Click here for video of thousands of acres scorched in the Niobrara River valley.
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Explosive fires around the Niobrara River Valley have the potential to turn more dangerous tonight when a storm front blows through.
The wildfire, one of the worst in Nebraska in years, has struck the state's crown jewel, the beloved Niobrara River Valley. About 20 miles of the 76-mile Niobrara National Scenic River corridor have burned, including five miles of the stretch most popular with floaters.
The big battle, though, is to protect homes and businesses while reining in the wind-whipped fire. Each day has brought fresh problems as the fire throws hot embers as much as a mile ahead of itself, officials said. Crews also are battling two smaller blazes near Springview.
As of Tuesday morning, the Niobrara fire had charred at least 58,560 acres and was about 15 percent contained, said Linda Hecker, a spokeswoman for the Rocky Mountain Incident Management team, which is an interagency specialized firefighting team brought in to assist local officials with the fire.
Stormy weather arrives this evening and is expected to bring 60 mph, wildly shifting winds, Hecker said.
“It's definitely a heads-up day for firefighters,” she said. “This can really create erratic winds over the fire, and when you have these fine fuels, the fire can turn on you in an instant.”
Firefighters will have to be careful about becoming trapped by the fire, she said.
The main fire began Friday morning with a lightning strike along Fairfield Creek, one of the primary tributaries of the Niobrara River.
Another fire that has been burning several days near Springview exploded Monday, fueled by strong winds, and a third broke out nearby, officials said. These smaller fires had consumed a combined 3,900 acres.
The small communities most at risk include Meadville and Sparks, but as of midday Monday, no evacuation advisories had been issued for those communities. Portions of Nebraska Highway 12 between Norden and Springview remained closed.
Ainsworth Fire Chief Brad Fiala said that airplanes brought in to dump retardant proved critical Monday to corraling portions of the main fire.
“If it weren't for these aerial dumps, we wouldn't even begin to have a chance,” he said in a Tuesday morning briefing on Ainsworth's radio station KBRB.
A secondary fire immediately southeast of Springview “really blew up” Monday afternoon, he said. Another fire developed the same day a few miles farther south and began moving quickly.
The fires have been burning in steep canyons and on open ground above the canyons, both vulnerable to strong winds. On high grounds and in short grass, the fire was moving 40 mph to 45 mph, one official estimated.
Hecker said winds in the canyons were a worry too, because of the potential for the winds to concentrate and accelerate.
The Niobrara River has been closed from Smith Falls east for the safety of visitors and to minimize traffic for firefighting needs, said Dan Foster, National Park superintendent of the Niobrara National Scenic River. The upper stretch, about 11 miles, still remains open to floaters.
Foster said the immediate concern is for those whose homes and livelihoods have been affected by the fire.
“We've got a number of people whose lives will be significantly changed by this,” he said. “They've lost homes, they've lost agriculture, and this has greatly affected business.”
The fire has spread through three counties -- Keya Paha, Brown and Cherry and burned a portion of one town, Norden.
Originally firefighters estimated that about 100,000 acres had burned based on various assessments across a wide area from the ground. The acreage was cut in half following a more accurate infrared nighttime survey from the air.
The incident management team has not been able to provide an estimate of the number of homes destroyed. At least 10 structures, including several homes, were destroyed, and about 80 remain threatened.
After the fire started on Friday, volunteer firefighters worked through the weekend, some going 24 hours without breaks, fire officials said.
Other firefighters traveled more than 200 miles from distant parts of Nebraska to help. Several hundred volunteers joined in; a number had to return to their regular jobs Monday morning. On Tuesday, about 240 firefighters were battling the fire.
Mary Mercure, an outfitter with Brewers Canoers at Berry Bridge, said the phone has been ringing virtually nonstop from people worried about float trips and the river.
On most Saturdays about 3,000 visitors head onto the Niobrara, accounting for a sizable portion of the area's commerce, she said. Mercure asked that people planning float trips not give up, but instead wait a few days and make an informed decision based on up-to-date information.
“There's still a good current and a good channel, people are still trekking down the river and making it in a normal float time,” she said.
Foster said the fire began in the Sand Hills near Fairfield Creek, a major tributary on the south side of the river, which gave the blaze its name: Fairfield Creek Fire. That's why it's called the Fairfield Creek Fire.
The land that has burned, essentially about 75 square miles, includes agricultural land and heavily forested areas of the river valley and tributaries. The forests are a mix of Ponderosa Pine, oak, red cedar and scrub.
“As with all fires, some of those areas will burn more intensely than others, so some will be radically changed and others will be slightly changed,” he said. “We'll have to wait and see.”
The blaze was one of several wildfires burning in Nebraska this week. Most of the others were contained.
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