Climate extremes and drought bring wildfires closer to home in Nebraska

‘Wildland Urban interface’ becomes focus for local and national agencies
Burn scars left by recent brush fires across the metro are affecting more than just the wild.
Published: Apr. 26, 2023 at 10:48 PM CDT
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BELLEVUE, Neb. (WOWT) - “Fire does not respect property lines.”

Fontenelle Forest ranger and director of resource stewardship Michelle Foss remembers. It was nearly one year ago to the day that a wildfire in the marsh area gobbled up 480 acres of river floodplain.

With hundreds of homes in the neighboring area and other protected lands adjacent, even a small fire can cause alarm in a natural space like Fontenelle Forest. The issue is now a focus of agencies locally and nationally: the wildland-urban interface.

Once cozy towns and neighborhoods can feel the heat when dry lands and high winds, for example, turn a small spark into a blaze that threatens homes and property.

“People in the Omaha area haven’t really had to experience that as acutely as say our western Nebraska neighbors have experienced, but it’s something we’re starting to see more of an issue with now,” Foss said while giving a tour of the burned areas, rebounding strongly. “The fire that was here last year started in Bellevue, and it started (in) neighborhoods. That’s not something you would expect would happen in a city.”

Stoked by environmental extremes, even brush fires can threaten private and public spaces, as we saw recently at NP Dodge Park, near Ponca Hills.

Even simple fixes to property near a home or business, such as clearing brush or creating natural fire breaks, can make a huge difference.

“In the Wildland Urban Interface, you may have landscaping issues that, once compromised by fire or even just age, could cause problems if firefighters had to go in there,” she said.

Local, state and national voices are urging us to make a plan, even if we’ve never done it before.

“There’s a national program called Firewise, that has some specifications for making your house defensible against wildfire,” Foss said. “In the state of Nebraska, most counties are included in a community wildfire protection plan that the Nebraska Forest Service has collaborated with different counties to prepare.”

That information can be accessed through the Nebraska Forest Service website, which also includes risk assessment tools. Iowa also takes part in the Firewise program.

The U.S. Forest Service isn’t just focusing on the western states, either. The USDA and USFS recently announced plans to send $1.5 million to programs in Nebraska, Colorado, South Dakota and Wyoming focused on reducing wildfire risks to communities.

“What we like to say is ‘we are students of fire’”, Foss said. “We’re always learning, we will never be smarter than the fire.”