West central Nebraska endured a second day of high north-northwest winds and blowing dust Thursday, with a wind-driven wildfire threatening a Furnas County town after sunset.
The region’s highest recorded wind gusts by midafternoon were 71 mph east of McCook and 70 mph north of Broken Bow, both between 11:30 a.m. and noon CT.
A 68 mph gust was recorded in that same time period 4 miles east of North Platte, according to the National Weather Service office at Lee Bird Field.
The Nebraska State Patrol tweeted about 8:30 p.m. that an evacuation order had been issued for Edison, a town of 133 south of the U.S. Highway 6/34-136 junction and southeast of Arapahoe.
It lay in the path of a fast-spreading grass fire that Elwood and Lexington firefighters engaged Thursday afternoon in central Gosper County, west of the intersection of U.S. 283 and Nebraska Highway 18.
It was already about 2 miles long at 12:32 p.m. CT, according to the weather service.
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A spotter then placed the blaze near the intersection of Gosper County roads 739 and 420, about 7 miles west-southwest of Elwood.
Elwood volunteer firefighters, who were first on the scene, paged their Lexington counterparts for mutual aid at 2:21 p.m. Gusts of up to 43 mph appeared to be driving the fire’s path southeast, in the direction of Edison.
The Jim Kelly Field airport in Lexington had recorded a 58 mph gust about an hour earlier. A spotter about 3 miles south of Johnson Lake reported a 56 mph gust there about 10 a.m.
Large plumes of gray, white and black smoke filled the horizon south of Elwood. They were blowing across gravel-surfaced Nebraska 18, which ends at U.S. 283 and was the first area highway closed by the Nebraska Department of Transportation.
Closures later spread to U.S. 283 between Elwood and Arapahoe and U.S. 6/34 east of Arapahoe.
The State Patrol said state troopers, Furnas County sheriff’s deputies, emergency management workers and others were assisting in the evacuation of Edison’s residents.
The Nebraska State Patrol urged drivers to be cautious as the wind and dust made travel hazardous on Interstate 80 and other highways.
The patrol posted a Facebook message to drivers on I-80: “Multiple semis have overturned in the wind and blowing dust is causing visibility issues in some areas. Good idea to find a safe place to park for a bit if you’re in a high-profile vehicle.”
One toppled semitrailer truck early Thursday afternoon briefly blocked eastbound I-80 traffic near mile marker 146 just outside Paxton. No one was injured.
In southwest Nebraska, the weather service said visibility was near zero about 1 p.m. on the Veterans Memorial Highway, a non-state road in Hitchcock County about 8 miles west-southwest of Palisade.
Trenton, the Hitchcock County seat, experienced a 62 mph wind gust at 1:18 p.m. Visibility there was about 1 mile at the time, the weather service said.
Another spotter reported about 3:30 p.m. that a Wendy’s Restaurant sign had been blown down in McCook.
A 65 mph gust was recorded 4 miles south of McCook at 10:49 a.m. CT, an hour before the 71 mph gust 2 miles east of the city.
Other top gusts in the region were 64 mph at Imperial; 62 mph at Thedford; 61 mph at Willow Island, between Gothenburg and Cozad; and 60 mph readings west of Sumner and at the Interstate 76 interchange at Julesburg, Colorado.
Relief from the week’s high winds is on its way, according to the weather service office at the North Platte airport.
Top gusts of 45 mph remained possible Thursday night, but winds are expected to slow Friday to sustained speeds of 15 to 20 mph and peak gusts around 30 mph.
Friday’s high should be in the mid-50s, but winds will switch to a southerly direction Saturday and drive temperatures that day into the mid-70s.
Daily highs will be around 60 on Palm Sunday and Monday, warming to the mid-60s Tuesday.
Chances of rain and snow showers then move in, with blustery, chillier conditions returning Wednesday and Thursday. Highs both days should be in the mid-40s.
