Drought, Winds Fan Midwest Wildfires

A Winter With Little Snow Creates Dry Environment for Wildfires

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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Dry fields and high winds created ideal conditions for wildfires in eastern Nebraska recently, such as on this field near Herman, Nebraska. (DTN photo by Russ Quinn)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Strong winds and extremely dry conditions make for a perfect combination for wildfires. This was the case at my family's farm on March 19.

My family lives near Herman, a village of about 350 people in northern Washington County. This is about 35 miles north of Omaha in east-central Nebraska.

In the afternoon, my dad and I decided to take one of our tractors to a farmer neighbor who is a diesel mechanic.

As we came back down our county road, we noticed the ditch on our neighbor's farm was on fire. Within a matter of minutes, it had spread to our farm.

I got the neighbor. We went out there with a hand sprayer, shovels and two 10-gallon milk cans full of water. We got the small fire out, chatted a bit and then I went back to the place.

My dad was leaving to go home; he soon called me -- the fire was burning again.

Once again, the neighbor and I were out there fighting a fire with a small hand-held sprayer and vintage milk cans full of water.

This time, the fire spread up the fence line between our farms and started to head down the large grass waterway in the one field on our farm. This field bordered a pasture, and on the other side of the pasture is our buildings.

Feeling a bit nervous as the fire grew, I found the neighbor and we decided it was time to call the fire department. I had just gotten my phone out of my pocket when a couple of fire trucks drove by on the road going east.

They disappeared on the horizon for a few minutes. The next time I looked up, they were coming down the road, this time heading west, and turned into the neighbor's field.

Two fire engines and several firefighters from the Blair Volunteer Fire Department immediately jumped into action. The smaller truck drove along the fence line with a firefighter spraying water on the burning grass and scrub trees.

Once the fire was knocked down a bit, a firefighter came to our side of the fence with his hose and sprayed down the burning grass. He had to walk in the main grass waterway and on a terrace to put out the fire.

Once that was completed, they continued to spray the entire fence line that had burnt along with the road ditch. A couple of smaller trees in the fence glowed red at the base of the tree, so they cut them down and soaked them.

They also did this with some old wooden fence posts in the weathered barbed-wire fence. One firefighter told me this is how many grass fires reignite, as trees and wooden fence posts will smolder and then start the fire again.

I was lucky -- the firefighters were actually on their way to help fight another wildfire a few miles to the east of us. A third fire was a few miles to the north of this fire.

They saw the smoke from our fire, called county dispatch and then returned to control this fire. Both my neighbor and I are grateful they raced back to put it out.

Another one of the firefighters said one of the two fires just east of us had gotten about 20 feet away from a house. Luckily, the volunteer firefighters stopped the fire before it got to the house.

Our fire in the grand scheme of things was very small and really never got that close to our house and buildings. But I'm glad I was home to notice it and prevent it from growing larger.

I visited southwestern Kansas and northwestern Oklahoma in the spring of 2018 after the massive 2017 fires burnt 250,000 acres in Kansas and 200,000 acres in Oklahoma and killed thousands of head of cattle. That was a huge natural disaster that devastated ranchers, while our little fire was more of an inconvenience.

But these fires serve as a reminder that sometimes the weather can be uncooperative and even dangerous. This situation can lead to personal property loss and even the loss of human life.

Living in Nebraska for my entire life, I sometimes don't think much about the extreme weather we sometimes have here in the Midwest. We can have all four seasons in a matter of a couple days, which is something I am told does not happen in other parts of the country.

Specifically, the strong winds we see daily on the Plains are something other areas of the nation don't have. I met someone once from the East Coast years ago, and they asked me how people here deal "with all of the wind."

What made the wind so dangerous at this time is also the dryness.

Those of us in Nebraska saw the winter of 2021-22 with some low temperatures, but very little snowfall. Last winter, we had nearly 40 inches of snow (normal is in the 20s), and this winter, we have not had 10 inches.

As a result, our area is in various stages of drought. The latest U.S. Drought Monitor map (https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/…) shows drought covering the entire state of Nebraska -- in fact, more than half the country is suffering from drought. DTN Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson recently looked at drought conditions for spring for grain and oilseed crops (https://www.dtnpf.com/…). Fellow DTN Ag Meteorologist John Baranick earlier this week said some rain this week did help drought areas a bit, but it won't last, especially in the Southern Plains. (https://www.dtnpf.com/…)

Wildfire dangers will continue, so let's be careful out there.

And, for Pete's sake, don't throw your cigarette out the car window when you are driving, especially in rural areas. We speculate someone discarded a lit cigarette into the dry roadside ditch by my place, since this is where the fire started.

"Some people just don't care," the one firefighter told me.

Looking at my blackened field, I would agree.

Russ Quinn can be reached at russ.quinn@dtn.com

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Russ Quinn