Nebraska on pace for second-worst wildfire year ever; 2023 outlook is dim

Drought and strong winds spawned large, fast-moving fires in spring, summer and fall

By: - November 7, 2022 5:00 am
wildfire

Smoke rises from a wildfire sparked in late July by lightning south of Gering, in Nebraska’s Panhandle. (Courtesy of Nebraska State Patrol)

LINCOLN — Worsening drought, coupled with strong, sustained winds, have combined to put 2022 on track as the second-worst year for wildfires in Nebraska.

And unless there’s an increase in expected precipitation this fall and winter, the state will be in for more of the same in 2023, a state fire authority predicted last week.

Not a ‘normal pattern’

“It’s weird. We’re not in a normal pattern. And it doesn’t seem like we’re going to break that pattern any time soon,” said Matt Holte, fire program leader for the Nebraska Forest Service.

So far this year, about 200,000 acres of grasslands, cropland and forests have burned in the state, Holte said. That compares with about 502,000 acres blackened in 2012, the previous record holder.

The fires of 2012 — another drought period — scorched an area larger than Douglas and Sarpy Counties combined, blackening large swatches of forest south of Chadron in the Pine Ridge and north of Ainsworth along the Niobrara River.

So many acres of trees were destroyed in the Pine Ridge area during the 2012 fires that it is no longer the state’s largest coniferous forest — that is the Niobrara Valley, with more than 200,000 acres of pine and cedar trees remaining.

The 2012 fires in the Pine Ridge followed others in the summer of 2006 near Harrison and south of Chadron that blackened nearly 70,000 acres.

Large, fast

But this year will be remembered for its large and fast-moving fires led by two, the Road 702 and Road 739 fires in April. Pushed by high winds, the fires quickly spread, outracing fire lines and fire crews. One fire burned 22 miles across pastures and crop fields.

“I never really complained about the wind until we moved here,” said Holte, a native of traditionally windy Wyoming.

“It’s just been so dry,” he said. “Every little start we get … and it’s off to the races.”

At about the same time this past spring, a burn pile reignited in northeast Nebraska, near Lyons, sparking a fire that roared across farm fields and consumed two residences.

In the summer, there were two big fires in the Wildcat Hills areas of Nebraska’s Panhandle, which destroyed three homes and other outbuildings.

Then, last month, an off-highway vehicle (OHV) overturned at the Nebraska National Forest in Halsey, setting off a wind-blown fire that leveled the popular 4-H Camp there, destroyed the historic Scott Lookout Tower and then jumped Nebraska Highway 2, burning miles into the Sandhills.

Mostly human-caused

Due to the persistent fire risk, 2022 marked the first time that the state contracted for two SEAT (single engine air tanker) planes to be available, according to Ben Bohall of the Nebraska Forest Service. In previous years, only one plane was necessary.

Holte said that a lot of Nebraska wildfires are human-caused. During spring planting and fall harvest season, farmers take to the field with heavy machinery that can get hot, throw off a spark or get clogged, starting a fire.

Lancaster fire
A wildfire in southern Lancaster County last month raced across farmland, burning a state recreation area near Hallam and destroying two homes. (Courtesy of Nebraska State Patrol)

“It doesn’t take much to get a spark off of that equipment,” he said.

Modern, no-till farming leaves a lot of dry and shredded corn stalks or bean plants left behind on a farm field, providing fuel for a fire.

Winds were especially strong at times this year in Nebraska — so strong that the fire at the Halsey National Forest jumped 3/4 of a mile to a mile across Highway 2 before sparking a grassland fire, Holte said.

More fires, season longer

Is climate change a factor? Holte said that fire seasons are definitely longer and there are more fires.

Firefighters mop up hot spots at the Bovee Fire, which blackened more than 18,000 acres in and near the Nebraska National Forest at Halsey in October. (Courtesy of Nebraska National Forest and Grasslands)

The three-month forecast for Nebraska from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center is “leaning” towards above average temperatures and average precipitation. So Holte said there’s not much relief in sight.

But, he said, the 2022 fire year has inspired a greater awareness about the dangers associated with wildfires — three firefighters died this year — and the need to train and coordinate fire-fighting attacks.

There’s better coordination now, Holte said, between agencies involved in wildfire response, which includes local volunteer fire departments, the Forest Service, the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency and the Nebraska Fire Marshal’s Office.

Attendance was way up at last week’s Eastern Nebraska Wildland Fire Academy at Ponca State Park, he said, due to an awareness that even non-mountainous states like Nebraska can see big wildfires.

“We learned that as a state we need to learn more, we need to train more,” Holte said.

No change for off-highway vehicles

Officials with the Nebraska National Forest and Grasslands said last week that they plan no change in usage of off-highway vehicles (OHVs) despite reports that one that fell over and caused a devastating fire at the Halsey forest last month.

Jack Isaacs, a forest supervisor, and Greg Wright, a wildlife biologist, said that the Halsey forest is managed as a “multi-use” area and will continue to be.

In recent years, the National Forest at Halsey — the nation’s largest hand-planted forest — has become a popular destination for ATVs (all-terrain vehicles) and their larger cousin, UTVs (utility terrain vehicles). 

The forest contains 36 miles of marked trails and two areas of open use, including one “Hill Climb” area.

Wright said that the exact cause of the fire is still under investigation but that use of OHVs remains the same — they must stay on marked trails or designated areas.

Due to a lack of recent rainfall, the Halsey forest recently instituted Stage 2 fire restrictions, which added a prohibition on OHVs parking on areas of vegetation. Fire restrictions, the officials said, were not in place when the Bovee Fire broke out at Halsey on Oct. 2.

A portion of the Halsey forest has also been temporarily closed off to the public, officials said, to assess damage to roads and culverts, and whether more erosion controls are needed.

Wright said that a structural engineer will be looking at the 50-foot-tall Scott Lookout Tower to assess the extent of the damages. He said the intent is to rebuild the tower.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.

MORE FROM AUTHOR