JACKSON — While doing her job to prevent forest fires, Lesley Williams Gomez encountered what she described as entitled attitudes and reckless behavior last Friday night on Shadow Mountain.
The Bridger-Teton National Forest fire prevention technician and patroller had heard from a volunteer ambassador that a group of 20-somethings were partying at Shadow Mountain. The group had assembled around a campfire, knowingly lit in violation of the regulations.
As Williams Gomez confronted the 16- to 18-person group, a 28-year-old woman from Aspen, Colorado — where the mountainsides are ablaze — stepped forward. She didn’t appear to regret the violation or $280 citation she’d have to pay.
“She mentioned that they would like to have their fire,” Williams Gomez told the News&Guide. “They wanted to keep the fire going and just pay for the fire.”
The Bridger-Teton has a campfire restriction in place, and that request was denied. Williams Gomez watched the group extinguish the blaze using water and dirt, and she made sure it was cold to the touch.
“They were not happy,” she said. “I was definitely ruining their good time.”
Willful disregard for rules meant to prevent wildfires around Jackson Hole has been on display on several occasions since the Bridger-Teton announced Aug. 13 that it was banning campfires and other forms of open flames in dispersed camping areas and other parts of the forest. The exceptions are within the Bridger and Gros Ventre wilderness and established fire rings in developed campgrounds, picnic areas and guard stations.
Yet Williams Gomez and her colleagues keep seeing open flames outside those areas.
“I think we’re primarily seeing the violations happening in Curtis Canyon, Shadow Mountain and the Toppings Lake area,” she said.
Just 10 minutes before her Tuesday phone call with the News&Guide, she’d learned over the radio of another illegal campfire that forest staff responded to along Greys River Road.
The combination of high visitor use on the national forest and in Grand Teton National Park and visitors’ behaviors prompted wildfire managers Tuesday to elevate fire danger in the valley to “very high,” Williams Gomez said.
Yellowstone National Park made the same move the day before, adopting a hazard rating that means wildfires can start easily and spread rapidly right after ignition, increasing quickly in intensity from small fires to large ones.
The other reason for the higher fire danger is that vegetation is becoming increasingly dry and conditions are trending in a higher risk direction.
Teton Interagency Fire uses an “energy release component” to estimate the hypothetical peak heat at the head of a wildfire. That gauge, which slides along a 0-to-90 scale, was rated 63 in the northern portion of the forest on Tuesday, easily surpassing the historical average of 50 and flirting with the all-time record high for Aug. 18.
Although Jackson Hole is abnormally dry, a cool and wet spring and summer set up the region well relative to more southern parts of the American West, where wildfire season is in full swing.
Teton Interagency Fire’s fire outlook for August and September predicted a “normal” fire year, at least as of Aug. 1.
During a normal season the Bridger-Teton National Forest will see an average of 67 fires that burn over 3,290 acres, and Grand Teton National Park will experience 11 unplanned fires that cover 1,858 acres.
The Southern Rockies in 2020 are already experiencing much more widespread wildfires, a phenomenon that’s becoming evermore common as the planet heats up with climate change. The Aspen woman who took responsibility for the illegal Shadow Mountain campfire should have known what’s at risk, Williams Gomez said. The state public health department issued an advisory Monday warning that air quality will reach unsafe levels due to four fires burning around the Roaring Fork Valley, the Aspen Daily News reported.
“They had come through Colorado, and yet they had no concern,” she said. “That’s disheartening.”