Brian Neben of the Lexington Clipper-Herald contributed to this report.
Wildfires explained: 10 questions answered
Why do fire managers let some wildfires burn?
Sometimes fires fit a beneficial land management goal, like when they burn in a wilderness area or national park.
Fires are part of the natural forest cycle, and “at times that’s the right approach,” said Lane, who is in his 35th season as a firefighter, much of that spent in western Oregon. He joined Washington’s natural resources agency in 2019.
Also, wildfires sometimes burn in areas where it is unsafe to put firefighters.
When do fire managers deploy aircraft?
Planes or helicopters are used if a wildfire is burning too intensely to send in ground forces, or if aircraft are the best way to deliver water or retardant, Lane said.
“You want to hit a fire quick so it stays small,” Lane said.
The goal is to keep them from erupting into megafires. Cal Fire, California’s firefighting agency, keeps an average of 95% of blazes to 10 acres (4 hectares) or less.
But Lane said aircraft alone are usually not enough to extinguish a fire. “It takes boots on the ground.”
Aircraft also can face numerous visibility limitations when trying to make water drops on a wildfire.
How has technology helped?
When it comes to early detection, one innovation is replacing fire lookout towers staffed by humans with cameras in remote areas, many of them in high-definition and armed with artificial intelligence to discern a smoke plume from morning fog. There are 800 such cameras scattered across California, Nevada and Oregon.
Fire managers also routinely summon military drones to fly over fires at night, using heat imaging to map their boundaries and hot spots. They can use satellite imagery to plot the course of smoke and ash.
When is the best time to fight fires?
Generally the heat of a summer day is not the best time to fight wildfires.
“We are pretty successful in the morning, late evening or overnight,” Lane said.
Are wildfires harder to battle in timber or grasslands?
Dry lightning puts dozens of fires on the landscape, Lane said, and weather is a major factor in their spread.
Wildfires in grassland tend to grow more quickly, and are more susceptible to expanding when there are high winds, Lane said. Fires in timberlands don’t grow as fast, but they are more difficult to extinguish.
“With grass, a little rain and it goes out,” Lane said.
How best to save houses when fires are close?
Lane said the building material used on a house, and the nearby vegetation, are big factors in determining if a house can be saved when fire approaches.
Houses with wooden roofs and lots of flammable vegetation around them are hardest to save. Usually a fire crew will spray water around a house to protect it.
Sometimes they will burn out the vegetation around a house to starve an approaching wildfire. If the homeowner keeps brush well away from a home prior to a fire that is a big help, Lane said.
Where do fire names come from?
Usually a fire is named by the first unit of firefighters on the scene. Most of the time the name reflects a nearby geographic feature, such as a creek or valley.
California’s massive Dixie Fire, for instance, was named after the road where it started on July 14.
Why do firefighters spend so much time digging lines?
“Every fire has to have a dirt trail around it,” Lane said. “That’s to separate the fuel from the fire.”
Firefighters also get help when the flames burn toward a river, a rocky area or a road. “Separating fuel from fire is what stops them,” he said.
Who leads the firefighting effort?
Wildfires get one of five ratings, with Type 5 the least dangerous and Type 1 the most dangerous. More than 95% of all fires are smaller Type 4 or 5 wildfires and are quickly put out by local firefighters.
Larger fires, like the ones the Washington state Department of Natural Resources responds to, are assigned an incident commander, said Janet Pearce, agency spokeswoman.
The commander creates a set of objectives, which guides the command and general staff. An operations section chief then devises the strategy for the operational firefighting effort.
When are residents told to evacuate?
Emergency managers consider fire behavior, predicted weather and the amount of time it will take to evacuate, when making the decision to order people to leave, Lane said.
They also consider the availability of shelters and the potential for harm or loss of human life.
Occasionally, an order is given to “shelter in place.” This is typically done when there is either no time to escape an oncoming fire, or it would be more hazardous to evacuate than remain in place, he said.