OMAHA, Neb. – Beefed up fire crews made major progress on a large prairie fire burning near the Nebraska-Kansas line on Tuesday and lighter winds allowed firefighters to keep flames from advancing significantly at big fires in the Southwest where some rural towns remain under evacuation orders.
Stiff winds remained a challenge in the Midwest, but eased in Arizona and New Mexico where they're expected to pick up again in the days ahead after fires destroyed dozens of home and charred a combined 225 square miles (580 square kilometers) last week.
“It was a very good day,” said Terry Krasko, a spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Complex Incident Management Team.
More than 200 firefighters are now battling the blaze in Nebraska that killed a former volunteer fire chief, injured several firefighters and destroyed several homes last week.
“No injuries. No more structures lost,” Krasko told The Associated Press Tuesday night from Cambridge, Nebraska. “I think the biggest loss we had today was a few hay bales.”
Overall containment grew there from 47% to 74% on Tuesday. That means crews have dug fire lines around about three-fourths of the fire that has burned 65 square miles (168 square kilometers) of mostly grasses and farmland.
“The major footprint of the fire stayed where it was supposed to be despite 30 to 40 mph winds," Krasko said. Critical fire conditions were forecast to return on Wednesday, “but not as windy.”
More than 3,000 firefighters and support personnel were assigned to multiple fires Tuesday in the Southwest, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
The focus was on efforts to corral blazes in northern New Mexico, where evacuations remain in place and several small villages were threatened. Authorities have started to survey the damage but have yet to tally the number of homes and other buildings that were destroyed.
The largest of the wildfires has blackened more than 94 square miles (245 square kilometers) in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Crews continued to make progress on that fire Tuesday, but they were bracing for the weather to take a turn later this week with more hot, dry and windy conditions forecast for the area.
San Miguel County Deputy Manager Jesus Romero described the situation as touch-and-go as the winds cranked up Tuesday afternoon.
“Everybody is eager to get back home. It’s still not really safe right now," he said. “There’s plenty of forest still to be burned, plenty of fuels and it’s plenty dry and we’re dealing with the wind. Some places are a little bit better than others, but right now it’s just too risky.”
In Arizona, crews are working to encircle and mop up a 33-square-mile (85-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.
Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Associated Press reporter Margaret Stafford reported from Kansas City, Missouri. Associated Press writer Paul Davenport contributed from Phoenix. Associated Press writer Scott Sonner contributed from Reno, Nevada.