STAPLETON, Neb. — Weary Nebraska firefighters battled wind-swept grass fires Wednesday that devoured more than 20,000 acres of farmland and caused millions of dollars in estimated crop and property damage.
At least one home was destroyed near the central Nebraska town of Stapleton, a farm-and-ranch community about 30 miles north of North Platte. Authorities said one landowner was hospitalized in North Platte for smoke inhalation and flown to a hospital in Lincoln for further treatment.
Fire Chief Frank Kramer said more than 50 departments helped fight the blaze, with some traveling from more than two hours away. He said area departments have contained much of the blaze, but firefighters remain concerned it may flare again because of dry conditions and gusting winds.
Kramer said it's too early to know an exact dollar figure, but the fire hit as local farmers were harvesting and storing crops for winter.
"That's what we're focusing on now – protecting structures and trying to hold the fire line," Kramer said. "This is going to be a million-plus dollar deal."
Gov. Dave Heineman declared a state of emergency for Stapleton and surrounding Logan County to help local responders. State emergency officials said early damage estimates had reached $4 million.
At least 12 pivot irrigation systems were damaged in the fire, and four homes sustained varying levels of damage, said Al Berndt, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency. Berndt said air operations dropped 14 loads of water on the fire – about 3,000 gallons total – before high winds forced them to stop.
Kramer said the fire has scorched between 20,000 and 23,000 acres. Local pilots dumped water on the blaze from crop-duster planes, but had to stop by Wednesday afternoon because of the wind.
"I think we're gaining on it," Kramer said. "It's just going to take a little more time and energy."
Gusty winds greater than 30 mph whipped over the scorched earth on Wednesday, filling the air with ash and dirt. Ranchers scrambled to round up loose cattle that had fled from the fire, while farmers surveyed the damage. Bleary-eyed firefighters monitored the fires from gravel back roads south of town, their clothes and trucks coated with ash.
Kramer said the fire started shortly after 3 p.m. Tuesday and was caused by exhaust heat from a combine that was harvesting beans. He said officials hoped to have the blaze extinguished by Wednesday evening, but wind and heat were complicating their efforts.
Art Kramer, who farms south of Stapleton, said the fire burned one-half to three-fourths of his family's corn crop. His wife, Becky Kramer, said the family will likely have to sell all their cattle because the fire ruined valuable pasture land and destroyed their winter feed supply. They also lost an unknown amount of hay, at least two old tractors and other farm equipment.
Art and Becky Kramer raced out of their home Tuesday as the flames inched toward their front door. They hauled tractors, trailers, hay slats and fuel wagons to an intersection two miles away, hoping to preserve their livelihood even if they lost the house.
"There was no time to get anything out," Becky Kramer said. "We just had to save the equipment."
Becky Kramer said she was devastated by the fire, and the family hadn't yet decided what to do.
"The fire got so close to the house yesterday that we had to leave," she said. "When we came back, all the trees were lit up on fire like Christmas lights."
An unrelated fire in the southeast Nebraska town of Beatrice broke out Wednesday under similar circumstances. Authorities said a combine in a soybean field sparked the blaze Wednesday afternoon.
Officials told the Beatrice Daily Sun that the fire was caused by an overheated manifold on the combine.
At least four fire departments were called, and farmers used discs to plow up the edges along the fire in an effort to contain it.
KWBE radio said firefighters got the fire under control around 4 p.m., and were working to contain hot spots. There was no immediate estimate on how many acres were involved.
The response to the fires included local and volunteer fire departments, the State Fire Marshal's Office, the Nebraska State Patrol, the Logan County Sheriff, Red Cross, Salvation Army, state and local emergency management, and the state Department of Roads .
Associated Press Writers Michael Crumb and Melanie Welte in Des Moines contributed to this report.