- Associated Press - Monday, September 3, 2012

OMAHA, Neb. — Firefighters were making good headway Monday against blazes that have blackened nearly 260 acres of rugged land in northwest Nebraska and neighboring South Dakota, officials said.

The so-called Douthit fire northwest of Crawford, Neb., which scorched nearly 461/2 square miles, was all but contained. The West Ash fire has charred more than 91 square miles east of Crawford.

The two fires were a combined 75 percent contained and full containment was expected by Thursday or even sooner, federal fire spokeswoman Patricia Bean said.

Around 520 firefighters were combating those two fires Monday, down from the nearly 660 who had been deployed Saturday, Ms. Bean said. The firefighters were aided by five helicopters dropping water from big bladders.

Following an aerial survey Sunday, officials lowered the damage estimate from the so-called Wellnitz fire burning north of Rushville from about 150 to about 120 square miles burned. The blaze crossed into South Dakota on Friday and broke through containment lines on Saturday.

“Everything looks really good today. We’re making a lot of progress,” Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team A spokesman Bill Kight said Monday afternoon.

Firefighters were extending the containment lines and putting out hot spots within 100 feet of the line, Mr. Kight said, in hopes that embers wouldn’t jump the line to start new fires.

The official containment figure was 27 percent and likely to go higher soon. But despite the relatively optimistic outlook, Ms. Bean and Mr. Kight said the danger hadn’t passed.

Referring to the combined blazes near Crawford, Ms. Bean said: “This fire is really coming to an end, but fire conditions are extremely critical.”

Conditions are likely to remain ripe for fires for at least several more weeks because the hot weather and drought have dried the vegetation. Monday’s National Weather Service forecast called for a high temperature of 92 in Chadron, with winds of 5 to 15 mph. No rain was predicted until Thursday night.

The northwestern corner of Nebraska is a sparsely populated area of rolling prairie hills, badlands and stands of Ponderosa pines.

Authorities have lifted evacuation orders for most northwest Nebraska and southwest South Dakota residents whose homes had been threatened by the flames.

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