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Update: 9:53 -Firefighters battling a large blaze in northwest Nebraska will get some assistance from the federal government.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved a federal firefighting grant for the state on Thursday afternoon. Wildfires sparked by lightning have burned nearly 107 square miles in the area in Sioux, Dawes and Sheridan counties in the Panhandle.
One fire is raging just south of the city of Chadron. The fires have burned both grassland and forest areas, including some of the Nebraska National Forest.
The federal grant provides funding on a cost-share basis for certain costs incurred by firefighting agencies. FEMA does not provide actual firefighting equipment or personnel.
Three separate fires have forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents, campers, and visitors to Dawes, Sioux, and Sheridan counties.
Two fires, being treated as the Region 23 Complex, have nearly tripled in size Thursday, scorching 68,689 acres. The fires are listed at 10 percent contained Thursday night.
The West Ash fire, south of Chadron, is the larger of the two fires, and has burned 44,354 acres, while the Doutfit Fire, northwest of Crawford, has burned 24,335 acres.
Additional road closures were ordered Thursday night, including Highway 20 west of Fort Robinson. Sand Creek, and Cottonwood Roads were also closed, and sections of Table Road near Willow Creek were also closed.
Those fires have forced the evacuation of 102 residents, and 152 individuals, as well as Chadron State Park and the Pine Ridge Job Corp.
The third fire, in northwestern Sheridan County, was also burning fast Thursday, and prompted evacuations of the Metcalf Wildlife Management Area. The number of acres burned there was unavailable.
Lieutenant Governor Rich Sheehy, along with members of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, will tour all three fires Friday. Sheehy will attend a public meeting scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday night at the Crawford Community Center. The meeting will address current fire conditions, evacuations, road closures and progress made on the fires.
Fire officials have confirmed that some structures have been destroyed, but declined to give an exact number. They also said some of the structures were outbuildings, but again declined to say whether any homes were consumed by the blaze.
The fire forced Chadron State College and Chadron Public schools to call off classes both Thursday and Friday. Other schools postponed or cancelled sporting events.
Smoke from the fires was heavy throughout western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming, reducing visibilities to less than a quarter-mile at times. The smoke even forced sporting event cancellations as far south as Scottsbluff, and moved practices indoors for the afternoon.
One woman, 64-year-old Ronni Davis, died Wednesday night during fire evacuations. Dawes County Attorney Vance Haug said that a neighbor called 911 just after 10:15 p.m. after finding Davis was having difficulty breathing. Davis was transported to Chadron Community Hospital, where she was pronounced dead. Haug said preliminary investigation indicates that Davis likely died of natural causes resulting from a cardio-pulmonary event.
Highway 385 re-opened to two-lane traffic Thursday night, after being reduced to a single-lane with pilot car all day.
Evacuations have been issued for the area west of the West Ash Fire, including Table Road east to Highway 385, Country Club Road and Old Country Club Road east to Highway 385, and Deadhorse Road north to Highway 20.
Pre-evacuation orders have been issued to residents on the east of Highway 385. Pre-evacuation orders mean residents are requested to be ready to evacuate the area on short notice.
The Douthit Fire evacuations include The Hudson Ming Bison Kill research and visitors center, and areas between Sand Creek Road and Rim Rock Rock.
The Sheridan County fire forced the Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office to evacuate southern and western portions of Metcalf State Wildlife Management Area, including residents as far west as Beaver Wall Road.
Authorities reported the wildfire was progressing westward in the Metcalf State Wildlife Management Area, and the evacuation order will remain in effect until further notice.
All three fires were caused by lightning Tuesday afternoon.