CAMBRIDGE — It’s just a grass fire, someone scoffed. Why is Hot Meals USA going out there?
That’s what someone muttered to Dick Cochran, Hot Meals USA founder and president, last week after FEMA asked Cochran to take his Hot Meals USA trailer out to areas scorched by wildfires in southwest Nebraska.
When he set up in Cambridge Monday, he didn’t see smoke, but Tuesday, billowing smoke blotted out the sky and the sun and fierce winds made the situation “a little more scary,” he said. “The fire is starting all over, and the firefighters are running wild. The smoke it all around us,” he said.
Since then, he’s been feeding roughly 300 people a day, including firefighters and support people. His job is easy, he said.
“I don’t think I would have the courage these firefighters have,” he said. “There’s lots of hurting going on here. Our day starts at 4 a.m. and isn’t done till 10 p.m., but we don’t fight the fires.”
Dick Cochran, founder HotMeals USA
Five people have been injured. Two have died, including Elwood Fire Chief Darren Krull, 54, who died in a crash on a smoke-blinded road, and retired Cambridge Fire Chief John P. Trumble, who, volunteering as a spotter, died in a fire-related incident April 22.
The driver of Krull’s vehicle, Justin Norris, the Phelps County Emergency Manager, was critically injured but is now recovering at Madonna Rehabilitation Center in Omaha.
Cochran has been deeply humbled by what he’s seen. “These men and women are made of stuff most of us only dream of becoming. To call them ‘heroes’ just doesn’t seem to be enough,” he said.
His task, however, is equally important. It’s not life-threatening. It’s life-giving.
Getting the call
Cochran jokes that “I’m the guy they don’t want to see coming. When I come, things happen.”
Ever since he founded Hot Meals USA in 2018, central Nebraska has been plagued with floods, COVID-19, derechos (in nearby Iowa) and, now, wildfires.
Late last week, he and Ron Lunbery, a Hot Meals USA volunteer, drove to Mayfield, Kentucky, to pick up the Hot Meals USA trailer Cochran had left there to feed victims after tornadoes devastated the town in early December.
On Sunday, just a day and a half after coming home from that trip, he got the request from FEMA to go to Cambridge.
On Monday, Cochran, Lunbery and two other volunteers, Jeff Hendrix and Don Peterson, arrived in Cambridge to set up the Hot Meals USA trailer in the city park next to the Cambridge Volunteer Fire Department.
Their day starts at 4 a.m. They serve a hot breakfast 6-8 a.m. They don’t serve lunch; instead, firefighters get sack lunches to take into the field.
When they return to town in the evening, Hot Meals has a hot supper waiting from 5-8 p.m. Helping them are volunteers from Cambridge, nearby towns and Rotarians from North Platte, roughly 75 miles away. Cochran is a member of the Dawn Rotary Club here.
Volunteers finish cleaning up by 10 p.m., so it’s a 16-hour day for Hot Meals, “but our work is easy. I don’t think I would have the courage these firefighters have. They look into the doorway to hell and say bring it on! We’ll beat you!”
4,000 calories a day
Firefighters need 4,000 calories a day out in the field, so for breakfast, Hot Meals serves French toast, scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy, fresh fruit juice and granola bars. Thursday morning, firefighters ate 14 dozen eggs and 15 pounds of sausage. Only a few pancakes were left over.
Hot Meals serves 150 people for breakfast. How many in the evening? “That’s hard to count,” Cochran said. “The trouble with this is that you don’t know. If winds come up, the fire spreads. Some days we feed 80 people, but if the fire spreads, we might feed 300,” he said.
He and Lunbery make the 80-mile drive from Kearney to Cambridge and back every day, leaving Kearney around 4 a.m. He gets the food from Cash-Wa, which delivers it daily to Mom & Dad’s B-B-Q and Catering at 222 W. 42nd St., which is owned by Cochran’s son. Cochran loads the food into the Hot Meals trailer so he can start out before dawn the next morning.
Still, 150 or so per meal is “a small crowd” to Cochran. To him, “big numbers” means thousands of people, not a few hundred, but figures don’t matter. Keeping firefighters fed is what’s critical.
Smoke smothers the blue sky in southwestern Nebraska near Cambridge, where HotMeals U.S.A. is feeding firefighters and others. Photo by Dick Cochran
Volunteers come forward
Monday evening, Cambridge Rotary Club president Debbi Runner sent out an email seeking volunteers. Kearney’s Don Peterson contacted Rotarian Brenda Hayes, who alerted Rotary clubs in Lexington and McCook that volunteers were needed. Volunteers could sign up online.
For Ron Lunbery, a Cambridge native, this assignment is a poignant one. He drove to Cambridge last Saturday to check the wildfire situation and found “smoke still flying, hot and heavy.” The fire was chewing away at a bridge and had stopped an Amtrak train on the BNSF tracks.
The night before, Cambridge, Indianola and Bartley residents were told to evacuate. Residents left, then returned, then were told to leave again because the fire was moving in a different direction. With winds rising, authorities feared it would come back.
Cochran can’t say enough about local volunteers.
“Brenda Hayes has been here every single meal. It makes my life really really easy. I bring the food from Cash-Wa in Kearney. They made all the sandwiches in the fire hall, ready to be loaded up.”
He praised a volunteer named Kathy, who “worked her tail off. She organizes all the stuff donated at the fire hall and brings it down here. She makes sure the coffee pot is full and ready to go. We just plug it in in the morning.”
There was Cheryl Haakenson of Cambridge, who helped Wednesday night at the fire station and assisted Hot Meals Thursday.
“People who are here have been wonderful, bringing so many things. It’s pretty much local communities doing everything,” Haakenson said.
Louise Hoffmann of North Platte was volunteering for the first time Thursday. “The fires are heartbreaking. The Hot Meals program is so great. It’s a great place to spend the afternoon,” she said.
The volunteers talked about the fires, too. Fires have charred ground in a path 80 miles long and 20 miles wide here. Firefighters are here from many states, including California, Oregon, South Dakota.
“It’s the sound of the fires that is scary. It sounds like trains,” Hoffman said. She saw houses evacuated, National Guard units hard at work.
“Watch when the firefighters come in tonight,” Cochran said. “Some have clean clothes on, but others come in covered with soot and ash.” He talked of flames jumping pastures, jumping here, burning a barn on one property but leaving the farmhouse standing.
Since Hot Meals was launched in 2019, inflation has hit hard. Cochran had gotten meal costs down to about $2.50 per meal, but they’re now up to $5.50.
He has received donations for this Cambridge effort from various people and businesses, including John McCoy, owner of Orthmann Manufacturing in Lexington (“He called, asked what I needed and wrote a check”), as well as Kearney Regional Medical Center, Phelps Memorial Hospital in Holdrege, and from a businessman in Grand Island.
Initially, Cochran expected to be finished in Cambridge on Friday, but Thursday morning, FEMA asked him to remain through the weekend. He will stay as long as needed, he said.
Cliff Piper from Redding, Calif., is part of the Rocky Mountain Complex Incident Management Team. He flew from San Francisco to Omaha Monday, then drove to North Platte and south to Cambridge to help run the camp. Piper is a recreation officer at Shasta-Trinity National Forest when he’s not helping fight fires.
As he waited in line for supper Thursday, he said what he sees in Cambridge is heartwarming.
“So many people are coming and helping and donating, helping. Being here restores my belief in people,” he said.
The sun tries to squeeze between clouds early in the week as wildfires raged in Red Willow, Furnas and Frontier counties, and south into Phillips and Norton counties in Kansas. Photo by Dick Cochran