Grass fire prompts evacuations in McCook, Nebraska

A home destroyed, a person injured, a community partially evacuated.

An aggressive windblown fire sent a person to the hospital with burns, hollowed out an expensive home and prompted the evacuation of northern McCook, Nebraska, on Tuesday.

Sparks from a damaged power line caused the fire, which started about 1:30 p.m. north of town, said Alan Kotschwar, the sheriff and emergency management director for Red Willow County.

With winds gusting between 40 and 50 mph, it flared up quickly and within about 15 minutes evacuations had begun, said Lori Schmidt, deputy city clerk.

Numerous area volunteer fire departments rushed to the scene and as did residents from the area, said Bill Elliott, chief of the Red Willow Western Rural Fire Department.

“It was going so fast we were having a hard time catching it,” Elliott said. “It was very difficult.”

At one point, trucks with water tanks — driven by area residents — were backed up about two blocks to assist with the fire, he said. People donated food to keep firefighters going. By evening the fire was under control, and the community spared.

Volunteer firefighters were to remain on the scene overnight, said Elliott and Kotschwar.

“The wind has decreased, but not enough,” Kotschwar said.

Kotschwar believed that the person injured, who suffered from burns, was a transient who lived in a shelter in a canyon. He did not have his name, nor did he know how seriously he was injured.

The city evacuated residents and properties north of Q Street and west of Norris Avenue, which included trailer homes and a retirement community. McCook Elementary School students were moved to McCook High School and the YMCA.

The dollar value of the house’s loss may surpass $1.5 million and may approach $2 million, Kotschwar said. “He had a lot of collectible motorcycles, things like that in there.”

McCook, a city of about 7,700, is in the southwest corner of Nebraska near the Kansas border.

Strong winds and dry air streaming in from the Rocky Mountains created the potential for fast-moving fires this week, said Bill Taylor, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in North Platte.

While the McCook fire was worrisome, Nebraska does not face the same overall fire risk as Kansas, where the National Guard has been called out and at least 10,000 acres burned Tuesday.

Nebraska has received far more moisture in the past two months than Kansas has, so conditions aren’t as incendiary, Taylor said.

”Fortunately for us, we’ve had the moisture, so fire has not been as much an issue,” Taylor said.

Elliott said firefighters will regroup on Wednesday to sort out damage and calculate the extent of the fire.

In central and western Kansas, 17 active fires were underway Tuesday afternoon; six others were almost out and 19 had been put out.

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