Cleanup is beginning for some northwest Nebraska residents who fled their homes in the face of three wildfires that scorched about 214 square miles.
Firefighters had all three fires nearly full contained by Tuesday morning, said Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy. National Guard crews, he said, would gradually begin returning home.
In spite of a forecast for challenging weather conditions, Sheehy said firefighters were reasonably confident their lines would hold.
Gusty, warm winds and dangerously low humidity levels again created what are classified as “critically” dangerous fire conditions Tuesday. The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for a large part of the Northern Plains and Northern Rockies, including the region where Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming come together.
In northwest Nebraska, winds were expected to gust to 35 mph and relative humidity levels were expected to drop to 8 percent to 12 percent. (By contrast relative humidity in Omaha Tuesday morning was about 60 percent.)
The three fires are individually known as the Douthit, West Ash and Wellnitz fires.
The Douthit fire near Crawford has consumed about 29,730 acres and the West Ash fire about 58,450.
The Wellnitz fire originated in Nebraska and burned north into the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It has burned 77,159 acres — 48,681 in Nebraska and 28,478 in South Dakota.
The rest of this week firefighters will focus on mopping up and holding their lines.
The National Interagency Coordinator Center reported that numerous structures remained threatened by the Wellnitz fire.
Most of the lingering problems were on the South Dakota side of the fire, Sheehy said. In Nebraska, the fire was running out of fuel.
Evacuees from the Douthit and West Ash Fires, who had been allowed to return home Sunday, found themselves cleaning up, among other things, fire retardant.
On Tuesday, state officials sent out information on how to remove fire retardant from property — an improvement over advisories on evacuation.
The state's cleanup advice: Alternately scrub surfaces with soapy water and then allow them to dry in the sun. The state noted that the guidance applied particularly to play areas.
As of Monday, five dwellings had been lost to those fires, but that number could go up as a damage assessment team gets a better look at the burned area Sheila French, spokeswoman for the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team C in Chadron, said Monday that authorities aren't ready to declare victory yet but said they “feel really good.
“We like to say it's not over ‘till it's over,” she said.
All state highways were open in the northern Nebraska Panhandle, though officials were warning travelers to beware of smoke and emergency responders.
Roads could be closed intermittently, and motorists are advised to stay off county roads.
The Hudson-Meng bone beds, Toadstool geological park and Chadron State Park remained closed Monday.
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