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Fast-moving Nebraska wildfire scorches 15,000 acres and forces evacuations

A longtime volunteer firefighter died after he suffered a medical emergency while trying to extinguish the blaze.
Smoke billows from the Bovee fire in Nebraska on Oct. 2, 2022.
Smoke billows from the Bovee fire in Nebraska on Sunday.Nebraska National Forests & Grasslands

A fast-moving Nebraska wildfire that started Sunday afternoon and was "likely human-caused" has scorched an estimated 15,000 acres and forced evacuations, according to Nebraska National Forests & Grasslands.

The blaze, which officials are calling the Bovee Fire, broke out Sunday afternoon in the Bessey Ranger District of Nebraska National Forest, said Travis Mason-Bushman, the forest’s public information officer.

More than 100 firefighters continued to battle the blaze Monday morning, said Mason-Bushman, who said crews hope to stop it from spreading on the west side after having reined it in on its east and north sides overnight.

A longtime volunteer firefighter died after he suffered a medical emergency while trying to extinguish the blaze, The Associated Press reported.

Mike Moody, 59, had been with the Purdum Volunteer Fire Department for four decades, according to the AP.

Video of the fire, captured by NBC affiliate KSNB of York, shows flames and clouds of smoke billowing from the forest.

By 7:30 p.m. Sunday, the fire had spread to an estimated 15,000 acres and pushed 15 miles north, Mason-Bushman said. Firefighters were going to battle the blaze throughout the night, and residents were implored to “please heed all evacuation orders or warnings from local authorities,” Nebraska National Forests & Grasslands said Sunday.

The surrounding campgrounds and the nearby village of Halsey, in west-central Nebraska, were evacuated earlier Sunday, the agency said on Facebook.

The evacuation order for Halsey has since been lifted, Mason-Bushman said Monday, and Nebraska Highway 2 has also been reopened after it was closed for a few hours Sunday because of the blaze.

The national forest and its campgrounds remain closed and evacuated and will be "for some time to come," Mason-Bushman said.

"We do have firefighters continuing the aggressive attack," Mason-Bushman said, adding that Monday's weather — with temperatures forecast for the high 70s and light winds expected — should be favorable for firefighting.

The fire caused “major devastation” at the Nebraska State 4-H Camp, according to a Facebook post from the youth camp, which said that the fire burned a lodge and cabins and that everyone who had been at the site had been safely evacuated.

Firefighters were able to save the forest's more than century-old Charles E. Bessey Tree Nursery, which "grows trees to reforest after fires like this one," Mason-Bushman said.

The nursery, about a mile west of Halsey, is home to 1.5 million seedlings and "has a long-standing reputation for producing top-quality planting stock due to its deep sandy soils, abundant water and relatively long growing season," according to the U.S. Forest Service website.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation, Mason-Bushman said, adding that it is believed to have been caused by “some human influence” given that no lightning, which is normally the source of natural fires, was reported in the area.

“We treat these like a crime scene or like an aircraft accident — you’re going to have trained investigators looking at the site where the fire started, gathering all the evidence, before we state definitively exactly what happened,” he said.