Nebraska Officials Prepare for Wildfire Threat

By GRANT SCHULTE | July 23, 2013

State and local officials are preparing for another possible round of wildfires in Nebraska by providing additional training and more equipment for first responders who fought massive blazes last year.

Nebraska has added a single-engine firefighting plane to its arsenal during fire season, and approved extra training to help local firefighters meet national emergency-response standards.

The additional resources were part of the Wildfire Control Act, a state law approved following extensive wildfires last year in remote parts of Nebraska. Under a contract with the state, the privately owned plane will operate out of bases in Alliance, Valentine and Chadron.

According to the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, the state experienced 1,570 wildfires last year that burned a total of 786 square miles – nearly seven times the size of Omaha. The fires destroyed 65 buildings and cost the state about $12 million.

State emergency officials said 98 percent of the wildfires were caused by lightning strikes.

The state has avoided major fires this year because of greater humidity and fewer windy days, said Don Westover, a rural fire protection leader for the Nebraska Forest Service. But Westover said the state could easily slip back into a severe fire season after a week of hot, dry weather.

“We’ve dodged a bullet, so far,” Westover said. “But things can dry out in a week or so, so we’re not letting our guard down.”

A top official with the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency traveled the state last week to discuss ways the state can provide help to local firefighters.

Al Berndt, the agency’s assistant director, said he visited with departments in Ainsworth, Valentine, and other rural, northern Nebraska agencies that were overwhelmed last year.

Berndt said he urged local fire officials not to hesitate to request state aid if they believe a fire is too much for them to handle alone. Mobilizing emergency helicopters and other state resources to a rural fire scene can take 8 to 12 hours, Berndt said, and in some cases last year the additional time allowed fires to spread over a larger area.

“The quicker that information can travel up the chain, the better,” Berndt said. “It takes time to put a large-scale response together.”

Recent rain has helped ease the drought and fire risk in Nebraska, but most of the state remains dry.

Nearly 98 percent of the state remains in some stage of drought, according to a U.S. Drought Monitor report released on Tuesday. More than 39 percent of Nebraska was still classified as having “extreme” or “exceptional” drought conditions, the most severe classifications on a five-point scale.

The conditions were worst in parts of western and southern Nebraska, including areas that were hit by fires last year.

In northern Nebraska, state officials are working to thin the trees and vegetation that helped fuel many of last year’s massive fires, said Doug Fox, an emergency manager who oversees a five-county area known as Region 24. Fox said emergency crews have also signed with contractors that can quickly provide bulldozers and heavy machinery to set fire lines.

“If we get another week of hot, dry weather, like we have now, a lot of moisture will be gone,” Fox said. “If you have the right conditions, things can escalate really quickly.”

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