CHADRON — Crews on Monday were still battling blazes that had blackened nearly 260 square miles in Nebraska and neighboring South Dakota. Authorities lifted evacuation orders for northern Panhandle residents whose homes had been threatened by the three raging wildfires.
The Douthit fire near Crawford was nearly contained Monday after charring about 47 square miles by Sunday night.
The West Ash Creek fire, which began south of Fort Robinson, had blackened more than 91 square miles and was half contained.
The Wellnitz fire, which began near Rushville and spread to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, was about 27 percent contained after burning about 120 square miles, Nebraska Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Jodie Fawl said Monday. Evacuation orders have been lifted for that fire, and residents of Whitney were allowed to return home Sunday after being threatened by the West Ash Creek fire.
At least three minor injuries were reported, and the fires have damaged at least 10 homes and more than 50 structures in the two states.
“We’ve got a very challenging situation out here because of the winds and the very dry conditions,” Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman said Sunday after touring the damage and meeting with officials. He said it would likely take several more days to fully contain the blazes.
More than 35 volunteer firefighting departments were working with the Ne-braska Emergency Management Agency and federal incident command teams to contain the three current blazes, which were sparked by lightning earlier in the week. No rain was predicted in the area until Thursday night, but an unexpected front that brought higher humidity, and light rain had the blazes looking considerably calmer.
“From midnight on, the fire just laid down” said Assistant Fire Chief Jerry Kearns of Rushville. “The wind dropped, the humidity rose and the fuel load somewhat diminished. We got a real break.”
Officials said they were optimistic that the conditions would help slow the fire’s progress, but they warned that the dry grass and trees in the area were still vulnerable to lightning strikes or sparks from the existing fires.
“They’re cautioning firefighters to hold the lines that have been constructed, and they’re watching those to try to catch anything that might be flopping over the line,” said Neal Kephart, a spokesman at the incident command center.
Most of the more than 450 firefighters battling wildfires in the Crawford-Chadron area were trying to corral the West Ash Creek Fire. A lightning strike south of Ponderosa Wildlife Management Area triggered the blaze. Flames moved across Squaw Creek Road and burned through parcels of Nebraska National Forest and Bighorn Wildlife Management Area, burning east toward Highway 385. At one point, the fire launched balls of fire more than 200 feet into the air. It scorched a swath roughly 2 miles wide and 16 miles long from near Crawford toward Chadron.
Firefighters have been successful in keeping the fire from crossing Highway 385 and heading toward Chadron.
Kephart said officials are also feeling more confident about their efforts to keep the West Ash Creek Fire from jumping Highway 20 and heading north to Whitney, which was evacuated early Saturday. Officials said about 400 people had been evacuated because of the West Ash-Douthit wildfires.
Scottsbluff High School graduate Yadira Gurrola, a freshman at Chadron State College, was among the students who left the 3,000-student campus Thursday morning.
“Our RA (resident assistant) knocked on our door at 5:30, telling us classes were canceled, and there was a pre-evacuation,” Gur-rola said.
The pre-evacuation was an effort to get as many students out of Chadron as possible so there would be fewer students to worry about in case of a mandatory evacuation, she said.
Gurrola said she and her roommate opened the win-dows of their dorm room before they left.
“We can’t see part of the hills and it’s all smoky,” she said. “All the smoke made our eyes burn, and it was kind of hard to breathe.”
College officials said the campus would remain open and students living in the residence halls were not required to leave. But they encouraged students going home for the Labor Day weekend to leave as soon as possible.
Gurrola said she couldn’t take her usual route on U.S. 385 to her hometown of Scottsbluff because of the fire. The highway was reduced to one-lane traffic in a stretch south of Chadron.
Jodi Fawl, a spokes-woman for the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, said 141 firefighters were battling the Wellnitz fire. The fire involved approximately 96,000 acres of the Pine Ridge and Beaver Wall area in Nebraska and crossed the South Dakota border onto the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The South Dakota portion of the fire burned as far north as Oglala.
The Red Cross opened two relief centers for people affected by the wildfires. In Chadron, people can go to St. Patrick’s Assumption Arena at 340 Cedar St. In Rushville, the center is at the Hope Baptist Mission, located at 218 E. Eighth St.
Some firefighters involved in the Douthit effort had been working with few breaks since the fire broke out Tuesday.
Ralph Reece, a member of the Harrison (Neb.) Fire Department, was on the first engine called to the fire. He worked for 30 hours before getting a break.
As the fire burst open, there were only a handful of firefighters and limited equipment to push back. One truck broke down and got a makeshift repair job with the help of a nearby rancher.
“It was scary,” Reece said. “We had no resources, and there was so much go-ing on, so fast.”
Dawes County Sheriff Karl Dailey urged residents to follow evacuation orders instead of risking their lives to protect their land.
“I know things are bad,” he said. “I know crops are in the crapper. I realize it’s dry, there’s no water for cattle. I have people selling off (their cattle). I understand that.”
After the fields started burning, offers of donations of hay, grain and animal feed started coming in from residents around the area, said John Griesinger, local district ranger for the Nebraska National Forest.
He said people here know that when ranchers struggle, so does the rest of Crawford.
“The area that burned is central to the economy here,” he said.
Many communities in the region responded by donat-ing large quantities of food, water and medical supplies to those in need. Local businesses provided trucks in the firefighting effort. At the Frontier Bar and Res-taurant in Crawford, owner Geralyn Dillard said she’d spent the past few days preparing big meals — and serving them at a discount — to hungry, weary firefighters. Down the street, Tim Bosak, manager at Herren Brothers’ True Value Hardware, said he’s been getting traffic from firefighters seeking gloves, coolers, even a toothbrush.
Doak Nickerson, a long-time Scottsbluff forester now based in Chadron, is a veteran of many wildfires in the Pine Ridge. He said the fire behavior is unprecedented in its extremes.
Flames erupting from timber in the West Ash Creek Fire exploded 200 to 300 feet — the length of a football field — into the air, he said.
“I’ve never seen flames like that before. Ever,’’ Nickerson said.
Nickerson, who spent about 48 hours on fire lines before retreating for a few hours of sleep, said hot, windy weather and inacces-sible canyons hindered fire crews.
“These big fires dictate everything (we) do,’’ he said. “And the wind plays with the fires, pushing it one direction one day, then switching to another and another. It’s a chess game or crapshoot.’’
— From wire service reports