A professor prepares his Centennial home for the Mullen Fire

Since Sept. 20, University of Wyoming Natural Resources Department Chairman Jason Shogren has been working to prepare his home just west of Centennial for a wildfire.

Working with his son, Riley, and other friends, the Shogrens have moved flammable items like woodpiles and furniture away from the walls of the house, which is tucked into a grove of towering aspens at the foot of Centennial Ridge. They’ve removed trees, taken out an outdoor deck and swingset and cleared a swath of the ground around the house down to dirt that can be saturated with hoses. 

With the website FireWise as a guide, Shogren is trying to build defensible space around the home, to make it easier for firefighters to protect it from advancing flames. 

“That’s all you can ask for, is give them the best chance they can,” he said. “I’m not necessarily planning to sit out there with a garden hose and try to hold this fire back.”

As the Shogrens work, the Mullen Fire burns around 8-9 miles west of the Centennial valley. Officials suspect the fire — which began Sept. 17 in the Savage Run Wilderness — is human-caused. At the time of ignition, the area was under fire restrictions that ban campfires, the U.S. Forest Service said. 

Officials have described the wilderness area as a tinderbox. Locals know the ground in the Savage Run to be carpeted with dead trees to the point that foot travel is difficult in some areas. On top of the accumulated fuel, a Labor Day weekend storm brought high winds that toppled swaths of dead and living trees, a Forest Service spokesperson said. 

Hot, dry and windy weather helped the fire grow. Within four days, it covered more than 13,000 acres. Maps show the majority of the fire is still within the Savage Run wilderness, spreading south into the adjacent Platte River Wilderness as well. Both wilderness areas are relatively small and close to inhabited areas as well as popular lakes and reservoirs. 

Emergency officials evacuated some area cabin communities, like the Rambler Subdivision and Keystone. They’ve put most of the Centennial Valley, which includes hundreds of homes, under a pre-evacuation notice.

The fire Thursday morning covered 17,763 acres, officials said. There are 290 people combatting the blaze, with more on the way, spokesperson John Peterson with Rocky Mountain Fire Team said.

Firefighters worry high winds in the next two days could dramatically increase its spread. Though the fire is still miles from the Centennial Valley, topography, wind and forest composition could all combine to allow quick expansion toward the valley as well as the community of Albany, Peterson said.

“We do expect it to move miles today,” he said. “Those beetle-killed forests are just hard to suppress. It’s just heavy fuel and it just burns so hot and puts out so many embers.”

Shogren and his wife raised two children in their forest home and lived there full time for 25 years, he said. The couple, both economists and professors, now live mostly in Laramie. In his time living in Centennial a fire never threatened his home like this, he said, though in the West it’s always on one’s mind.

“Some of the fires, we’ve been able to watch them,” he said. “You can see them and you’re paying attention, but Centennial hasn’t had a pre-evac in a while.”  

Disasters are often on Shogren’s mind. The PhD economist was part of a group of scientists that won a Nobel Prize for a report linking climate change to human activity. 

He has spent much of his career studying how humans calculate and react to the risks of big natural disasters such as the Mullen Fire.

People in the possible line of such events react in two ways, he said Wednesday. “What we do is … either think about the low probability and ignore it or think about the high severity and freak out,” he said. 

It’s hard to remain a dispassionate scientist when your own home is in the line of fire, Shogren said. “I’ve studied this my whole life,” he said. “It’s always different when it’s yourself. You wonder if you’re going to be as rational as the people in your models.”

In the coming days, Shogren, like all the residents of the valley, will watch planes and helicopters heading toward the fire, track the weather and curse the wind.

He’ll continue to prepare his home for defense the best he can, he said. The fire remains a long way off and with luck won’t ever make it down into the valley. If it doesn’t, he won’t consider his preparations a “freak out.” 

“We’ll consider it a home beautification project,” he said.