in the cage in my patrol car and called my vet in Tilden - Tony Miller. He was on a call but came back right away to care for the dog."
As it turned out, Dr. Miller was also the Blecher's vet and was familiar with the dog, who had a severe burn on one leg and several cuts. The dog survived, and Parker said the animal will be fine.
The kennel behind the attached garage had flames shooting through it when firefighters arrived.
What They Are Trained For The three firefighters are all in different stages of their careers.
With 14 years under his belt, Schwarting has the most training and experience. Wright, who has been the police chief for two years, is in his fifth year on the fire department.
Parker is the newest member. He's had his locker for a mere three months, and Thursday was his first fire as a Neligh firefighter, although he's been to plenty with the state patrol.
"This is what you train for," Wright said. "Anybody with one of these lockers would have done exactly what we did. There are 45 guys who are trained to do that."
Neligh can have 45 firefighters (35 city, 10 rural), and there currently are no vacancies. They may be volunteers, but they dedicate hours training every year, besides the time spent fighting fires and saving structures and land.
"When there's a need, it's filled. For me, I'm following the lead of a lot of guys who came before me to wear these boots. This is what you're supposed to do," Wright said. "In a city, there are professional firefighters and EMTs. But in a small community, nearly everybody walking down the street is firefighter, EMT or some kind of volunteer."
Same House, Second Fire The Blecher fire was extinguished and the last truck left the scene about 8 p.m. Thursday. Fire Chief Mike Mortensen said nothing in the home was over 90 degrees, according to the infrared, when they cleared the scene.
The fire marshal determined a wall mounted 110-volt electric heater malfunctioned in the garage and caused the fire.
Or at least the first fire.
Still on duty, Parker drove by the home slowly at 1:50 a.m. Friday morning. The Neligh police drove by at 2 a.m. They each saw no signs of a fire.
At 2:13 a.m., their pagers went off and the sirens sounded again.
Parker was in the shower when his pager went off. Just having finished a 10-hour shift with the patrol, Parker went back to work. This time as a volunteer firefighter.
Wright and Schwarting returned, too, as did most of the department.
Nearly all of the same volunteers put on their cold and wet gear to battle the a second fire at the same house less than 12 hours after the first call came in - with very little, if any, sleep. The second fire ran rampant quickly. Firefighters were on the scene in minutes, but by the time they arrived, the structure was fully engulfed due to a hot spot in the southern area of the home.
"That was frustrating. Our guys were really discouraged with that second call and felt like they had failed," Schwarting said. "We had saved that house, saved their personal belongings. To get that second call, that was really tough."
The Right Thing To Do Most firefighters were back at the fire hall around 6:30 a.m. Friday, just in time for a majority to go to work. Schwarting said he went home, got his two kids ready for elementary school and put in a full day's work - like many other firefighters.
"I think everyone appreciates what we do. We're volunteers - there's no pay," Wright said. "We do it because people need us to do it. They need us to help."
Parker added, "We do it because it's the right thing to do. That's why - it's just the right thing."
* * * Editor's Note: When asked what a civilian should do if they are first on scene of a fire, the firefighters said the priority is to make sure authorities have been notified. Do not enter a burning structure without proper training. And once you have evacuated a structure on fire, do not go back inside.