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Nebraska, South Dakota battle punishing wind-whipped wildfires

September 02, 2012|By Matt Pearce
  • Mark Davis / Associated Press
Mark Davis / Associated Press (m9qo7spd20120902182052/600 )

KANSAS CITY, Mo. —  Large, wind-driven wildfires whipped across Nebraska and into South Dakota as Isaac's tropical rains swung east of the drought-parched hinterlands.

Nebraska's sparsely populated northwest corner, abutting South Dakota, is the latest hot spot in a long firefighting season for the dry American West.

On Friday, fire officials ordered residents along Highway 385 to evacuate as soon as possible.

“Fire crews are making every effort to stop the fire and protect property in the fire area, but Mother Nature is not cooperating,” officials said in a statement. “If the fire were to jump Highway 385, residents will not have time to collect their personal belongings.”

Isaac did provide a bit of help over the weekend. The disintegrating storm system brought lower overnight temperatures to about 1,000 personnel fighting the fires before triple-digit heat returned on Sunday.

"From midnight on, the fire just laid down," Assistant Fire Chief Jerry Kearns of Rushville, Neb., said in a statement. "The wind dropped, the humidity rose and the fuel load somewhat diminished. We got a real break."

But winds picked up again Sunday, fanning the flames. Officials told the Associated Press that the area's multiple blazes had tripled in size, consuming about 285 square miles -- more than 182,000 acres. 

Officials are trying to protect Chadron, Neb., a town  of 5,851 near the South Dakota border, against the Region 23 complex fire, which is 47% contained and churning through more than 30,000 acres of  forests and canyons.

Evacuation orders are expected to remain in place throughout afflicted areas at least through Monday, according to fire officials’ latest update.

The  96,000-acre Wellnitz fire, 12 miles north of Rushville, has moved into the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. With the help of strong winds, the flames were consuming areas favored by deer and turkey hunters. Crews from more than 35 fire departments had joined that fight.

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman toured some of the fire damage on Sunday and told the Associated Press he expected the firefighting to last another four to six weeks.

Both fires are thought to have been started by lightning in the middle of last week.

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