Lightning sparks Nebraska wildfire amid drought

OMAHA, Nebraska Sun Jul 22, 2012 3:08pm EDT

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OMAHA, Nebraska (Reuters) - A wildfire sparked by lightning strikes in tinder-dry rangeland swept through a remote village and has burned about 150 square miles (388 square km) in north-central Nebraska.

The Fairfield Creek Fire burned out of control along a 7-mile (11-km) front during the weekend in the drought-stricken region and was moving faster than fire lines could be established in pine-clad canyons and extensive grasslands along the Niobrara River, fire officials said Sunday.

The blaze is only the latest complication for the farmbelt, which is already suffering from the worst U.S. drought in half a century.

Norden, an unincorporated village of about six dwellings, was devastated by the blaze, according to emergency managers. Residents across a wide swath of Keya Paha County in the path of the fire were ordered to evacuate.

No fire injuries have been reported, although the flames destroyed a fire truck.

Governor Dave Heineman declared a state of emergency. National Guard helicopters dropped water on the flames. An aerial tanker from Rapid City, S.D., dropped a slurry mixture.

Volunteer firefighters from several dozen communities, some as far as 200 miles away, were on the scene Sunday.

Firefighters were hampered by rugged terrain, fatigue and heat, with temperatures recently topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) in the region.

The fire initially was reported Friday north of Johnstown, Neb., along Fairfield Creek, a tributary of the Niobrara River. It is near the Nature Conservancy's 56,000-acre Niobrara Valley Preserve, one of the organization's largest preserves in the United States.

Flames jumped the Niobrara and raced 6 miles north to Norden across sparsely populated Keya Paha County. The county has a population of 1.1 people per square mile.

The most expansive drought since 1956 has been drying up waterways around the Midwest and severely diminishing crop yields, driving grain prices to record highs.

(Editing by Dan Burns and Cynthia Osterman)

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