Mindful of last year's record wildfire season, emergency managers and parks officials in Nebraska's Panhandle are asking people to take care with campfires, barbecue grills and fireworks this July 4th holiday.
Nearly 500,000 acres of Nebraska burned last year as the worst drought in the state's history took hold. Less than half of the Pine Ridge Forest remains intact.
This spring and summer has gotten off to relatively moist start, but crowds of people cooking outdoors, driving along grasslands and shooting off fireworks have officials worried.
“In spite of good moisture growing a lot of green vegetation this year, a few days of 100-degree heat and wind will convert it to flammable fuel,” said Doak Nickerson, Northwest District forester with the Nebraska Forest Service.
Nearly 90 percent of Nebraska remains in drought. In the Panhandle, conditions are considered severe to extreme, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.
Working together to advise caution are the Chadron and Crawford Volunteer Fire Departments, the Dawes County Sheriff's Office, the Region 26 Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, the Nebraska National Forests & Grasslands and the Nebraska Forest Service.
Fireworks are banned on National Forest Service lands, and motor vehicle travel is allowed only on designated trails and routes. Many areas of the Panhandle have tall grass and some of it has begun to cure.
Mike Watts, acting Pine Ridge District ranger, asked visitors to park only in parking lots or areas with little vegetation. This is because a spark from a car or hot muffler can start a fire.