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Feb. 27, 2024Omaha, Neb. |  By: AP

A mower sparked a Nebraska wildfire that has burned an area roughly the size of Omaha, officials say


OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A mower sparked a prairie fire that has burned a huge swath of grassland in central Nebraska roughly the size of the state’s largest city of Omaha, state officials said Tuesday.

The fire, first reported Monday morning less than 10 miles (16.1 kilometers) northeast of North Platte, destroyed one home, damaged another and burned down about five outbuildings, but no injuries have been reported, the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency reported.

The fire came as the National Weather Service issued red flag warnings and fire danger alerts for Nebraska and several other states through the midsection of the country, as high winds of over 40 mph (64 kph) combined with unseasonably warm temperatures, low humidity and dry winter vegetation to make conditions ripe for wildfires.

By midday Tuesday, the Betty’s Way fire — fueled by winds topping 40 mph (64 kph) — had burned about 110 square miles (285 square kilometers) in Lincoln and Custer counties, Lincoln County Emergency Management Director Brandon Myers said. About 15 volunteer fire departments in the area initially fought unsuccessfully to keep the fire from spreading.

By late Monday, Gov. Jim Pillen declared a state disaster, which provided additional help from the state Forest Service, Fire Marshal, emergency management agency and other cooperating agencies.

Officials went house-to-house to evacuate those in the path of the east-moving fire, Myers said.

“It’s not a densely populated area,” he said. “I’d say we evacuated 10 to 20 houses, maybe.”

Officials had the fire about half contained going into Tuesday afternoon and hoped to have it fully extinguished by Thursday, Myers said. That effort will be helped by falling temperatures and a possibility of snow overnight Tuesday and into Friday, he said.

The U.S. is experiencing wild fluctuations in temperatures this week. Some cities — including many across Nebraska — are experiencing a whiplash in which they are going from record highs to freezing temperatures and snow.