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Rural Nebraska fire chief dies in crash on way to wildfire

EDISON, Neb. (AP) — A wildfire in southern Nebraska fueled by dry conditions and strong winds forced the evacuation of the small village of Edison, destroyed several homes and factored into the death of a rural fire chief who was killed in a crash while responding to the blaze.

The Nebraska State Patrol called for a mandatory evacuation Thursday night of the Furnas County community of about 130 people about 187 miles (301 kilometers) southwest of Lincoln.

That order was later extended to rural residents around Edison and near the small town of Stamford, across the county line in Harlan County. Several schools in the area canceled classes Friday, and the National Weather Service reported that several homes were destroyed in the fire.

The Nebraska Emergency Management Agency said the fire began when strong winds blew a dead tree into a power line.

Shortly after 5 p.m. Thursday, an SUV carrying emergency officials to the fire collided with a water tanker on state Highway 283 in Furnas County as smoke from the fire cut visibility to zero, the patrol said Friday. Elwood Volunteer Fire Chief Darren Krull, 54, who was a passenger in the SUV, died at the scene, the patrol said.

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The SUV’s driver, 40-year-old Phelps County Emergency Manager Justin Norris, suffered life-threatening injuries in the crash, the patrol said, and was hospitalized in stable condition Friday morning. The 28-year-old driver of the tanker was not injured, the patrol said.

As of midday Friday, the fire had ballooned to 30,000 acres, or about 47 square miles (122 square kilometers), and 40 fire departments from around the region had responded to fight the blaze, said Jodie Fawl, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency. The Nebraska National Guard also sent two Black Hawk helicopters to the site to drop water on the flames, she said.

“As of right now, it is 0% contained,” Fawl said. “That doesn’t mean they haven’t put out parts of the fire. It just means that a line around the outside of the fire is not established.”

Establishing that fire line has proven difficult, Fawl said, as high winds that gusted up to 60 mph (97 kph) Thursday and around 40 mph (64 kph) Friday across much of Nebraska and Kansas. Those winds coupled with low humidity pushed the fire south from Gosper County into Furnas County, according to the National Weather Service.

Fawl said the fire had also jumped the Republican River, which might have might have helped contain it. She said the fire had damaged at least eight structures, including some homes, and six outbuildings, which could be sheds, garages or barns.

Critical fire weather conditions were forecast for Friday from the central Plains to the northwestern Gulf Coast, including parts of Texas and Louisiana, the weather service said.

No other deaths or injuries have been reported beyond the crash that killed Krull and injured Norris.

Strong winds and drought also fueled fires in northwestern Oklahoma and that state’s Panhandle, where three fires forced evacuations of two small towns and had burned about 70.31 square miles (45,000 acres), state Fire Management Chief Mark Goeller said Friday.

The towns of Ft. Supply, about 140 miles (225kilometers) northwest of Oklahoma City, and Forgan, about 195 miles (314 kilometers) northwest of Oklahoma City were evacuated for a few hours late Thursday and injured two firefighters who suffered burns, Goeller said.

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