Nebraska wildfires burn hole in agency budgets -
Published Tuesday, September 18, 2012 at 1:00 am / Updated at 7:07 am
Nebraska wildfires burn hole in agency budgets

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.”

Contact the writer:


Contact the writer: Nancy Gaarder    |   402-444-1102    |  

Nancy writes about weather, including a blog, Nancy's Almanac. She enjoys explaining the science behind weather and making weather stories relevant in daily life.

19-year-old arrested in connection with March shooting
17 senators in Nebraska Legislature hit their (term) limits
Keystone XL pipeline backers blast 'political expediency' as foes hail ruling to delay decision
29-year-old Omahan arrested for 22nd time in Lincoln
Nebraska senators to study tax issues over break
Portion of Saddle Creek Road closed after water main break
Teenager arrested after woman's purse is snatched outside Omaha store
Police identify 21-year-old shot in ankle near 30th, W Streets
Cult murderer's death row appeal denied, but execution in limbo
Beau McCoy strikes Obama doll in TV ad; Democrats are not happy
Police: Slaying of woman in Ralston apartment likely over drugs
Interstate construction to cause lane shifts, closings in Omaha area
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
Omahan charged in fatal shooting in Benson neighborhood
Friday's attendance dips at Millard West after bathroom threat
High school slam poets don't just recite verses, 'they leave their hearts beating on the stage'
Crack ring's leaders join others in prison as a result of Operation Purple Haze
Haze in area comes from Kansas, Oklahoma
Man taken into custody in domestic dispute
Omaha judge reprimanded for intervening in peer attorney's DUI case
Intoxicated man with pellet gun climbs billboard's scaffold; is arrested
Police seek public's help in finding an armed man
Saturday forecast opens window for gardening; Easter egg hunts look iffy on Sunday
Database: How much did Medicare pay your doctor?
Last day of 2014 Legislature: Praise, passage of a last few bills and more on mountain lions
< >
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
The main speaker at today's Ivy Day celebration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is a college president who grew up roping calves and earned her Ph.D. at the prestigious Oxford University in England.
Breaking Brad: Stuck in a claw machine? You get no Easter candy
I know of one kid in Lincoln who will be receiving a lump of coal from the Easter Bunny, just as soon as he's extricated from that bowling alley claw machine.
Breaking Brad: Mountain lion season's over, but the bunny's fair game!
Thursday was the last day of a Nebraska Legislature session. Before leaving town, legislators passed a bill to hold a lottery to hunt the Easter Bunny.
Breaking Brad: At least my kid never got stuck inside a claw machine
We need a new rule in Lincoln. If your kid is discovered inside the claw machine at a bowling alley, you are forever barred from being nominated for "Mother of the Year."
Breaking Brad: How many MECA board members can we put in a luxury suite?
As a stunt at the Blue Man Group show, MECA board members are going to see how many people they can stuff into one luxury suite.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
The Jaipur in Rockbrook Village
Half Off Fine Indian Cuisine & Drinks! $15 for Dinner, or $7 for Lunch
Buy Now
< >
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »