Wildfires erupting out west have prompted emergency declarations as well as evacuations in multiple states.
Wildfire has become a year-round threat in the West given changing conditions that include earlier snowmelt and rain coming later in the fall, scientist have said. The problems have been exacerbated by decades of fire suppression and poor management along with a more than 20-year megadrought that studies link to human-caused climate change.
Retired fire chief killed in Nebraska wildfire
Firefighters were taking advantage of higher humidity and calmer winds Monday to work toward containing 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.
Jonathan Ashford, spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Complex Incident Management Team, told The Associated Press that more than 80 firefighters, emergency management personnel and others were helping fight the fire, known as the Road 702 Fire. It had burned nearly 65 square miles (168 square kilometers) in Red Willow, Furnas and Frontier counties by late Sunday.
Officials initially reported the fire was spread over more than 78 square miles (202 square kilometers) of mostly rolling rangeland, but Ashford said aerial mapping Sunday gave a more accurate size of the blaze.
The fire that began last week has been fueled by tinder-dry conditions and days of strong winds.
More favorable weather Monday had firefighters scrambling to dig trenches and create other breaks along the blaze’s perimeter, Ashford said.
"Tomorrow, we expect higher winds to return, so time is of the essence," he said.
In addition to the growing number of firefighters turning out to fight the blaze, the effort also has a couple of helicopters available to make water drops, he said.
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.
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.
Fires have been reported in 14 Nebraska counties since Friday, including Perkins, Dundy, Burt, Butler, Scotts Bluff, Cheyenne, Duele, Blaine, Cherry, Brown and Thomas counties, leading some small towns to be temporarily evacuated. Those fires were either extinguished or mostly contained by Sunday.
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.
Emergency declarations declared in New Mexico
ew Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed emergency declarations as 20 wildfires continued to burn Sunday in nearly half of the state’s drought-stricken 33 counties.
One wildfire in northern New Mexico that started April 6 merged with a newer fire Saturday to form the largest blaze in the state, leading to widespread evacuations in Mora and San Miguel counties. That fire was at 84 square miles (217 square kilometers) Sunday and 12% contained.
An uncontained wind-driven wildfire in northern New Mexico that began April 17 had charred 81 square miles (209 square kilometers) of ponderosa pine, oak brush and grass by Sunday morning north of Ocate, an unincorporated community in Mora County.
Winds and temperatures in New Mexico diminished Saturday but remained strong enough to still fan fires. Dozens of evacuation orders remained in place.
Fire officials were expecting the northern wildfires to slow Sunday as cloud and smoke cover moves in, allowing the forests to retain more moisture. But they added that the interior portions of the fires could show moderate to extreme behavior, which could threaten structures in those areas.
More than 200 structures have been charred by the wildfires thus far and an additional 900 remain threatened, Lujan Grisham said.
Fire management officials said an exact damage count was unclear because it’s still too dangerous for crews to go in and look at all the homes that have been lost.
"We do not know the magnitude of the structure loss. We don’t even know the areas where most homes made it through the fire, where homes haven’t been damaged or anything like that," said operation sections chief Jayson Coil.
Some 1,000 firefighters were battling the wildfires across New Mexico, which already has secured about $3 million in grants to help with the fires.
Lujan Grisham said she has asked the White House for more federal resources and she’s calling for a ban of fireworks statewide.
"We need more federal bodies for firefighting, fire mitigation, public safety support on the ground in New Mexico," she said. "It’s going to be a tough summer. So that’s why we are banning fires. And that is why on Monday I will be asking every local government to be thinking about ways to ban the sales of fireworks."
Arizona residents evacuated due to wildfire
In Arizona, two large wildfires continued to burn Sunday 10 miles (16 kilometers) south of Prescott and 14 miles (22 kilometers) northeast of Flagstaff.
Coconino County authorities lifted the evacuation order Sunday morning for residents living in neighborhoods along Highway 89 after fire management officials determined the Flagstaff-area wildfire no longer posed a threat.
The fire near Flagstaff was at 33 square miles (85 square kilometers) as of Sunday with 3% containment. It forced the evacuation of 766 homes and burned down 30 homes and two dozen other structures since it began a week ago, according to county authorities.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey declared the fire a state of emergency Thursday for Coconino County to free up recovery aid to affected communities.
The wildfire near Prescott began last Monday and was at 4.8 square miles (12.4 square kilometers) and 15% contained as of Sunday morning as helicopters and air tankers dropped water and retardant to slow the fire’s growth.