Gov. Dave Heineman pledged Wednesday to seek additional money from the Nebraska Legislature if it's needed to help pay for fighting fires in parched areas.
The governor said he wouldn't be surprised if the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency requires more money by the summer's end to reimburse local fire departments for their expenses.
"We are going to respond to any emergency challenge in this state and adjust accordingly," he said at a news conference. "That's what the people of Nebraska expect."
Wildfires sparked by dry lightning have scorched tens of thousands of acres in central and western Nebraska. Last week, six fires burned an estimated 60,000 acres around Lake McConaughy, the state's largest reservoir and a popular summer getaway. In July, three wildfires in north-central Nebraska blackened nearly 120 square miles and destroyed at least 14 homes.
State officials say they don't yet know the exact cost of the fires, but assistant NEMA director Al Berndt estimated the state has spent about $7.5 million for manpower and equipment.
Berndt said his agency started the year with about $10 million. State officials will start doing damage assessments next week to see if Nebraska can qualify for federal aid.
"Right now, we have sufficient funds to cover the expenses we've had thus far," Berndt said. "However, depending on what happens with the remainder of the fire season, we could be finding ourselves where we're approaching a deficit."
Berndt said the state typically keeps about $5 million available for emergencies. The agency ended up with more than usual this year after lawmakers approved additional money for 2011 flood relief and costs came in lower than expected.
Among the expenses was $3.25 million for the fires in north-central Nebraska. The Nebraska National Guard claimed $976,000 in expenses, and fire departments in that area sought reimbursement for the cost of pilots and aircraft used to douse the blazes.
Berndt said the state also pays local departments called to help with fires beyond their jurisdiction.
In 2006, he said, the state paid about $10 million to fight a series of fires near Chadron and Valentine, but 75 percent of the costs were covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, because they affected population centers.
Meteorologists with the National Weather Service have said conditions in Nebraska still are ripe for fires. Western Nebraska missed its usual rainfall in May, June and July — the wettest summer months of the year and what meteorologists describe as the best chance to "green up" the prairie grasses and make them more fire resistant.
Several western counties recently endured a streak of 25 consecutive days with temperatures above 90 degrees, the longest stretch since the Dust Bowl in 1936.