2 Neb. firefighters injured, one seriously, in wind-driven grass fires

The Lincoln-Lancaster County Emergency Management Agency ordered evacuations because of two blazes


By Zach Hammack
Lincoln Journal Star

LANCASTER COUNTY, Neb. — Widespread, wind-driven grass fires that injured two firefighters swept through southern Lancaster County on Sunday, destroying homes, closing roads and prompting evacuation orders as a thin haze of smoke settled on Lincoln.

The Lincoln-Lancaster County Emergency Management Agency ordered the evacuations as two separate blazes in the southern part of the county crept north over the course of the afternoon, fueled by winds from the south and dry conditions.

By the time night had descended and the fires had been mostly contained, three houses were destroyed and two firefighters were injured, including one seriously, according to a news release from the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office.

It's unclear which fire departments the firefighters belonged to.

Lancaster County declared an emergency at about 7 p.m. and a relocation center was set up at Lincoln Southwest High School for displaced residents. Officials asked those who left their homes to not return.

Several roads in the southern part of the county were blocked off, the sheriff's office said. The public was asked not to drive around barriers. The Nebraska State Patrol, Games and Parks officers and Saline County Sheriff's Office deputies assisted with traffic control and checking on the safety of residents.

The first evacuation orders came around 2:44 p.m. when a fire that had started at the Lancaster- Gage County border threatened areas in Lancaster County south and west of Southwest 12th Street and Saltillo Road.

The Hallam Fire Department requested deputies begin evacuating residents in the path of the fire, while a phone alert from the sheriff's office also ordered evacuations. Officials later said the order was voluntary.

Around that time, another evacuation order was issued for people living in the area bound by South 38th and 54th streets and Olive Creek and Apple roads — a swath of rural land roughly between Cortland and Firth — due to a blaze southwest of Firth quickly advancing north.

Christopher Smith was one of several people gathered at a farm near Southwest 72nd and Panama roads near Olive Creek State Recreation Area in southwestern Lancaster County, just east of one of the fires.

The farm's residents and neighbors were making a plan to move cattle and other valuables to Smith's farm a few miles south.

"Everybody's just trying to help out," Smith said as the farm's owner scrambled to spray down the home's back porch with water and set up sprinklers in case the fire got close.

At about 4:45 p.m., the fire had burned much of the area around Olive Creek State Recreation Area in southwestern Lancaster County and was spreading rapidly to the north.

A red flag warning had been in effect for central and eastern Nebraska, including Lancaster County, until 8 p.m.

The National Weather Service said high winds from the south — gusting as high as 55 mph — combined with dry land and low humidity made for dangerous fire conditions.

Temperatures were also unseasonably warm, climbing to the upper 80s and setting records for late October.

As of 8 p.m., the fire that started southwest of Firth was contained while firefighters continued to battle hotspots near Southwest 100th and West Panama roads north of Olive Creek Lake and near Kramer. Additionally, the Norris School District announced that there will be a two-hour late start on Monday. The city of Lincoln was not considered to be threatened.

In addition to the numerous fire departments who responded — including Lincoln Fire and Rescue — farmers used irrigation pivots to battle the blaze, the devastation of which will come into clearer focus Monday morning.

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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