Fire Chief Killed While Responding to Nebraska Wildfire

A fire chief in Nebraska has died while responding to a wildfire that has burned nearly 30,000 acres in the south-central part of the state, destroying farms and prompting evacuations, officials said.

The chief, Darren Krull, of the Elwood Volunteer Fire Department, was killed Thursday when the pickup truck he was riding in crashed into a tanker truck in “zero visibility conditions” created by smoke, the Nebraska State Patrol said in a statement. release.

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 at an Omaha hospital on Friday. The tanker driver, Andries Van Aswegan, 28, was also returning fire and was not injured in the accident.

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

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

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 started around noon Thursday near Elwood in Gosper County after high winds blew a dead tree onto a power line, according to Nebraska State Fire Marshal investigators.

The fire spread rapidly, fueled by wind gusts of 60 to 70 miles per hour and incredibly dry conditions, said Aaron Mangels, chief meteorologist for the Weather Service office in Hastings, Nebraska.

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 pretty big for anywhere, let alone Nebraska,” Mangels said.

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

Credit…Nebraska State Patrol

Also Thursday, Edison, a town in Furnas County home to about 150 people, 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 night 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 calmed to 30 mph gusts on Friday and Saturday but still posed a fire risk in the dry area, which has received only 20 to 40 percent of its normal amount of precipitation in the past 90 days. Mangels said.

Nearly 60 percent of Nebraska, including Gosper and Furnas counties, is in severe drought according to the US Drought Monitor, a collaboration of 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 further intensifies.

The UN report, which was produced by more than 50 researchers from six continents, said the risk of highly devastating fires could increase by up to 57 percent 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 devastated 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 caused the evacuation of tens of thousands of people. Also in August, more than 6,000 homes in eastern Utah were ordered to evacuate due to a fire.

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