UPDATE: The Sheridan County Sheriff's Office has issued a mandatory evacuation for anyone living in the west and south area of the Metcalf Wildlife Area, which is 9 miles north of Hays Springs, because of a third fire in that area.
* * * UPDATE: Ronni Davis, 64, died Wednesday night during a fire evacuation process for the West Ash Creek Fire, according to the Dawes County Attorney's Office.
Chadron dispatch received a call at 10:17 p.m. that a neighbor discovered Davis having difficulty breathing when they went to check on her during the evacuation. The Chadron ambulance and the Dawes County Sheriff responded to her home and attempted resuscitation and transported her to the Chadron Community Hospital. She was pronounced dead there.
A preliminary investigation indicates Davis likely died of natural causes from a cardio-pulmonary event.
* * *
CHADRON, Neb. A pair of rapidly growing wildfires forced authorities to evacuate about 150 Dawes County residents, close Chadron State Park and cancel classes in Chadron Thursday.
Combined, the fires have burned an estimated 25,000 acres, said Beth Hermanson, fire information officer for the Rocky Mountain interagency incident management team. The team has been called in to relieve exhausted local firefighters.
"We're looking at zero percent containment right now," she said. "We've got a lot of work to do."
The fires were estimated at only 1,300 acres as of Wednesday, but grew quickly as hot winds propelled flames through dry timber and grasslands.
Hot, windy weather forecast for Thursday is not expected to help control efforts, Hermanson said.
One fire, dubbed the West Ash fire, is burning an area south of Chadron, stretching from U.S. Highway 385 to West Ash Road. Most of the area lies within U.S. Forest Service land, but private lands also were affected, Hermanson said.
That fire forced the evacuation and closure of Chadron State Park Wednesday night, said Cyd Janssen, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service. The park remained closed Thursday.
The second fire, called the Douthit fire, was burning between Harrison and Crawford in timber, rough canyons and inaccessible areas. Janssen said it was threatening the main railroad line into Crawford but had not forced the line to shut down.
Both Chadron State College and Chadron Public Schools canceled Thursday and Friday classes because of uncertainty over the wildfires.
"The campus is in no imminent danger, but when we're dealing with something as uncertain as wildfires we want to be extremely cautious," said Dale Grant, the college's vice president for administration and finance.
Chadron State freshman Yadira Gurrola was among the students who chose to leave campus Thursday morning.
"Our RA (resident assistant) knocked on our door at 5:30 a.m. telling us classes were cancelled, and there was a pre-evacuation," Gurrola said.
The pre-evacuation was an effort to get as many students out of Chadron as possible so there would be fewer students to worry about in case there were to be mandatory evacuation, she said.
Gurrola said that before she left at about 9:30 a.m. Central time she and her roommate had opened the windows of their dorm room.
"We can't see part of the hills and it's all smoky," she said. "All the smoke made our eyes burn and it was kind of hard to breathe."
College officials said the campus would remain open and students living in the residence halls are not required to leave. But they encouraged students planning to go home for the Labor Day weekend to leave as soon as possible.
Gurrola said she couldn't take her usual route on U.S. 385 to her hometown of Scottsbluff because of the fire.
Hermanson said the fire jumped U.S. 385 during the night. As of Thursday morning, the highway was reduced to one-lane traffic in a stretch south of Chadron.
Some county roads have been closed in the area of the Douthit fire, Janssen said.
She said about 150 residents from 102 rural homes were evacuated during the night. In addition, residents on the east side of the West Ash fire were notified about a potential evacuation.
No towns in the area were in danger as of Thursday morning, Hermanson said.
Both fires were started by lightning from a Tuesday afternoon thunderstorm and were burning on public and privately owned land.
One building near the Box Butte and Dawes County line, northeast of Hemingford, received minor damage. Siding melted after the fire reached within 30 feet of the house. Entire pastures and haystacks were lost in the fires.
T.J. Thomson and Ashley Swanson of the Chadron State Eagle contributed to this report.
Contact the writer: