High winds across Nebraska Thursday closed highways and fanned wildfires. Winds blowing soil off of cultivated fields cut visibility for motorists in western Nebraska.
Roger Klasna, district operations manager for the Department of Roads in North Platte, described what happened in his area. “Blackout conditions is what the State Patrol advised us. And as they were responding to an accident on Highway 26 they let us know that they needed some help in trying to protect the citizens because of the dust storm. And after we looked at the situation and the number of vehicles involved we decided to go ahead and close Highway 26,” he said.
A similar blackout occurred between Big Springs and Chappell in the panhandle. State Patrol Dispatcher Tom Venable said three semis and a pickup collided, and Interstate 80 was shut down by 11 a.m. U.S. Highway 30 was also closed.
Meanwhile, winds of up to 70 miles an hour whipped existing and new wildfires in eastern and central Nebraska. National Weather Service Meteorologist Steve Carmel warned of the danger. “Because the conditions are so dry and our winds are so strong, any wildfires that start can spread rapidly and become almost uncontrollable,” he said.
Don Westover of the Nebraska Forest Service said So far this year, 333 thousand acres have burned in the state, with 250 thousand of that having been sparked by lightening. The previous record for acres burned was a little over 200 thousand, he said.
Meteorologist Carmel said the winds were expected to die down to 15 or 20 miles an hour by mid-evening. But Jodi Fawl of the Nebraska Emergency Management agency said conditions remain dangerous. “The potential for fire is out there. We could really use some moisture. It’s going to take either snow on the ground or some more rain than we’ve been getting” to ease the threat, she said.