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Fires engulf western Nebraska wildlife area, sparking evacuations

A view of the fire in western Nebraska. (Courtesy of Kurt von Minden/Nebraska State Patrol)

Emergency responders and law enforcement officials in Nebraska’s Scotts Bluff County urged residents to evacuate as they worked to contain a large fire engulfing a state wildlife management area in the western county.

The wildfire began in four separate sites in the Cedar Canyon Wildlife Management Area late Saturday, the region’s emergency management director, Tim Newman, told the Scottsbluff Star-Herald. The likely cause was lighting, but it was too early to confirm, he said.

Videos and photos circulating on social media appeared to show the sky covered in thick plumes of red smoke, as bales of hay burned on the side of a road south of Gering, the county seat.

Capt. Kurt von Minden, of the Nebraska State Patrol troop for Scotts Bluff, told The Washington Post shortly after 7 a.m. local time on Sunday that the rugged terrain around the wildlife area was impeding efforts to contain the fire.

Firefighters were struggling to control flames burning inside canyons, he said, and planes were expected to help put out the fire with chemicals or water.

The area is sparsely populated, and no one had died or been injured due to the fire as of early Sunday, von Minden said — though the flames had destroyed several homes.

Law enforcement officials urged residents along a roughly 16-mile stretch of road encompassing small towns such as Gering and Terrytown to evacuate late Saturday. Officials were also evacuating livestock.

A sergeant with the Nebraska State Patrol said on Twitter: “Evacuations of area residents are underway. Multiple fire departments and law enforcement agencies are on scene, monitoring the fire and providing traffic control.”

Newman, the regional emergency director, told the Star-Herald that he did not yet know how large the fire was, but that some 1,000 acres of land had burned at just one of the four sites where it is thought to have started.

On Saturday, a single-engine air tanker, or SEAT, plane had reportedly been deployed to the site of the fire and made several drops — typically of water or fire retardant — before being grounded for the evening.

Officials including Newman were working early Sunday out of an old school building near the Cedar Canyon Wildlife Management Area to decide how best to battle the fire, the Nebraska patrol sergeant said.

“Daylight will bring more fire fighting options, such as air support, which will get water to fires burning on rough terrain that cannot be reached by trucks,” the sergeant tweeted.

Fire danger escalating in Northern California as McKinney blaze erupts

Farther west, at the border between Oregon and California, a large wildfire known as the McKinney Fire was spreading rapidly over the weekend, unleashing thunderstorms.