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Fires hit parts of NE and SD

Winds hamper firefighters in Nebraska and South Dakots

HAY SPRINGS, Neb. | September 3, 2012

Fickle winds fanning brazen wildfires across 250 square miles of bone-dry northwest Nebraska weakened but officials expressed concern they could rise up again.

"While progress has been made, especially in the Crawford- and Chadron-area fires, the extreme drought and wind conditions continue to present an imminent threat," Gov. Dave Heineman said Sunday after an aerial tour of the damage and meeting with officials and firefighters in tiny Rushville and Hay Springs and the city of Chadron. He also toured Chadron State Park within the Nebraska National Forest, where a fire was nearly contained.

About 1,000 firefighters from several states and National Guard members, supported by local volunteer firefighters, battled at least three major blazes overnight in winds gusting to about 20 mph.

Winds Sunday gusted to more than 40 mph, spreading flames through tinder-dry trees and arid brown grasslands.

The Wellnitz fire, north of Rushville, was the most active, breaking through containment lines Sunday and burning about 150 square miles north of Hay Springs, population 570, and Rushville, population 890, and into the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwest South Dakota, the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency said late Sunday.

The Oglala Sioux reservation, just north of Chadron, is the eighth-largest American Indian reservation in the United States.

About 75 square miles in the reservation and nearby parts of South Dakota were blackened, officials said.

The Crawford- and Chadron-area fires, known as the the West Ash and Douthit fires, burned more than 100 square miles in Nebraska. Those fires are generally about 80 percent contained, officials said.

At least a dozen homes and more than four dozen non-residential structures were at least partially burned in the fires in both states, officials estimated.

Several small communities were evacuated. The 77 residents Whitney, southwest of Chadron, were allowed to return home Sunday, along with property owners around the rugged hills of the Crow Butte uranium mining operation, the Omaha World-Herald reported.

The newspaper described the area earlier as "a massive orange ball of fire."

"We are experiencing some of the worst-behaving fires in my 33 years of fire service," Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team Incident Commander Joe Lowe told Rushville's Sheridan County Journal Star.

"But our approach is always, 'One Team, One Fight,'" he said.

Chadron Fire Chief Pat Gould said, "Firefighters have put more water on the ground than Mother Nature this year."

"We're not going to forget the people in western Nebraska, even when the fires are over," Heineman said, promising to return in the fall to meet with officials about supporting ranchers who lost animals and grazing land in the fire.

"What happens for our farmers and ranchers -- that's our next priority," Rushville Mayor Chris Heiser had told Heineman.

Gale Hankins, 58, who has lived in the area all his life, told the World-Herald that this time last year the land was underwater because of flooding from a nearby creek.

He survived that and would get through this too, he told the newspaper.

"We worked a week to get our cattle back and fences fixed," he said. "And now we're doing it again."

2012 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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