OMAHA, Neb. – Firefighters across the country are battling growing wildfires as tinder-dry conditions and high winds whip up flames from Arizona to Florida — including a wildfire in rural southwestern Nebraska that has killed one person, injured at least 15 firefighters and destroyed at least six homes, an official said.
Nearly a dozen new large fires were reported over the weekend across the nation — four in New Mexico, three in Colorado and one each in Florida, Nebraska, South Dakota and Texas. With more than 1,350 square miles burned so far this year, officials at the National Interagency Fire Center said the amount of land singed so far is outpacing the 10-year average by about 30%.
Hotter, drier weather has combined with a persistent drought to worsen fire danger across many parts of the West, where decades of fire suppression have resulted in overgrown and unhealthy forests and increasing development have put more communities at risk.
In northern New Mexico, evacuations remained in place for several communities Monday and conditions were still too volatile for authorities to assess the damage caused Friday and Saturday. The blaze has grown into the largest wildfire burning in the U.S., charring more than 88 square miles.
In Arizona, firefighters were taking advantage of lighter winds to boost containment of a more than 33-square-mile blaze that has been burning outside of Flagstaff for more than a week. Strong winds that had fueled the fire are expected to return later this week. Meanwhile, hundreds of evacuated residents were given the go-ahead on Sunday to return home.
In Nebraska, more than 80 firefighters, emergency management personnel and others were helping fight the fire, known as the Road 702 Fire, according to Jonathan Ashford, spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Complex Incident Management Team. By early Monday, it had burned nearly 65 square miles of mostly rolling rangeland in Red Willow, Furnas and Frontier counties. That’s less than the 78 square miles initially reported by fire officials over the weekend.
By late Sunday, the fire had destroyed at least six homes and threatened 660 others, along with 50 commercial or farm buildings, Ashford said.
A retired Cambridge, Nebraska, fire chief who was helping as a fire spotter in Red Willow County died Friday night after his truck went off the road in a blinding haze of smoke and dust. The body of John Trumble, 66, of Arapahoe, was recovered around early Saturday.
Raging winds have kept fire crews from containing any of the perimeter of the Nebraska fire. Somewhat higher humidity and lesser winds Monday had firefighters scrambling to dig trenches and create other breaks along the blaze's outer edge, Ashford said.
“Tomorrow, we expect higher winds to return, so time is of the essence,” he said.
Trumble was the second person in a month to die while fighting a wildfire in southwest Nebraska. Elwood Volunteer Fire Chief Darren Krull, 54, was killed in a collision with a water tanker on April 7 in Furnas County as smoke cut visibility to zero.
Nebraska remains critically dry, said Ashford, who urged residents to use caution when doing anything that could spark a fire.
“The last thing we need is to have another fire started that we have to then fight,” he said.
Susan Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque.