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Wildfires 7.22.2012

Wildfire spreads through the wooded area of the Niobrara River valley Sunday, July 22, 2012, at about 12 miles west of Springview. (ADAM WOLFFBRANDT/Lincoln Journal Star)

SPRINGVIEW -- A raging weekend wildfire along the Niobrara River valley burned an estimated 150 square miles of forest and grassland and forced the evacuation of a pair of small towns and several river outfitters.

By Sunday evening, officials estimated the size of the blaze had exceeded 100,000 acres. Flames had scorched at least six homes and several outbuildings, most of them in Norden, a town north of the river and about 30 miles east of Valentine, said Doug Fox, a regional emergency manager.

"We'll have firefighters working throughout the night, but at this point, it's about 50 percent contained," Fox said late Sunday.

By then, the fire had become the state's biggest in recent memory.

"This is already several times larger than last year's Stapleton fire," Fox said.

Authorities ordered the evacuation of a 14-mile stretch of the Niobrara River corridor, from the Norden Road bridge to the U.S. 183 bridge south of Springview, the Keya Paha County seat. That area includes the village of Meadville, which was evacuated late Saturday.

By Sunday, the fire stretched across a wide swath of the canyon on the north side of the river, "anywhere from probably eight miles west of Norden to it's getting close to Meadville," Ainsworth Fire Chief Brad Fiala told radio station KBRB.

Fox said media reports that the larger town of Springview was being evacuated were incorrect. Residents there did not appear to be in danger, he said, though a smaller fire had started east of the Springview area late Saturday.

That fire came dangerously close to Edith and Roger Wentworth's farm -- so close in fact, they spent much of Saturday night and Sunday discing their field, mowing the ditches along Nebraska 7 and placing lawn sprinklers on their roof.

On Sunday afternoon, Edith watched from her front yard as flames flared brightly a little more than a mile from her home.

"It's just so dry out there," she said, as black and grey ash fell around her.

Much of Nebraska 12 east of Valentine had been closed since Friday night.

Volunteer firefighters from dozens of departments around the state had joined in the effort to fight the blaze.

"They’re getting tired because we’ve being going at this awhile," Fox said. "We did get a little sleep (Saturday) night.”

Fox said the only reported injuries came from two Ainsworth firefighters who were hurt after they were thrown off a fire truck crossing over rugged terrain. One sustained a broken rib and the other several lacerations, but both were treated and released from the Cherry County Hospital.

Three National Guard helicopters from Lincoln were called to help douse the flames from the air, and four large strike teams from the U.S. Forest Service -- consisting of hundreds of professional firefighters -- were en route to relieve the hundreds of volunteers.

Officials elevated the incident to a type-2 fire Sunday, meaning a federal incident commander is called to work with local officials.

Fox said the Forest Service will take full control of the fire sometime Monday.

The fire appears to have started Friday, south of the Niobrara along Norden Road, before jumping the river to the north, Fox said. Flames crossed the banks a second time but were stopped short of causing any major damage south of the water.

"The majority is private land, and it’s all -- the majority of it’s all forest," Fox said.

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Fox said the flames were moving through the grass first, then sweeping back over the same areas through the treetops.

Fiala said much of the terrain is too rugged even for four-wheel drive vehicles, and the heat from the flames was so intense firefighters were having difficulty getting close.

In Norden, the town Dance Hall was among the only structures of value salvaged.

"Fire went all around it," Fox said. "Didn’t touch it."

On Sunday afternoon, volunteers worked inside the hall to pack coolers full of food and water for the firefighters.

The 83-year-old hall has served as both a command post for volunteers and a place for firefighters to sleep since the flames moved south and east of Norden.

"There has just been an awesome response from the surrounding community," said Norden-area resident Kelli Gibson. "It's a great feeling to know that everyone can come together in a tragedy."

Norden marks the farthest north the fire has crept -- charring just a few feet of grass north of Nebraska 12, but nothing more.

As firefighters built several fire breaks and performed back burns throughout the day, another team of volunteers sent a continuous flow of hamburgers, sandwiches and supplies from the Springview Fire Hall.

Among them was Lori Wagner, who came to Springview from Winner, S.D., to work in the kitchen.

"We've received so many donations from churches, businesses, individuals," she said.

Journal Star reporter Zach Pluhacek contributed to this story. Reach the Journal Star at 402-473-7306 or citydesk@journalstar.com.

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