Wyoming range fires consume thousands of acres
“In the last two weeks we’ve had the Squaw Mountain fire Southwest of Wheatland burn over 14,000 acres, and the Rourke Fire in Campbell County burn close to 5,000 acres. Also, on Aug. 25, a dry lightning storm went through Converse and Niobrara Counties and we know of 23 fires that burned a total of about 20,000 acres as a result of that storm,” said Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser of the surge of lightning-caused fires in Wyoming recently.
“Prior to the last couple weeks, we’ve only had the one large Whoop Up Fire in Weston County in July, and a few things to deal with in wilderness areas. Because of the wet spring we’ve grown a lot of fuel, and it didn’t dry out until lately. But since it did dry out around the beginning of August we’ve seen a lot of fire activity, all of which is the result of lightning to the best of my knowledge,” continued Crapser.
“It’s been really busy, and Thursday afternoon is when most of the big ones got started, and some of those ran clear through Sunday. As far as acres burned, this year is way above what we normally do. I don’t know call-wise, but this is definitely the most fires we’ve had in a three to four day period,” added Lusk Fire Chief John Eddy.
“Niobrara County called for our assistance Thursday night, and we were able to put some overhead helicopter operations in place and some inmate crews on the ground first, then we also had to order lots of additional resources to help on the fires,” Crapser noted.
“The way we’re set up is we have direct fire management status on state lands, and what we call assistant management status with counties to help with fires on private lands. Two things happen when we provide assistance – first is that most counties belong to an Emergency Fire Suppression Account, which is a state-run insurance policy of sorts, for fires. We manage that account, and counties can use it. Last Thursday night is an example of it being used – Niobrara County called for operational help and said they would also have to open that account.
“Second is when the County Fire Warden, or Fire District folks ask our folks for assistance, a person is selected to oversee as incident commander, and at that time starts pulling resources and takes over as management command of the situation. The incident commander will sometimes be one of our folks, sometimes a county person, and sometimes a federal employee. It is the person who is most qualified to take over that fire. We do put a lot of time and effort getting our folks trained, and a lot of the time it will be one of our people named as incident commander. That was the case in Niobrara County and on the Squaw Mountain fires,” explained Crapser.
“We can order in adjoining resources through the Interagency Dispatch Center, which accesses county, state and federal agencies. Niobrara County is part of the Casper Dispatch Center, so Casper received those orders and we acquired additional resources through them.
“The Wyoming State Legislature also passed a statute on an Agreement Interstate Compact with South Dakota, North Dakota, Colorado, and us three to four years ago to share state fire resources when necessary. This was actually the first time we utilized that Compact, and six engines from South Dakota were also helping in Niobrara County.
“If we use aircraft, we have one state helicopter from our Helitack Program. In Niobrara County we also had single air tankers, which were ordered in through the federal system,” continued Crapser of the various resources called in to help control the fires.
“Once we have a handle on everything, we get a map of the fire and enter a cost-share agreement with all involved federal agencies, counties and ourselves to figure out ownership and how everything will be paid out,” said Crapser of what happens after the fire is extinguished.
“There were some growing pains experienced, it took a little bit of time, and I think we all learned from it. When you get that many entities trying to work together, it can be a challenge, but things worked fairly well. The State Forester came up and really helped with getting additional resources into the county. Weston County also really helped out on the Smith and Christianson fire up north. They brought down dozers and people and were a lot of help in getting that one out. The land owners were also hugely helpful. All the ranchers have their own spray rigs in a pickup, and they helped as much as they could, and brought us food. The private guys were there too, even when we didn’t call them. The oil people brought in blades and water trucks and helped a ton. We really appreciate everyone’s help,” Eddy said.
“We are going to get a better handle on the private resources we have in our county as far as Cats, water trucks, blades, etc…, and will be compiling a list. That way we can call those in and use resources that are more local and can be on the fire faster, then go to outside resources if necessary,” Eddy said of future plans.
“Albany County was experiencing fire activity Wednesday, and we have had red flag warnings for a lot of the state this week. As I mentioned previously, all the large fires have been caused by lightning, but we would also like to urge all hunters, outdoorsmen and everyone else to be especially careful with fire this summer. There’s a lot of fuel, and the state, especially the Eastern half, is real dry,” Crapser noted.
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