Firefighters from 49 western Nebraska communities swarmed into Keith County on Friday to beat back a half-dozen wildfires that turned the night sky red with flames around Lake McConaughy. About 60,000 acres — the equivalent of about 94 square miles — had burned across the county, but no dwellings were damaged, officials said. All the fires were at least contained, if not controlled, by Friday night, said Ralph Moul, chief of the Keystone-Lemoyne Volunteer Fire Department. Lightning from a Thursday afternoon thunderstorm started the fires across more than 30 miles of countryside north of Ogallala. Darrol Eichner of Ogallala watched the distant fires grow from his house on McConaughy's south shoreline. “It got spectacular after dark,'' he said. “It just wasn't the big plume of smoke, but you could look into the hills and see the flames.'' Eichner counted at least five fires and watched two merge into one. The fires mostly burned grassland but threatened dozens of summer houses, town houses, condominiums and rental cabins near the Bayside Golf Club on McConaughy's southwest shoreline, Moul said. “It burned grass, cedar trees and anything that was in its way,'' he said. Moul said firefighters came from as far as McCook to the south and Scotts Bluff County to the west. The wildfire outbreak came less than a week after crews wrapped up about 10 days of fighting blazes that burned more than 75,000 acres of grassland, timber and cropland along the Niobrara River east of Valentine.
The Keith County fires:
Otter Creek — North of Otter Creek lodge on the north side of Lake McConaughy. It was estimated to have burned 40,000 acres, with areas of canyon terrain not accessible by ground firefighters.
McKeage — Two miles north of the Keith and Arthur county line on Nebraska Highway 61 and four miles to the west. It was contained, but a new breakout Friday morning burned an estimated 3,000 acres.
Ackley Valley — Part of Haythorn Ranch, six to 10 miles north of the north end of the Kingsley Dam on Highway 61. An estimated 6,000 acres burned in hilly terrain.
Parker Ranch — Extinguished. Estimated burn area was 350 acres.
Glen Echo — Northeastern area of Keith County and into McPherson County. Estimated burn area was 7,500 acres in canyons and creek valley that were inaccessible to ground crews.
Eagle Canyon Hideaway — North from Brule to south shoreline of McConaughy. Estimated 2,500 to 3,000 acres burned. The canyon terrain was not accessible by ground crews.
The Nebraska Emergency Management Agency deployed its mobile operation center and sent three agency staff members to Keith County to assist.
Two Nebraska UH60 Black Hawk helicopters left Lincoln on Friday afternoon for the fires. Thirteen National Guard soldiers were deployed.
National Guard soldiers are also working with NEMA on a statewide fire watch because of dry conditions across the state.
Elsewhere in western Nebraska, firefighters were battling a similar storm-related blaze burning Garden County countryside toward Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge north of U.S. Highway 26.
Moul said crews planned to stay on the scene of the Keith County fires because more thunderstorms and lightning were expected.
Contact the writer: