HALSEY, Neb. (AP) — A longtime volunteer firefighter died while battling a large wildfire in drought-stricken central Nebraska that destroyed much of a youth campsite and led officials to evacuate a nearby village.
Mike Moody, 59, the assistant chief of the Purdum Volunteer Fire Department, died Sunday after suffering a medical emergency early in the efforts to battle the Bovee Fire, according to a statement from the Region 26 Emergency Management Council. Moody had been with the department for over 40 years and had previously served as chief of the department, officials said. No other injuries have been reported.
The fire was initially reported as having burned around 100 acres Sunday afternoon in the Bessey Ranger District of the Nebraska National Forest, officials said. By Sunday night, the grassland fire in the state’s Sandhills region had grown to about 15,000 acres, or around 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), according to the Nebraska National Forests & Grasslands.
None of the fire was contained by midday Monday, according to Travis Mason-Bushman, a spokesperson for the Rocky Mountain Complex Incident Management Team. However, a bulldozer was brought in to dig a containment line.
The Nebraska State 4-H Camp confirmed in a tweet that most of the camp’s buildings, including its main lodge and all of its youth cabins, were destroyed in the fire, as was a popular observation tower in the Bessey Ranger District.
Officials also evacuated the tiny nearby village of Halsey, which is home to about 65 people, and shut down a section of state Highway 2 as smoke from the fire cut visibility. The highway had reopened by Monday.
More than 100 firefighters were on the scene Monday, Mason-Bushman said, after air tankers were used Sunday to drop retardant and slow the fire’s spread, which was fueled by tinder-dry conditions and high winds. Conditions improved Monday, with cooler weather and lighter winds, he said.
The fire was “likely human-caused,” the Nebraska National Forest said. Officials had not reported any injuries from the flames by midday Monday.
The U.S. Drought Monitor shows Thomas County remains in a severe drought.