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Serving: NE

Blizzards, wildfires, windstorms strike Nebraska

Curt Arens Land damaged by wildfire
AFTER THE BURN: When all of these fires and disasters finally subside, there will be financial, production and conservation nightmares that follow. USDA recently offered guidance on numerous programs set aside to help producers after such disasters strike.
USDA is offering assistance for producers affected by the tragedy.

Blizzards. Wildfires. Blowing dust. That was the unusual combination of travel hazards listed on a Facebook post from the Nebraska Department of Transportation early this past Saturday afternoon, April 23.

NDOT noted multiple road closures across numerous regions of the state because of blizzard conditions in the northern Panhandle, along with visibility issues due to blowing dust and smoke from wildfires across southwest Nebraska and the Panhandle.

The Nebraska Forest Service noted Saturday that the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency had received wildfire reports over the previous 24 hours from Blaine, Brown, Cherry, Cheyenne, Deuel, Dundy, Frontier, Furnas, Hayes, Perkins, Scotts Bluff, Red Willow and Thomas counties.

NEMA reported on Sunday that among those fires is the massive 41,155-acre Road 702 Fire, which is burning in Furnas, Frontier and Red Willow counties. The west side of the fire, Branch I, encompasses an area from Cambridge west along the fire edge and south to Lebanon. Branch III, the east side, encompasses east and south perimeters of the fire from Cambridge south to Wilsonville and into Kansas. Four fires on farm ground and grazing land near the Lincoln County line and Highway 23 burned about 5,000 acres in Perkins and Dundy counties as well.

On the other end of the state, fire departments from Burt, Cuming, Dakota, Dodge, Thurston and Washington counties in Nebraska and some regional Iowa departments were busy fighting a large wildfire north of Lyons on Saturday.

The common contributor for all of these wild conditions has been the wind. High wind and red flag warnings — which means warm temperatures, very low humidity and stronger winds that produce a fire danger — were in place across much of Nebraska over the past several days, combined with extremely dry conditions and low humidity to make the potential for wildfires greater.

This all comes on the heels of the Road 739 Fire that began April 7 and has burned 35,000 acres in Gosper and Furnas counties, along with numerous other fires that have been popping up over the past several weeks. In the wake of these disaster conditions, USDA in Nebraska recently offered information about programs that exist to help out.

Wildfire, drought assistance

USDA has technical and financial assistance available to help Nebraska farmers and livestock producers across the state recovering from recent wildfires and ongoing drought. Producers affected by these events should contact their local USDA Service Center to report losses and learn more about program options available to assist in their recovery from crop, land, infrastructure, and livestock losses and damages. Here are some available resources:

Livestock Indemnity Program. Producers who experience livestock deaths in excess of normal mortality because of wildfires may be eligible for the Livestock Indemnity Program. To participate in LIP, producers will be required to provide verifiable documentation of death losses resulting from an eligible adverse weather event, and must submit a notice of loss to their local FSA office within 30 calendar days of when the loss of livestock is apparent.

Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees, and Farm-Raised Fish Program. ELAP provides eligible producers with compensation for losses because of disease, certain adverse weather events or loss conditions as determined by the Secretary of Agriculture. For drought-affected areas, ELAP also covers above-normal costs to transport feed and water to livestock, or haul livestock to forage or other grazing acres. For ELAP, producers will need to file a notice of loss within 30 days, and honeybee losses within 15 days

Livestock Forage Disaster Program. LFP is for 2022 grazing losses because of drought when grazing land or pastureland is physically located in a county rated by the U.S. Drought Monitor as having a D2 intensity for eight consecutive weeks, D3 drought intensity or greater. FSA maintains a list of counties eligible for LFP and makes updates each Thursday. 

Tree Assistance Program. Eligible orchardists and nursery tree growers may be eligible for cost-share assistance through the Tree Assistance Program to replant or rehabilitate eligible trees, bushes or vines lost during the wildfires or drought. This complements the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) or crop insurance coverage, which covers the crop but not the plants or trees in all cases. For TAP, a program application must be filed within 90 days.

