Wildfire agencies prepare for summer fire season

GOSHEN COUNTY – Although there have been very few significant fires in Goshen County prior to the 313 Fire in 2021, the Goshen County Fire Warden, local, state and U.S. wildfire agencies warn of wildland fire hazards and prepare for the summer fire season amid another extreme drought and hot La Niña summer.

Goshen County Fire Warden Bill Law said residents should expect partial and/or full fire bans starting next month given the current heat and drought conditions. Currently, nearby fires are causing air quality problems and creating smoke concerns.

“I have spoken to all nine of the fire district chiefs in Goshen County, which I do frequently when looking forward and forecasting potential partial or full fire bans,” Law told the Telegram.

“It’s not ideal to place a full fire ban in the county for many reasons, obviously we want our residents to safely enjoy the upcoming 4th of July holiday – but also because we have many ranchers and producers who wouldn’t be able to burn refuse with a full ban in place,” Law explained. Adding, “We’ve only had a full fire ban twice, since 2004.”

Other driving factors in delaying a partial fire ban include: “We have a decent amount of fairs and summer activities in Torrington, Goshen County and nearby towns along the parameters of the county; like the La Grange Mini Fair and Chugwater Chili Cookoff; some events ordinarily have fireworks,” Law explained. “We certainly want to strike a balance between potentially hazardous fire conditions and beloved summer activities.”

Law also explained that Torrington will again not be putting on the city’s fireworks display after an accident in 2020, in which a four-inch mortar shell wounded one firefighter; four other firefighters narrowly escaped harm.

Torrington Mayor Randy Adams said the city is “continuously, since the 2020 accident, looking to bring back the 4th of July celebrations – however, we’ve been unable to find a fireworks provider that suits the city budget.”

“We were able to afford the $8,000 in the past because our Torrington volunteer firemen were able to manage the fireworks display,” Adams explained, “however, so far, the lowest we’ve been able to find so far runs about $20,000 a year for a five-year guarantee – and we just cannot commit $100,000 to this.”

“We will continue to seek a safe and more budget friendly means to have a fireworks display on the fourth of July so that we can bring the celebrations back home,” Adams told the Telegram.

Torrington Volunteer Fire Department Fire Chief Lance Petsch said, “It’s unfortunate we don’t have a fireworks display again this year, but because of the accident in 2020, our department wants to find fireworks experts for future holidays.”

Law said some conditions when considering a partial and/or full fire ban includes not only the current weather and landscape conditions of the county, but also forecasted conditions and conditions of neighboring counties and states.

“In July 2016, the Prairie Center fire scorched about 25,000 acres just outside of Torrington and went into Nebraska, was the cause of lightning – and was fueled by extremely high winds and other weather conditions,” Law explained. “We’ve always known that weather can significantly impact a fire – but what we need to remind ourselves is that most wildfires are human-caused.”

According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), in 2021, of the 58,985 wildfires across the nation, 52,641 were human caused. Wyoming is predominantly in the Rocky Mountain region, some eastern areas are in the Great Basin region and some northern areas, like Yellowstone, are in the Northern Rockies region. There were 2,981 human-caused fires in 2021 in the Northern Rockies region; 1,362 human-caused fires in 2021 in the Great Basin region; and in the Rocky Mountain region, where Goshen County is located, there were 2,146 human-caused fires in 2021.

In its 2021 end of year report, the Casper Interagency Dispatch Center (CIDC), which responds to fires in the Rocky Mountain region (including Goshen County), said there were 188 wildfires in 2021, which burned 7,496.90 acres. June, July and August reported the highest number of wildfires.

CIDC reported 188 (or 59%) of 2021 wildfires were human-caused; 129 (or 41%) were weather-related, namely lightning-caused. The human-caused fires scorched 7,496.90 (27%) acres; weather-related fires burned 20,701.78 (73%) acres.

According to the Fire, Weather and Avalanche Center, a nonprofit which tracks, monitors, reports and informs about fire, weather conditions or avalanches for outdoor recreational enthusiasts, the smoke from two wildfires in Flagstaff, Arizona reached into most of southern, central and eastern Wyoming.

The Pipeline Fire six miles north of Flagstaff is still under suppression efforts at this time; it was reported on June 12. As of Monday, it was burning 26,528 acres and was 50% contained. It merged with a secondary nearby fire on June 13, the Haywire Fire, about an additional 5,575 acres and was 40% contained as of Monday. The U.S. Forest Service and Coconino County Sheriff’s Department announced the arrest of Matthew Riser, 57, who started the fire by reportedly burning toilet paper at a campsite. He was charged with numerous other violations, pertaining to building, maintaining, attending to or using a fire, campfire or stove at campsite, in addition to the possession of a controlled substance. According to fire officials, extremely high red flag winds and a significant heat wave sweeping across much of the western and Midwest states are causing smoke, heat and air pollutants to migrate into northern Midwest states, including Wyoming. Several Wyoming fire agencies reported last week that local departments are sending Wyoming firefighters to Arizona to help with these fires.

