Progress made on wildfires, but high winds threaten efforts
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Fire crews took advantage of a break in the weather in their battle to contain large fires in the West and Plains states, but fear the return of stronger winds Tuesday could spread the flames further.
A southwestern Nebraska wildfire that killed a former volunteer fire chief last week, injured 15 firefighters and destroyed several homes was about half contained, the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency said. But firefighters were racing to hold that line and finish a containment border, said Jonathan Ashford, spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Complex Incident Management Team.
The fire, dubbed the Road 702 Fire, has burned about 70 square miles (180 square kilometers) of mostly grasslands and farmland near the Nebraska-Kansas state line and was estimated to be about 47% contained.
After a break in the weather Monday, the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning Tuesday for the area of mostly prairie and farmland, with temperatures expected to be warmer, humidity dropping to as low at 15% and winds gusting up to 35 mph (56 kph).
“Today will definitely be a bit of a test,” Ashford said.
Meanwhile in the West, crews continued working to corral blazes in northern New Mexico that have charred a combined 225 square miles (580 square kilometers) over recent days. Evacuations remain in place and several small villages were threatened. While an unknown number of homes have been destroyed, conditions have kept authorities from accessing many areas to survey the damage.
The largest of the wildfires has blackened more than 94 square miles (245 square kilometers) in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Crews there were bracing for the weather to take a turn this week with more hot, dry and windy conditions forecast for the area.
In Arizona, crews are working to encircle and mop up a 30-square mile (80-square kilometer) wildfire on the outskirts of Flagstaff that burned 30 homes and additional structures last week. Aircraft helped firefighters battling a different major fire that continued to grow, burning 10 square miles (26 square kilometers) in the Prescott National Forest in north-central Arizona.
Four new fires were reported Monday, two in Colorado and one in Oklahoma and Virginia, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Nationally, 11 large fires have burned about 342 square miles (890 square kilometers) in six states, the agency reported Tuesday. More than 3,500 wildland firefighters and support personnel are assigned to those fires.
Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Associated Press writer Paul Davenport contributed from Phoenix.