Headaches continue to mount in this year of record Nebraska wildfires.
Money is short, an increase in fires is possible, and equipment and people are exhausted by fierce battles in hot, rugged conditions.
In the near term, officials have begun worrying about the potential for an increase in fires as harvest and hunting seasons kick into gear. Additional sources of ignition — farm machinery, cigarettes, pickups — will double up on what has been summer's primary fire cause: lightning.
“It's what everybody's concerned about,” State Climatologist Al Dutcher told the state's drought task force.
Because fire departments have burned through their budgets — some have spent nearly twice their annual allotments — they and the state are on the hunt for money to pay bills.
“Some of them (fire departments) are in desperate need,” said Doug Fox, regional emergency management coordinator in north-central Nebraska.
In Fox's territory, two counties, Brown and Keya Paha, are asking voters for an emergency increase in property taxes. Statewide, emergency officials are seeking federal disaster aid to ease the burden.
Drought conditions are the worst they've been in decades. The two largest fires ever recorded in the state — the Pine Ridge and Niobrara blazes — have occurred this summer, according to the Nebraska Forest Service.
More than $11.2 million has been spent fighting fires this year, said Al Berndt, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.
The fires have been expensive, Berndt said, because they've occurred in remote, hard-to-reach areas. As a result, firefighters had to bring in helicopters and airplanes, which have been the single-biggest expense this year, he said.
The state has requested a federal disaster declaration for the Niobrara River fires. It is compiling a federal aid request for the damage caused by the Pine Ridge fires and has received significant emergency federal aid for the fight against those fires.
“What makes this year different is the fire season has been widespread and pretty consistent all summer,” Berndt said. “We're in sore need of rain.”
Some north-central Nebraska ranchers already have decided they won't open their land to hunting this year, as a way to reduce the potential for fires, according to Ainsworth volunteer Fire Chief Brad Fiala.
Harvest is gearing up, and the threat of combine fires is one that farmers and firefighters alike take seriously. On Monday, the Nebraska Corn Board issued a safety reminder, noting that the risk of fires is “greatly elevated” due to the drought.
Regionally, there was a noticeable jump in combine fires during last year's harvest season because of the dry conditions, prompting a South Dakota State University study of possible causes.
In just six northwest Iowa counties last year, more than 100 combine and field fires occurred on the three worst fire days, said Nick Uilk, an instructor at the university and the study's co-author. Uilk said this year could be worse.
However, his research indicates farmers may be able to lessen their risk by not harvesting on days when conditions are ripest for fire.
Combine fires spike noticeably on windy days. On the three days in which more than the 100 fires occurred in northwest Iowa, winds averaged 17 mph and gusted to more than 40 mph. While it's logical that wind fans flames, another factor could be at play, he said. Strong winds blow fine crop dust into machinery, providing the kindling needed to spark a fire.
Iowa firefighters took note of the connection last year and warned farmers not to harvest on certain windy days.
Timely rains would lessen harvest-related fires. That's why it's tough to judge what will happen this season.
“The potential is there,” Uilk said. “It's hot and dry, we're in a drought. That always makes probable conditions for combine fires or any type of fire.”
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