Red Flag winds and/or advisories are issued by the National Weather Service (NWS). These conditions and/or advisories inform the public, firefighters, and land management agencies that conditions are ideal for the combustion and spread of wildfires and make it extremely difficult to manage wildfire suppression efforts; including using aircraft equipped with fire retardant. These conditions often lead to greater catastrophic consequences, like the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, which was caused by lightning and the deaths of 19 Arizona Hotshot fire personnel from the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew within the Prescott Fire Department.

Some Wyoming agencies aided in the fire management after the deaths of the hotshots and later raised $8k for surviving family members. Yarnell Hill Fire remains the second deadliest wildfire for firefighters in American history; no residents perished in this fire.

Prior to this fire, Wyoming’s Blackwater Fire, 35 miles west of Cody, in August 1937, which took the lives of 15 Wyoming firefighters, was the second deadliest on-record fire for fire personnel until 2013. Today, it is the third deadliest wildfire for fire personnel. The deadliest wildfire for firefighters remains the 1933 Griffith Park Forest Fire in California; 29 California firefighters perished.

Wyoming began tracking, monitoring, reporting and informing residents of its fires after 1910, an extreme fire year known as “The Big Burn” after several fires took the lives of an unknown number of residents, some estimate those numbers to be as low as 100 and others estimate over 400.

The fires in 1910 burned more than three million acres in the Midwest, and established wildfire rules, regulations and policies. One of those rules still in effect today, but seldomly achievable, is the “10 a.m. rule.” This rule stipulates fire agencies should aim to have fires out by 10 a.m. the next day, which prevents catastrophic losses of life, property and ecosystem damages.

These rules would later spawn other wildfire suppression, prevention and management policies – such as prescribed, controlled burns to reduce the risk of wildfires. The seriousness of drought conditions, extreme summer weather patterns, low snowmelt and red flag wind conditions in the early 1900s and late 1980s through early 1990s reexamined wildfire suppression efforts.

U.S. Bureau of Land Management Wyoming and Colorado Fire Mitigation Specialist Carmen Thomason said, “It’s kind of tough to predict when we’re going to do fire bans or fire restrictions.” 

“For the Bureau of Land Management, we work closely with the counties and fire wardens so we can coordinate potential fire bans,” Thomason said. Adding, “And the start of July is about the right time most of those will go into effect due to a greater number of wildfires being human-caused during traveling and summer activities – like campfires.”

“Although the bulk of wildfires in Wyoming occur in the western regions, mostly around Yellowstone or the Wyoming/Colorado state line – residents need to know, understand and be prepared for the prairie fires in the eastern half of the state,” Thomason explained.

Thomason said there are six areas of concern residents can look into to help reduce the number of human-caused wildfires. Those areas include campfires, vehicles, trailer towing, burning debris, equipment use, and fireworks.

“Unfortunately, the bulk of human-caused fires result from campfires left unattended, the burning of land waste or debris, equipment malfunctions, negligently discarded cigarettes and sometimes intentionally set fires,” Thomason stated. She also said this data can be found on the U.S. Park Service (NPS) website.

For more about how to prevent wildfires near your home, when on vacation or while you travel visit, www.blm.gov/programs.

“It is not new technology, but something I am actually super proud of what we are doing here in Wyoming – is we now have two single air tankers dedicated to serving Wyoming, which will be shared with surrounding states, seated here in Casper,” Thomason explained. “This is great news for Wyoming, especially, because it means quicker access to fires to aid in suppression and prevention of spreading.”

Still an area of concern during fire suppression efforts is the use of drones by residents, “if you fly – we can’t,” Thomason said, “residents need to remember we lose time with certain weather conditions, like red flag winds, so if residents are flying drones, we have to ground our aircraft.”

“The penalty for wildfire interference is a hefty fine and can include up to two years in prison,” Thomason added. Fines can amount to $20,000 or more.

“Some fun news this year, Smokey the Bear turns 77 on August 9, and he may be making some special stops,” Thomason said. “We will have to see if we can get him out to Torrington for his birthday.” 

Thomason also said Smokey the Bear campaigns still remain the number one driving force in educating children about wildfires and reducing the occurrence of them. Adding, “Frequently we hear stories from children about how they helped to safely put out campfires to reduce the risk of wildfires because Smokey taught them how.”


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