Nebraska preparing for wildfires

A firefighting crew heads into the backcountry at Fort Robinson (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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June 11, 2018 - 12:14pm

As the peak summer wildfire season approaches, Nebraskans are getting ready to fight those fires, in preparations that start long before the blaze.


On a brilliant Spring morning, firefighters in yellow Nomex protective shirts climb down a wooded slope in northwest Nebraska’s Fort Robinson. When they reach their destination, a chorus of chainsaws arises from the glen.

This is the Wildland Fire Academy, a program to train people to fight grass and woodland fires. Kyle Martens of the Nebraska Forest Service describes what’s happening. “Your saw crews come in, removes all the woody debris. You can see people chucking it to the side,” Martens explains. Then hand crews come in, and physically drag everything down to mineral soil,” he continues. “That serves as a fire break. So that allows crews to kind of work next to it, keep themselves safe and hopefully keep the fire contained.”

Seth Peterson coordinated this year’s program for the Forest Service. He says the 240 students who came for a week’s worth of classes followed by a field day to practice their skills came mainly from Nebraska. “But we’re getting a lot more students coming down from South Dakota. I know one student came all the way from Florida. We had students registered from Wisconsin and Indiana, too.”

Participants are not only learning technical skills. They’re also getting to know people from local, state, and federal agencies who will be involved in fighting grass and woodland fires.

Tom Mitchell has been doing that since 1975 with the Crawford, Nebraska fire department. Mitchell says in the past, lack of communication meant the local department didn’t want anything to do with the Forest Service. But with the academy coming cooperation has improved, he said.

Source: National Interagency Fire Center

There’s a growing need for such cooperation. Last year in the United States, the National Interagency Fire Center says, more than 10 million acres burned in wildfires. The Center says that’s the second highest total since consistent records started being kept in 1983, when 1.3 million acres burned.

In Nebraska, last year was relatively calm, with just over 3,000 acres burned by wildfire. But 2012 showed how devastating fires can be in the state. That year, the Forest Service says, more than half a million acres burned, as drought gripped the state and major fires erupted in the Niobrara River valley and the Pine Ridge.

Source: Nebraska Forest Service

University of Nebraska Lincoln climatologist Al Dutcher is not predicting this year will be like 2012. But in some areas, Dutcher says, conditions are more volatile this year. “What we’re seeing different this year than in 2012 is the fire breaks out in the southern Plains and the southern Rockies – it was started at a much earlier pace than they did in 2012,” Dutcher said.

Dutcher said drought conditions moving up from the south raise the risks in south central and southeast Nebraska this year. “That’s always a concern for us, because when we look at the flow patterns during the summertime, we’re looking to the south as a proxy for what might be coming down the line,” he said.

Al Dutcher (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

So far, Dutcher said, Nebraska has been lucky to escape the fires that have already burned this spring. “We had numerous fires that covered volumes of acres in the
Texas panhandle, southeast Colorado. That entire area was just one day after another of fire…. We had similar conditions. We just didn’t have a trigger to set those fires off,” he said.

Such triggers can include cigarette butts, dry lightning strikes, sparks from trains, and private fires that get out of control – “you know, all of those man-made influences that we really got lucky on,” Dutcher said. The fire academy is geared toward dealing with what happens if that luck doesn’t hold out.

And the Nebraska Forest Service’s Seth Peterson said he hopes there’s another message firefighters take back to their home departments: “Safety is number one and the fire’s number two. The fire will go out eventually but if somebody gets hurt, that’s a lifelong problem,” Peterson said.

 

 

Wildland Fire Academy

 

Practicing chainsawing and helicopter bucket drops...

 

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