Nebraska firefighters make headway against flames

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September 4th, 2012

Omaha, NE – Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman spent part of the long weekend surveying fire damage in western Nebraska.

Firefighters have been battling three fires near Chadron and Rushville in Nebraska’s panhandle since late last week. The fires have consumed approximately 165,339 acres in Nebraska and South Dakota, spreading into the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Gov. Dave Heineman and NEMA’s Al Berndt survey fire damage near Rushville on Sunday, Sept. 2.

As of Tuesday morning, the Douthit fire was 95% contained and had burned 29,730 acres, according to a statement from the Rocky Mountain Area Incident Management Team. The West Ash fire was 65% contained and had consumed 58,450 acres.

The Wellnitz fire near Rushville was 27 percent contained as of Monday, with over 77,159 acres affected, according to Jodie Fawl, a spokesperson for the Nebraska Emergency Management Association.

Heineman toured the affected areas Sunday with NEMA Assistant Director Al Berndt. In a statement, Heineman said progress has been made, but “the extreme drought and wind conditions continue to present an eminent threat.” Nebraska has been suffering through extreme drought conditions through much of the summer.

Black soot is all that is left near at the site of the West ash fire at Chadron State Park near Chadron Neb., Sunday Sept. 2, 2012. Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman toured the West ash fire site and visited with local officals. (AP Photo/POOL/THE Omaha World-Herald/Jeff Beiermann)

Western Nebraska has been particularly hard hit. The U.S. Drought Monitor currently lists the area in an extreme drought, with a large swath of west central Nebraska in exceptional drought conditions, the most severe category.

According to the statement, Chadron Fire Chief Pat Gould told Heineman “Firefighters have put more water on the ground than Mother Nature this year.”

An aerial survey of Rushville fire damage. (Photo courtesy State of Nebraska)

Joe Lowe, Incident Commander for the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team, told the Governor more than 650 firefighters were on the ground near Chadron on Sunday, along with about 100 Nebraska National Guard personnel and dozens of volunteers.

Many of those firefighters were relieved Monday, as the crews began to make headway against the flames. In Rushville, Incident Commander Todd Richardson said crews who had been on the fire line the longest would be released first. Richardson said crews have identified areas where significant heat is a continued concern. One area is near the Oglala Reservoir in South Dakota, where “dried reeds and cattails continue to smolder.”

Officials said two homes, two commercial buildings and 24 outbuildings have been destroyed in the flames. All evacuation orders were lifted as of Sunday night, and most residents have been allowed to return to their homes.

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