Firefighters making headway against Neb. blazes

September 3, 2012 - 8:45 PM
APTOPIX Wildfires

In this Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012 photo, smoke plumes rise from the West Ash Creek wildfire near Crawford Neb. The blaze is one of three wildfires burning in Nebraska and South Dakota, started earlier in the week by lightning. (AP Photo/Omaha World-Herald, Mark Davis) MAGS OUT; ALL NEBRASKA LOCAL BROADCAST TV OUT

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Some firefighters who have battled the western Nebraska and South Dakota wildfires for nearly a week are being sent home, a fire official said Monday.

The three fires have burned nearly 260 square miles, but firefighters have made considerable progress on the Douthit and West Ash fires near Chadron, Neb., said information spokesman Neal Kephart.

"We're getting a good handle on those fires and releasing personnel and equipment," Kephart said. The Douthit fire was 99 percent contained and the West Ash fire is 55 percent contained.

He estimated as many as 700 people, including firefighters, managers and support personnel, were working those fires. He expects the number could drop to 400 by Monday night.

Kephart said at least five homes and a number of other structures have been destroyed by the two fires, but that officials will have a better idea of the damage once assessment teams surveyed the area.

Crews were also making good progress against the Wellnitz fire, which is burning north of Rushville and into South Dakota. Officials said if containment efforts continue, some local firefighters could be released soon.

Following an aerial survey Sunday, officials lowered the damage estimate from the Wellnitz fire from about 150 to about 120 square miles burned. The blaze crossed into South Dakota on Friday and broke through containment lines on Saturday.

"Everything looks really good today. We're making a lot of progress," Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team spokesman Bill Kight said Monday afternoon. He said the fire is more than 25 percent contained.

Firefighters were extending the containment lines and putting out hot spots within 100 feet of the line, Kight said, in hopes that embers wouldn't jump the line to start new fires.

The northwestern corner of Nebraska is a sparsely populated area of rolling prairie hills, badlands and stands of Ponderosa pines.

Officials identified two areas of concern. One was near the Oglala Reservoir in South Dakota where dried reeds and cattails were smoldering. The other area is in pine timber in the southeast quadrant of the fire zone in Nebraska.

Firefighters were also being warned of the danger of downed power lines. Officials said power to some lines had been shut off, but the damage is so widespread that officials don't have a clear idea of which downed lines have been secured.

Conditions are likely to remain ripe for fires for at least several more weeks because the hot weather and drought. No rain was predicted until Thursday night.

Authorities have lifted evacuation orders for most northwest Nebraska and southwest South Dakota residents whose homes had been threatened by the flames. But it was unclear Monday whether similar orders had been lifted for residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota near the Nebraska border.

Oglala Sioux Tribe President John Yellow Bird Steele had issued an order to evacuate Slim Buttes, Tobacco, Lakeside, Oglala and other reservation communities. Steele didn't immediately return a call Monday from The Associated Press.

At least three minor injuries have been reported, and officials said the fires have damaged at least 10 homes and more than 50 structures in the two states, including at least two on the reservation.

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Associated Press writer Josh Funk contributed to this report.