Click here to view a slideshow of the fires in Dawes County.
UPDATE Sept. 2, 10:30 a.m.:
The following evacuations remain mandatory:
• Residents living west of Highway 385 and south of Highway 20.
• Highway 385 to Hawthorne Road and all areas north of Buttermilk Road to Highway 20.
• This includes Country Club Road, Old County Club Road, Goffena Road, Deadhorse Road to Table Road and Flag Butte Road.
• Residents living on Highway 385 between Chadron City Dams and Red Cloud Camp area, both the east and west side.
• Crawford area residents living from the West Ash Road south on Highway 2 for five miles, across Breakneck Road, east to West Ash Creek Road.
• This includes West Ash Creek Road, Squaw Creek Road, Saw Log Road, Horseshoe Road, Breakneck Road, Dyer Road and Crow Butte Road.
CRAWFORD, Neb. — High winds pushed two fires burning in Dawes County over a combined 87,555 acres on Saturday, but an unexpected front that brought higher humidity and light rain had the blazes looking considerably calmer.
The Douthit and West Ash Creek fires, burning since Tuesday, were 47 percent contained as of about 8 p.m. MDT Saturday.
Officials said they were optimistic that the conditions would help slow the fire's progress, but they warned that the dry grass and trees in the area were still vulnerable to lightning strikes or sparks from the existing fires.
“They're cautioning firefighters to hold the lines that have been constructed, and they're watching those to try to catch anything that might be flopping over the line,” said Neal Kephart, a spokesman at the incident command center.
Firefighters had been successful in keeping the fire from crossing Highway 385 and heading toward Chadron.
Kephart said officials are also feeling more confident about their efforts to keep the West Ash Creek Fire from jumping Highway 20 and heading north to the village of Whitney, which was evacuated early Saturday. Officials said about 400 people had been evacuated because of the West Ash-Douthit wildfires.
Meanwhile, the Wellnitz Fire burning farther east, near Rushville, was 20 percent contained as of mid-day. It had spread to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
Jodi Fawl, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, said 141 firefighters were working on that blaze.
She said in that fire, 50 to 60 outbuildings had been destroyed and 10 homes damaged. She said there were reports of three minor injuries, some involving firefighters.
The Red Cross opened two relief centers for people affected by the wildfires. In Chadron, people can go to St. Patrick's Assumption Arena at 340 Cedar St. In Rushville, the center is at the Hope Baptist Mission, located at 218 E. Eighth St.
Most of the more than 450 firefighters battling wildfires in the Crawford-Chadron area were trying to corral the West Ash Creek Fire.
Some firefighters involved in the Douthit effort had been working with few breaks since the fire broke out Tuesday.
Ralph Reece, a member of the Harrison (Neb.) Fire Department, was on the first engine called to the fire. He worked for 30 hours before getting a break.
As the fire burst open, there were only a handful of firefighters and limited equipment to push back.
One truck broke down and got a makeshift repair job with the help of a nearby rancher.
“It was scary,” Reece said. “We had no resources, and there was so much going on, so fast.”
Reece's team — which includes his three brothers — knew they couldn't put out the fire, but they could stall it while they waited for help. They called in bulldozers and road graders to cut off the fire's path.
The scene was much calmer Saturday near Crawford.
A few small plumes of smoke wafted in the air over ground that was mostly charred black. Crews hunted for hot spots, occasionally dousing them in water. It was quiet, except for the occasional truck carrying a couple of firefighters, or nearby resident bringing them food.
In the firefighters' camp in Crawford, crews coming in after a night working on the West Ash fire grabbed plates of eggs and bacon and bowls of oatmeal.
Wes Willits, a Farmington, N.M., firefighter working his third big blaze of the summer, said the biggest downside of the night shift was trying to get some good rest in a tent in the heat of the day.
“I'm not a day sleeper,” Willits said. “But I get really tired.”
UPDATE: CRAWFORD, Neb. -- Firefighters have gained some ground on two blazes that surged in high winds on Friday, though officials said for the first time that some homes had been destroyed by those fires.
By early afternoon Saturday, the Douthit and West Ash fires were burning over a combined 73,822 acres and were 40 percent contained. Several roads that had been closed were reopened: Highway 385 from Chadron to Alliance, Highway 20 from Crawford to Chadron and sections of Highways 71 and 2.
Officials had not issued any new evacuation orders.
They said there were reports of homes that had been damaged and destroyed Friday, but firefighters have not yet been able to get to those areas to assess the damage.
More than 450 firefighters were working on the two fires as of Friday. Officials said that number was higher on Saturday because several crews showed up late Friday. The Nebraska Air National Guard had also sent another helicopter to help with the effort, bringing the total number of helicopters on the fires to six.
Meanwhile, the Wellnitz fire, burning near Rushville, was up to 60,000 acres and 20 percent contained by midday Saturday.
Jodi Fawl, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency said 141 firefighters were working on that blaze. So far, somewhere between 50 and 60 outbuildings had been destroyed and 10 homes were damaged. She said there were also reports of three minor injuries, some of them involving firefighters.
The Red Cross opened two relief centers for people affected by the fires. In Chadron, people can go to St. Patrick's Assumption Arena at 340 Cedar Street. In Rushville, the center is at the Hope Baptist Mission, located at 218 East 8th Street.
About 700 meals and snacks have been provided so far, according to the Red Cross.
PINE RIDGE, S.D. -- A fast-moving wildfire from Nebraska has spread into the Pine Ridge reservation, burning more than 25,000 acres and destroying one home and a couple of outbuildings.
The fire burned northwest of Pine Ridge village before heading toward the Oglala district Friday evening. That prompted Oglala Sioux Tribe President John Yellow Bird Steele to issue an evacuation order for residents of Slim Buttes, Calico, Tobacco, Number 4 Payabaya, Lakeside and Oglala.
