OGALLALA (AP) - Wildfires have blackened about 60,000 acres of rugged terrain near Nebraska's largest reservoir, emergency responders said Friday as they braced for possible evening thunderstorms that could ignite new blazes.
No building damage was reported around Lake McConaughy, a popular summer getaway in western Nebraska, but authorities said the fires posed an immediate threat to at least half a dozen structures. One firefighter was hospitalized Friday for heat exhaustion, but Ogallala radio station KOGA reported that his injuries were not life threatening.
Officials believe the fires started with lightning strikes Thursday afternoon. At least three fires remained out of control Friday.
Nebraska Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Jodie Fawl told The Associated Press that state officials have dispatched two Black Hawk helicopters to help fight the fire, along with 13 National Guard soldiers and three agency staff members. She said emergency officials were watching for scattered thunderstorms expected later in the evening that could spark more lightning fires.
Fawl said the affected area was a grassy, drought-parched expanse of land with canyons that are inaccessible to emergency vehicles.
She said the weather outlook for Keith County shows that winds are expected to remain slower than 25 miles per hour throughout Friday, with expected cooler temperatures overnight. Scattered thunderstorms were expected later in the day, and some areas could see brief, heavy rain.
"While storms could bring rain that would help in the firefighting efforts, they also bring lightning, and with the dry conditions that could mean further chances for lightning which could start fires this evening," said Al Berndt, the agency's assistant director. "We are working with Keith County firefighters and emergency managers to monitor the fire and assist as the response as much as possible."
Officials said one fire north of Brule but south of the lake's shoreline posed an immediate threat to seven structures, and 100 more could become endangered. The fire had burned 2,500 to 3,500 acres and was not controlled or contained.
Another fire north of Otter Creek on the lake's north side burned an estimated 40,000 acres, including areas of canyon terrain that ground firefighters can't reach.
A third fire 2 miles north of the border between Keith and Arthur counties was contained, but a new breakout Friday morning scorched an estimated 3,000 acres.
Firefighters struggled against hilly terrain to fight a fourth fire several miles north of Kingsley Dam at the lake. The fire had burned about 6,000 acres as of Friday and remained out of control.
A fifth fire in northeastern Keith and southwest McPherson counties burned about 7,500 acres, with stretches of canyons and creek valleys inaccessible to ground crews.
Firefighters extinguished a sixth fire at a ranch that burned about 350 acres.
KOGA reported that an outpouring of support for the fire crews led to volunteers shutting off donations early Friday afternoon.
Keith County Emergency Manager Pete Peterson said a total of 38 volunteer fire departments responded to the fires in Keith, Arthur and McPherson Counties.
A number of other fires in western Nebraska were set off by Thursday's lightning, including at least one in Garden County and one in Lincoln County. Cooler temperatures this weekend are expected to help the firefighting efforts.