“When you are at a time and place where you can safely assess the wildfire impact or ongoing drought on your operation, be sure to contact your local FSA office to timely report all crop, livestock and farm infrastructure damages and losses,” said John Berge, state executive director for the Farm Service Agency in Nebraska. “To accelerate the FSA disaster assistance process, please be prepared to provide important documents, such as farm records, herd inventory, receipts and pictures of damages or losses.”

Loan programs. FSA also offers a variety of direct and guaranteed farm loans, including operating and emergency farm loans, to producers unable to secure commercial financing. Producers in counties with a primary or contiguous disaster designation may be eligible for low-interest emergency loans to help them recover from production and physical losses. Loans can help producers replace essential property; buy inputs like livestock, equipment, feed and seed; cover family living expenses; or refinance farm-related debts and other needs. Additionally, FSA has a variety of loan servicing options available for borrowers who are unable to make scheduled payments on their farm loan debt to FSA because of reasons beyond their control. 

Conservation

Outside of the primary nesting season, emergency and nonemergency haying and grazing of Conservation Reserve Program acres may be authorized to provide relief to livestock producers in areas affected by a severe drought or similar natural disasters. Producers interested in haying or grazing of CRP acres should contact their county FSA office to determine eligibility. 

The Emergency Conservation Program and Emergency Forest Restoration Program can assist landowners and forest stewards with financial and technical assistance for replacing or restoring fences, as well as removing debris from farmland.

FSA provides cost-share payments of up to 75% of the cost to implement approved restoration practices, and up to 90% for producers who certify as limited resource, socially disadvantaged, or beginning farmers or ranchers. ECP sign-up periods will be announced by county, but producers can submit applications before sign-up begins.

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is always available to provide technical assistance in the recovery process by assisting producers with planning and implementing conservation practices on farms, ranches and working forests affected by natural disasters. 

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program can assist with financial incentive payments to implement conservation practices addressing natural resource concerns. Long-term damage from wildfires includes forage production loss in pastures and fields and increased wind erosion on crop fields not protected with soil health practices. NRCS provides payments for cover crops to reestablish cover on cropland fields and payments to defer grazing on pasture and range fields. 

Producers should visit their local USDA Service Center to learn more about these impacts, potential recovery tactics and how to take steps to make their land more resilient to drought in the future. 

“At USDA, we serve as a partner to help landowners with their resiliency and recovery efforts,” said Robert Lawson, state conservationist for NRCS in Nebraska. “Our staff will work one-on-one with landowners to make assessments of the damages and develop methods that focus on effective recovery of the land.” 

Assistance for communities 

Additional NRCS programs include the Emergency Watershed Protection program, which provides assistance to local government sponsors with the cost of addressing watershed impairments or hazards such as damaged upland sites stripped of vegetation by wildfire, debris removal and streambank stabilization.  

Eligible sponsors include cities, counties, towns, any federally recognized Native American tribe or tribal organization, and Natural Resources Districts. Sponsors must submit a formal request (via mail or email) to the state conservationist for assistance within 60 days of the natural disaster occurrence, or 60 days from the date when access to the sites become available. For more information, producers should contact their local NRCS office. 

“EWP provides immediate assistance to communities to mitigate potential hazards to life and property resulting from the fires, and particularly the severe erosion and flooding that can occur after the fire,” Lawson said. “We can work with a local sponsor to help a damaged watershed so that lives and property are protected while preventing further devastation in the community.”  

In addition to EWP, Conservation Technical Assistance is another service that NRCS can provide following a wildfire. NRCS technical assistance can help fire victims with planning cost-effective post-fire restoration practices.  

Risk management

Producers who have risk protection through Federal Crop Insurance or FSA’s NAP should report crop damage to their crop insurance agent or FSA office. If they have crop insurance, producers should report crop damage to their agent within 72 hours of damage discovery and follow up in writing within 15 days. For NAP-covered crops, a Notice of Loss (CCC-576) must be filed within 15 days of the loss becoming apparent, except for hand-harvested crops, which should be reported within 72 hours.

“Our crop insurance coverage can help producers manage risk because we never know when a natural disaster will strike,” said Collin Olsen, director of the Risk Management Agency’s regional office that covers Nebraska. “The approved insurance providers, loss adjusters and agents are experienced and well-trained in handling these types of events.”

Learn more about these and other federal programs and assistance by contacting your local FSA office.

A news release from USDA in Nebraska contributed to this article.

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