The sky turns to a dusty red-orange hue, blotting out the sun. It’s a wildfire in Nebraska. Nebraskans know this event all too well. The wildfires of 2022 swept through much of the state, wreaking havoc as they burned through timber and grasslands. The severity of the wildfires was so great that affected areas will take years to recover. The question on the minds of many Nebraskans is, was this a one-off event, or can we expect this to be an annual occurrence we must live with into the future?

Are Wildfires Common in Eastern Nebraska?

The Living with Fire Program

Despite the efforts of the state authorities to curb these events, wildfires will continue to ravage the eastern areas, creating life-threatening hazards for residents. Many volunteer fire departments were unable to keep these fires from spreading. Gov. Jim Pillen had to declare a state disaster. This allowed them to get help from the state Forest Service, Fire Marshal, and other emergency management agencies.

In response to the devastation wrought by the 2022 wildfires, several organizations banded together to form Living with Fire. This threat reduction program for homeowners seeks to prepare residents for the hazards these dangerous events present to local communities. For most of eastern Nebraska, it’s not a case of if wildfires will return; it’s more a case of “when” they’ll appear again.

One of the interesting outcomes of the 2022 wildfires was that many homes burned, but some survived the chaos. Why is that? It’s not just luck that caused this phenomenon, but rather steady preparation.

Preparations and Aftermath of Wildfires In Nebraska

The homes that survived the onslaught of the flames featured specific design and construction. The adjacent vegetation in these areas and its maintenance by local groups also played a role in how the fire spread across the region. Also, the damage that occurred in their wake. The preparations by these homeowners, known as pre-fire activities, played the most significant role in keeping homes safe.

These pre-fire activities encompass the creation of four zones to improve fire resistance and enhance response times for emergency services. Let’s look at them in further detail.

Before the fire, homeowners changed their roof design from shake to fire-resistant tiles. Also, reduced the vegetation around the surrounding areas as part of the interior zone.

Other threat-reduction tasks included:

  • Creating access zones for first responders
  • Create a defensible space zone to limit vegetation acting as fuel for the fires
  • Build zones providing specific homebuilding instructions for homeowners and contractors

The Nebraska Emergency Management Agency has many resources and tips about wildfires in central Nebraska and other locations. It also has resources from the National Weather Service and other key sources about wildfires in Nebraska.

How Do Wildfires Threaten Nebraskan Homes?

Wildfires create a fire risk for homes in three ways. The first is through contact with flames. This threat comes from vegetation and other fuels present in the area. This creates fast-moving fire when the flames contact the vegetation leading up to the home.

The second threat is radiated heat that melts away vinyl siding and other non-flame-resistant building materials. If a home receives exposure to radiated heat for a prolonged period, the building materials ignite, causing the house to burn. Radiated heat can also break windows and cause embers to enter the home, spreading the fire.

The final threat to homeowners is flying embers from nearby fires. This is the most significant risk to homeowners and the primary cause of homes setting ablaze. The wind can carry embers great distances, where they settle on homes, igniting the residence.

The Steps to Creating a Defensible Space

According to literature from Living with Fire, homeowners’ best move is to create a defensible space. Doing this can safeguard their homes from fire risk as much as possible. The defensible space, or “survivable space,” is an area between the house and nearby vegetation. This space can help to prevent the spread of the flames to the property.

Determining its size and area is the first step in creating a defensible space. It expresses the distance extending from the home in all directions. According to the recommended dimensions, the defensible space should be:

  • 30 to 100 feet from the grass
  • 100 to 200 feet from shrubs and woodlands
  • 100 to 200 feet from trees

The slope of the surrounding area determines the distance from these fire threats.

The second step in building the defensible area is to remove dead vegetation. Be sure to clear the defensible area frequently. The third step is to create separation between trees and shrubs. The fourth step is to create space between lower-growing plants and tree branches.

Finally, The fifth step in creating the defensible zone is creating a Lean, Clean, Green area at least 30 feet from home. The sixth and final step is maintaining the defensible space throughout the year. Following these guidelines mitigates fire risk to the house if a wildfire breaks out.

Tips to Make Homes “Firewise” From Wildfires In Nebraska

Nebraskans can further mitigate wildfire risk to their homes by taking the Wildfire Hazard Assessment Test. This test is available from the Nebraska Forest Service (NFS) website (

The Nebraska State Forester urges fire safety precautions whenever possible. It doesn’t take much to spark a wildfire with Nebraska’s high winds and dry grasses.

The drop in annual precipitation rates in eastern Nebraska continues to make the area a severe hazard for wildfires. This problem won’t change anytime soon.

Nebraskan homeowners should prepare their property as best they can using the assessment test. Following the guidelines to create a defensible zone.

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