Firefighters go home as fires abate

Vegetation shows signs of the heat after the West Ash Creek fire burned through the Chadron State Park area. The fire burned a few homes but mostly trees and grass. The fire was listed as 85 percent contained Tuesday afternoon.

CHADRON — A massive demobilization will continue today as three fires that scorched 214 square miles in the northern Panhandle are pretty much contained.

Beth Hermanson, public information officer with the Type II Incident Management Team, said Tuesday afternoon that overall, both the West Ash Fire, near Chadron State Park, and the Douthit Fire north of Crawford were 85 percent contained.

She said no mandatory evacuations are active and that residents were allowed to return home Sunday night.

“The fire did not cross (Highway) 385,” she said. “(Tuesday) crews were patrolling and mopping up and checking for hot spots.”

Hermanson said a “massive” demobilization would begin Tuesday evening, as some of the nearly 800 firefighters and volunteers would be allowed to go home. She said that by this evening, about 80-100 members of the Type III Team would be in charge of the fire.

The two fires near here have burned 88,180 acres, and both were started by lightning.

Fire officials said residents might find their homes and lawns have been affected by fire retardant, which was used over the weekend.

Students at Chadron State College returned to classes on Tuesday. The campus was not evacuated or closed, but classes were called off both Thursday and Friday because of the fires that were in the surrounding areas. The fires have scorched more than 165,000 acres in the region, but have been stopped several miles short of reaching Chadron and the CSC campus.

“Fortunately, other than a lot of smoke, the fires stayed clear of the campus. It’s always better to be safe than sorry when dealing with something as dangerous as a wildfire,” said Dr. Randy Rhine, CSC interim president. “I’m thankful for the incredible work of emergency personnel and glad that students were able to return to classes as scheduled this week.”

In addition to firefighters and law enforcement agencies, Rhine extended his gratitude to Chadron Public Schools for offering Chadron Intermediate School as a possible evacuation site. He also thanked the countless people working behind the scenes in the firefighting effort.

Fire officials said progress was being made on the other fire, the Wellnitz Fire, that originated in Nebraska and burned north into the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It has burned 77,159 acres — 48,681 in Nebraska and 28,478 in South Dakota.

Firefighters from more than 20 volunteer departments were battling the blaze in an area north of Highway 20 and between Beaver Wall Road and Highway 87. Fifty households in the sparsely inhabited area were notified to evacuate — 20 of those were mandatory orders. Officials are reporting that there have been no fatalities or serious injuries attributed to the fire. And while no homes have been lost to the fire, numerous outbuildings have been destroyed.

Sheridan County Deputy Emergency Manager Everette Langford said Northwest Rural Electric Association public power company reported losses or damage to about 100 poles in Sheridan County. He said there could be double or triple that number once a full assessment is completed.

The Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office also reported that crews have begun road repairs. Sheridan County Road Superintendent Tom Kuester has requested that all non-essential traffic avoid roads affected by the fire until repairs can be made.

Gusty, warm winds and dangerously low humidity levels again created what are classified as “critically” dangerous fire conditions Tuesday. The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for a large part of the northern Plains and northern Rockies, including the region where Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming come together.

As of Monday, five dwellings had been lost to those fires, but that number could go up as a damage assessment team gets a better look at the burned area. Sheila French, spokeswoman for the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team C in Chadron, said Monday that authorities weren’t ready to declare victory yet, but said they “feel really good.”

“We like to say it’s not over till it’s over,” she said.

All state highways were open in the northern Panhandle, though officials were warning travelers to beware of smoke and emergency responders. Roads could be closed intermittently, and motorists are advised to stay off county roads.

The Hudson-Meng bone beds, Toadstool geological park and Chadron State Park remained closed Monday.

World-Herald News Service contributed to this story.

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