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Fire chief killed while responding to Nebraska wildfire

A Nebraska fire chief was killed while responding to a wildfire that scorched nearly 30,000 acres in the state’s south-central, destroying farms and prompting evacuations, officials said.

Chief Darren Krull of the Elwood Volunteer Fire Department died on Thursday when the SUV he was traveling in crashed into a fuel truck in “zero visibility conditions” created by smoke, said the Nebraska State Patrol in a statement.

Mr. Krull, 54, was in the passenger seat of a Ford Expedition driven by Justin Norris, the Phelps County emergency manager. Mr Norris, 40, was in stable condition in an Omaha hospital on Friday. The tanker driver, Andries Van Aswegan, 28, also responded to the fire and was not injured in the accident.

The fire in Gosper and Furnas counties was 30% contained Saturday morning, according to Alyssa Sanders, coordinator for the state Emergency Response Commission.

About 40 state fire departments and the Nebraska National Guard were responding to the blaze, which destroyed eight homes and 48 outbuildings as it blazed through the rural area. Gov. Pete Ricketts issued an emergency declaration on Friday to make state resources available to help fight the fires.

The National Weather Service warned that a significant portion of Nebraska would remain at critical risk of wildfires on Saturday due to dry conditions and high winds.

The fire began around noon Thursday near Elwood, Gosper County, after high winds blew a dead tree into a power line, Nebraska State Fire Marshal investigators said.

The fire spread quickly, propelled by wind gusts of 60 to 70 miles per hour and incredibly dry conditions, said Aaron Mangels, chief meteorologist at the Weather Service office in Hastings, Neb.

Mr Mangels said it was normal for wildfires to occur in Nebraska at this time of year, but this one was unusually large. “Early estimates were around 30,000 acres, which is big enough for anywhere, let alone Nebraska,” Mangels said.

Smoke and ash from the fire created dangerous driving conditions Thursday and Friday morning.

Credit…Nebraska State Patrol

Also on Thursday, Edison, a village in Furnas County where about 150 people live, was under an evacuation order. The order was lifted on Friday afternoon.

The Weather Service said a fire warning was in effect for several counties in south-central Nebraska and north-central Kansas through Saturday evening due to high winds and low relative humidity. Mr Mangels said people should avoid burning anything outdoors and be careful when doing activities that could start a fire, such as farm work and smoking cigarettes.

Winds had eased to gusts of 30 mph on Friday and Saturday, but they still posed a fire risk in the dry zone, which received only 20-40% of its normal amount of precipitation in the past 90 days, Mr. Mangels said.

Nearly 60% of Nebraska, including Gosper and Furnas counties, are experiencing severe drought according to the US Drought Monitor, a collaboration between several federal agencies and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Global warming increases the likelihood of drought and the United Nations warned in February that the risk of devastating wildfires would increase as climate change intensifies.

The UN report, produced by more than 50 researchers from six continents, says the risk of very devastating fires could increase by up to 57% by the end of the century, mainly due to climate change.

The report found that in some areas, including the western United States, fires have become more intense over the past decade and have ravaged larger areas.

Last month, more than 1,100 homes in the Florida Panhandle were ordered to evacuate due to fast-moving fires. From August to October, the Caldor Fire in California burned more than 200,000 acres and prompted tens of thousands of people to evacuate. Also in August, more than 6,000 homes in eastern Utah were ordered to evacuate due to a fire.


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