By Josh Funk Associated Press
OMAHA, Neb. — Wildfires in northwestern Nebraska tripled in size in less than 24 hours, as strong winds pushed flames through the rugged, rural terrain.
More than 285 square miles — an area more than twice the size of the state’s largest city, Omaha — had burned by Sunday afternoon, fire officials said. One of the fires had crossed into South Dakota this weekend and burned more than 50 square miles, including land on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
A day earlier, the fires had only burned roughly 93 square miles in the ranching territory that’s favored by deer and turkey hunters.
“We’ve got a very challenging situation out here because of the winds and the very dry conditions,” Gov. Dave Heineman said Sunday after touring the damage and meeting with officials.
Cooler weather moved through the area Saturday night, helping firefighters mostly contain two major fires — the West Ash and Douthit fires — near Chadron. But winds gusted up to 40 mph Sunday, helping spread the fires through drought-stricken trees and grasses.
The Wellnitz fire, north of Rushville, broke through containment lines Sunday, Heineman said. The Nebraska Emergency Management Agency said it had burned roughly 150 square miles by Sunday evening.
Heineman said it will likely take several more days to fully contain the fires, but he says firefighters appear to have all the resources they need to do that.
Overall, the fires have damaged at least 10 homes and more than 50 structures in Nebraska and South Dakota. The fires also forced the evacuation of several small communities, although residents of the small town of Whitney, southwest of Chadron, were allowed to return home Sunday.
Rushville Assistant Fire Chief Jerry Kearns said Sunday that firefighters are working hard to contain the fires and protect property, but they sometimes have to make difficult choices. Kearns said it’s hard to watch a rancher’s hay burn because of this summer’s ongoing drought.
Those very ranchers know the wildfires will scar the land.
Verona Douthit, 65, has always lived in these hills on land her family bought in 1929. Because one of the current fires started on her ranch, officials have named it after her last name.
Douthit says she knows it takes a long time for the land to recover — some of her family’s land burned in 1989 — and the pine trees she loves may never be the same.
“It probably will take a person’s lifetime to see it like it was again, and it may never happen,” Douthit said.
The Douthit fire is nearly contained, but it burned about 30,000 acres. The other fire in the area, the West Ash fire, had consumed nearly 58,000 acres by Sunday and was about half contained.
Douthit said it has been fantastic to see the way people came together to help fight the fire and support those affected. She and her 66-year-old husband especially appreciated the help because of their age.
“We’re retirement age, so we’re not as agile anymore,” Douthit said.
Firefighters have already battled several wildfires in Nebraska this summer, and more than 35 volunteer firefighting departments are working with NEMA and federal incident command teams to contain these.
Conditions are likely to remain ripe for fires for at least several more weeks because the land is so dry.
“Firefighters have put more water on the ground than Mother Nature this year,” Chadron Fire Chief Pat Gould said during the governor’s tour.