As winter in Nebraska comes to an end, drought conditions have worsened across the state. As drought conditions continue, the risk of fire rises.
Nebraska experienced an abnormally dry winter. According to the Nebraska State Climate Office, most of the state received less than half of the normal amount of precipitation this winter. That ranges from 1.5 inches to 2.25 inches less than average. February 2022 was the driest February for the state in 128 years. Overall, the winter ranked as the fourth driest in the state’s history.
Claire Shield, a Geographic Information System specialist at the Nebraska Forest Service, said the current drought period started in summer 2021. However, the state has seen on-and-off drought conditions over the past few years.
“If the drought worsened over our dry season, then that is concerning going into the summer, which is our wet season,” she said. “Because things can go downhill real fast if we start missing our precipitation this time of year.”
So far, Nebraska has already had multiple large fires in 2022. In March, the state saw a grassfire in Antelope, Knox and Holt counties and took the efforts of 13 fire departments to contain. Additionally, a fire burned for several days and burned over 900 acres in Wellfleet. Last week, a grass fire swept across the southwest part of the state, killing retired Fire Chief of Cambridge John Trumble of Araphoe and injuring at least 15 other firefighters.
According to the Nebraska Drought Monitor from the National Drought Mitigation Center, almost all of Nebraska is experiencing moderate to severe drought conditions. Some counties in the central part of the state, like Greeley County, are experiencing extreme drought.
The drought monitor is a national map which is updated weekly to display drought conditions across the United States. Drought conditions are based on various indices of precipitation, soil moisture and other factors. The organization also reports on historical impacts of various levels of drought.
At the moderate level, crop growth may be stunted or surface water levels may start to decline. The risk of fires increases at the severe level. At the extreme level, rivers may start to dry and pavement may begin to crack. Website users can report any observed drought impacts via the Condition Monitoring Observer Reports tool.
Curtis Riganti, a climatologist for the National Drought Mitigation Center, said the state is currently on the cusp between a short-term and long-term drought period. According to Riganti, short-term drought conditions last less than six months. After six months, the drought is considered long term.
“We had one of our driest years on record, particularly in eastern Nebraska and in central Nebraska,” Riganti said. “That’s been improved a little bit recently with the recent rains that we’ve had over the past couple weeks. But, areas of central, north-central Nebraska that missed out on those rains are in a much worse spot right now.”
Riganti said the risk of fire is higher for any areas in the moderate drought category or worse. As the weather begins to warm, the risk increases.
“If this doesn’t improve, there’s probably going to be a lot of pretty dry vegetation available for fires,” he added.
According to Shield, summer is the primary fire season for Nebraska, but dry conditions create a smaller, secondary fire season in late winter and early spring. Shield also said the fire staff at the Nebraska Forest Service are busier than normal for this time of year.
“What I have heard from our fire staff is that this is very early for them to already be running to fires a few times a week,” Shield said. “They’re normally not this busy until like May or June.”
According to Matt Holte, the Fire Team Operations leader at the Nebraska Forest Service, the organization offers wildland training for fire departments across the state. The Nebraska Forest Service also has resources, such as the Wildfire Incident Response Assistance Team, the Nebraska Type 3 Incident Management Team and the Single Engine Air Tanker program which can assist in fires that become too intense for local departments to control.
Additionally, Holte said that volunteer fire departments across the state have mutual aid agreements which allows them to quickly provide assistance to neighboring communities.
The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center forecasts that the state will continue to experience warm, dry conditions over the next few months, elevating the risk of fire.
Shield said the Nebraska Forest Service works with landowners in the state to treat their land by removing small shrubs, or ‘fuels’, which can easily catch fire on forested land. The organization also works with volunteer fire departments across the state to find more staff for the summer months.
“There’s not much you can do,” Shield said. “It’s just preparing with your firefighting resources and making land owners aware of how they can treat their land and keep it maintained to prevent wildfires from becoming very intense.”