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Nebraska state forester urges fire safety during high-risk conditions

Deborah Van Fleet

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(Nebraska News Connection) It's early in the season for wildfires in Nebraska, but dozens of firefighters have already been battling a large wildfire near North Platte for several days. The severity of the "Betty's Way" fire led Gov. Jim Pillen to declare a state of emergency.

John Erixson, Nebraska state forester and director of the Nebraska Forest Service, said the whole state is at high fire risk now. He added that about 93% of fires in Nebraska are human caused, often started by sparks from vehicles. 

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"So, if you're pulling a trailer, you have chains that are attached to the vehicle and the trailer that are dragging on the ground and across the pavement," he said. "That creates sparks, which can create fires in a hurry. Parking vehicles in tall grass is another one that is common."

Erixson explained that allowing a car's hot catalytic converter to touch dry grass can create sparks, as can equipment use such as mower blades hitting a rock. This is how the North Platte fire started. At last update, it was roughly 80% contained, had burned more than 70,000 acres and destroyed at least one home. 

As spring approaches, Erixson pointed to the importance of paying attention to weather conditions. 

"It doesn't take a lot, especially on a windy day, for folks to lose a fire, or have a spark turn into a wildfire," he said. "If the grass is brown, and we haven't had rain in a week and the wind's blowing, just be aware that a fire can spread very quickly."

Erixson said Nebraska's volunteer fire departments are facing shortages, making it even more important for people to be diligent about preventing fires. 

"I think that's a challenge for all of our departments across the state, which leaves them sometimes shorthanded," he said, "and it puts the responsibility on a limited number of folks that can go out and do suppression efforts."

In a 2023 survey of Nebraska's volunteer fire departments, more than 60% reported difficulty recruiting new firefighters, and 75% said they expect to be getting more calls over the next five years because of extreme weather events such as wildfires.