By MARGERY A. BECK and SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN for the Associated Press
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Firefighters across the country are battling multiple wildfires as tinder-dry conditions and high winds whip up flames from Arizona to Florida — including a prairie fire in rural southwestern Nebraska that has killed one person, injured at least 15 firefighters and destroyed at least six homes.
A break in the weather in parts of the Midwest and West allowed crews to make progress Monday on some of the nearly dozen new large fires that were reported in recent days across the nation — four in New Mexico, three in Colorado and one each in Florida, Nebraska, South Dakota and Texas.
With more than 1,350 square miles (3,496 square kilometers) burned so far this year, officials at the National Interagency Fire Center said the amount of land singed to date is outpacing the 10-year average by about 30%.
Hotter, drier weather has combined with a persistent drought to worsen fire danger across many parts of the West, where decades of fire suppression have resulted in overgrown and unhealthy forests and increasing development have put more communities at risk.
In northern New Mexico, evacuations remained in place for several communities Monday and conditions were still too volatile for authorities to assess the damage caused Friday and Saturday. The blaze has has grown into the largest wildfire burning in the U.S., charring more than 88 square miles (228 square kilometers).
Members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation joined Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on a call Monday with officials from the White House and federal agencies to appeal for more federal ground resources ahead of another blast of strong fire-fueling winds expected later in the week.
Thanks to lighter winds in the Midwest on Monday, firefighters made significant progress on the fire that’s burned about 70 square miles (181 square km) of mostly grasslands and farmland near the Nebraska-Kansas state line. It’s now estimated to be about 47% contained.
They made the most of the opportunity Monday to dump water in dry creeks and draws filled with cottonwoods where dense fuels and brush has built up ahead of the return of more dangerous conditions expected on Tuesday, said Jonathan Ashford, spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Complex Incident Management Team.
“It’s supposed to be about 20 degrees warmer tomorrow, lower humidity and increased wind,” he said Monday night.
In Arizona, firefighters also took advantage of lighter winds to boost containment of a more than 33-square-mile (85 square-kilometer) blaze that has been burning outside of Flagstaff for more than a week. Strong winds that had fueled the fire are expected to return later this week. Meanwhile, hundreds of evacuated residents were given the go-ahead on Sunday to return home.
About 160 firefighters, emergency management personnel and others — twice as many as the day before — were helping fight the fire in Nebraska by Monday evening.
Known as the Road 702 Fire, it has destroyed at least six homes and threatened 660 others, along with 50 commercial or farm buildings, Ashford said.
A retired Cambridge, Nebraska, fire chief who was helping as a fire spotter in Red Willow County died Friday night after his truck went off the road in a blinding haze of smoke and dust. The body of John Trumble, 66, of Arapahoe, was recovered around early Saturday.
Trumble was the second person in a month to die while fighting a wildfire in southwest Nebraska. Elwood Volunteer Fire Chief Darren Krull, 54, was killed in a collision with a water tanker on April 7 in Furnas County as smoke cut visibility to zero.
Nebraska remains critically dry, said Ashford, who urged residents to use caution when doing anything that could spark a fire.
“The last thing we need is to have another fire started that we have to then fight,” he said.
Susan Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Associated Press writer Scott Sonner contributed to this report from Reno, Nevada.