Pine Ridge BIA agency deputy superintendent Harold Compton says evacuation orders have been lifted, as the fire on Saturday is being kept south of Highway 18. But he says with triple-digit temperatures, low humidity and gusty winds, fire crews aren't out of the woods yet.
The National Weather Service says a red flag warning is in effect through 11 p.m.
CRAWFORD, Neb. — More people in the path of a growing northwest Nebraska fire were evacuated overnight, as strong winds made the blaze unpredictable.
U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Cyd Janssen said this morning that the fire "burned right up to Whitney."
Residents of the small village of Whitney, located northeast of Crawford, were ordered to evacuate about 11:30 p.m. And about the same time, people living just outside of Whitney, on Old Highway 20 between Whitney and Crawford, were also told to evacuate.
Another fire that was burning between Chadron and Hay Springs has spread north into South Dakota. The Sheridan County Sheriff's Office said a pre-evacuation order has been issued for residents in the border town of Whiteclay, Neb., and the surrounding area.
Highway 20 between Crawford and Chadron was closed overnight as dozens of emergency vehicles raced to the growing fire. The stretch of highway was reopened at about 7 a.m. Saturday. Officials were looking into reopening part of Highway 385 that has been closed, between Chadron and Alliance.
As of 8 a.m., officials did not have an update on the size of the fires burning in Dawes and Sioux counties. The Douthit fire, located near Crawford, held its lines overnight, however the West Ash fire, seemed to have grown. -- Erin Golden
CRAWFORD, Neb. — By noon, any hopes that the fires burning in Dawes, Sioux and Sheridan Counties would begin to calm were gone.
It was the day that firefighters and weather forecasters had feared: a shift in the wind, a temperature surging into the 90s, and a blaze spilling over the fire lines toward the city of Chadron.
At Friday's end, dozens of people had been quickly evacuated from their rural homes.
Standing on the front porch of her home east of Crawford, Sandy Riggs watched glowing orange flames tear through timber and grassland.
The heart of the blaze was only a couple of miles away, and a quick shift in the wind could push it straight toward her house.
Riggs and her husband, Sam, had thought they were safe. Other family members who had been evacuated were staying with them.
Now, hauling armfuls of clothes, jugs of water and suitcases stuffed full into a camper parked in the driveway, Sandy Riggs was blinking back tears. The power had gone out about an hour earlier. It was clear that there was no more time to waste.
“I've never had anything like this,” she said. “Isn't it awful?”
At least 435 firefighters were working to contain three major wildfires that had burned about 123 square miles — an area nearly the size of Omaha, said Jodi Fawl, spokeswoman for the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.
The largest fire, called the West Ash Creek Fire, was south of Chadron and had burned 69 square miles. The Douthit and Wellnitz fires had burned 79,000 acres.
Authorities said earlier in the day that the wildfires were about 25 percent contained. But they provided no update late Friday.
Law enforcement officers went door to door in the afternoon, urging residents south of Chadron to gather their families and pets and get out.
The affected area was from the Chadron city dam south on U.S. Highway 385 to the Red Cloud camping area. Homes on both sides of the highway were evacuated.
Farther east, authorities told members of 50 households near Rushville to leave, and the orders were mandatory for 20 of those households.
They were in the path of the Wellnitz fire, which came within four miles of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Additionally, 34 National Guard soldiers assigned to Chadron's 1057th Light/Medium Truck Company were activated to support the firefighting effort. A total of five National Guard helicopters had been deployed in the region to help in the fight. The Bureau of Indian Affairs said it was sending two fixed-wing aircraft as well.
At least one house and one farm structure had been destroyed, said Patricia Bean, a spokeswoman for fire operations battling blazes near Chadron and Crawford. She said about 350 homes and 100 more structures were being threatened by the fire.
New fires popped up throughout the day, and a heavy haze filled the air from Crawford to Chadron and farther east toward Pine Ridge.
Within an hour, the sky over a stretch of Highway 20 from Crawford to Chadron went from clear to clouded over with smoke.
Around Crawford, conversations in stores and restaurants were almost all about the fire: about neighbors' lost grazing land and outbuildings, about people whose homes had been so close to the blaze that the siding had melted off.
In the area northwest of Crawford, where the fire began with a lightning strike on Tuesday, firefighters made significant progress.
By Friday morning, the rolling hills were covered with black scars, some still simmering with a few embers. Some areas, covered by grass and sunflowers, were untouched. Property owners were busy surveying the damage, looking for lost cattle and keeping watch for hotspots on foot and in ATVs.
Laura Douthit, daughter-in-law of the owners of the property where the fire began, spent the morning making breakfast for firefighters.
Around 9 a.m. Friday, she and Charlee Peckner, another Douthit family member, were navigating a rugged, hilly road toward the fire line in a Suburban packed with food and juice.
The two pulled over when they spotted some firefighters from Gering.
“Food?” Douthit asked.
“We've got sandwiches,” said Grant Severson, a lieutenant with the Gering Fire Department.
“We've got breakfast burritos,” she shot back.
The firefighters cheered.
Douthit said the fire came up to her family's home three times, but each time passed without destroying it. She was on the property as the flames came closer.
“It was the scariest thing I've ever been through,” she said. “It came over the road like a roaring train.”
Severson said he and the other half-dozen firefighters in town from Gering had a long, hot summer fighting fires around the West. By now, they and most of the other firefighters are getting worn out.
And this blaze, he said, wasn't going to make for a quick trip.
“It's big,” he said. “It's a big fire. This is going to be a lot of cleanup.”
These reports include material from the Associated Press.
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