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Forest fires in Wyoming

What strained budgets and small fire crews might mean for Wyoming’s fire season
Published: Jun. 24, 2021 at 7:10 PM CDT
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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (Wyoming News Now) - Wyoming cooperates regionally with the five states- Colorado, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska for forest fires.

Wyoming’s active season is currently 2 months ahead of a typical year for fire severity and occurrence.

The most significant fires are Broken Back Creek in Washakie county, burning roughly 3,400 acres and are about half contained.

The Robinson fire, south of Buffalo, at 1,038 acres, required a “type 2 incident management team” of additional fireteam support to manage the fires.

And the Pine Haven fire, which was smaller but required the most evacuations to date. Consisting of roughly 100 homes while the whole town was under active threat of wildfire.

The response team consisted of the state single-engine air-tanker out of Casper, the state helicopter, and local volunteer firefighters to suppress the fire.

Firefighting personnel resources continue to be tight. There was only one “hot shot crew,” the elite firefighters, which consist of roughly 20 people, left for the entire 5 state area, with the directors negotiating where they should be sent.

In addition, the time it’s taking to get additional help for local fires, if the local department can’t contain these fires immediately, is longer, if the state can call anyone at all.

The high demand placed on resources means states have to trade based on need, unable to add additional supplies or firefighters.

Numbers

Nationally, the number of available firefighters is 30,000 to 32,000. This includes federal, state, and local fighters, both their full-time and seasonal employees. Currently, of the 32 thousand available, there are only 9283 actively assigned to fires across the nation.

The “Fire Predictive Services” that anticipate a high future fire risk this year re-released their fire assessments, and the numbers just keep increasing.

The national fire risk number is at a 4 out of 5, five being the worst. This high number hasn’t happened since the 1990s

Regionally we are at a fire risk level of 3 out of 5, a high number seasonally.

“The state of Wyoming is now a red bulls-eye on that map. We went from being in a spot where we were definitely going to have a fire season to a spot where we’re projected to have a severe fire season,” said Anthony Schultz, Fire Management Officer- Wyoming State Forestry Division

Volunteers

Volunteer firefighter retention has been an issue for a while. Declining volunteer numbers and the advancing age of volunteers make it potentially unsafe for everybody.

In addition, due to low fighter numbers, available firefighters and machinery are moved from state to state.

“The folks that staff the ‘hell-tack’ program, or any of our district foresters, and assistant district foresters, that participate in fire, or up through the federal level. If you hold a red-card or the qualification needed to fight extended attack wildland fires... Many of those folks travel,” said Schultz

Geographic Area Coordination staff organizes where crews will go, why they’re going, and what the job may be on that fire. Again, to ensure the best chance of success and to free up resources as quickly as possible.

When asked how many more firefighters they need versus what they have, Schultz responded...

“A lot...I say that jokingly,” said Schultz

But when asked how long it takes to train wildland firefighters.

“It is honestly roughly about a week’s course... We’ll give you some boots and come on out. So with that ...Join the volunteer fire department!!!...Uh takes about a week,” said Schultz

Ideally, State Foresters would like to see 20 more “hotshot” crews available nationally. Schultz emphasis the job is dangerous, physically demanding, and there are health concerns attached to it.

Furthermore, wildland fire crews have been losing members because of low pay to municipal departments or the private sector that pay better with less risk.

Wyoming State Forestry has submitted proposals to Governor Mark Gordon to allow for infrastructure monies in this sector, but their requests are still pending.

Prevention

When looking at comparative costs of prevention versus fire response.

Prevention might look like homeowners cleaning out needles and thicket on and around 6-feet around their homes and properties. State thinning projects in the forest, which would cost taxpayers upfront.

“There are studies where, I think its where every dollar spent on the front end you save three on the back end...Its just really hard to get some of that work done for a whole bunch of reasons,” said Schultz

Education is another crucial factor when it comes to prevention.

“Reaching out to one of our district foresters around the state. Reaching out to your local US forest service office, the BLM employs a lot of great folks depending where you’re at and where you’re located those are some great resources,” said Schultz

As far as recreating in state parks, national forests, national parks, or BLM grounds, Schultz advises to learn the rules for the area you’re in; they are all different.

Last year 84 percent of forest fires in Wyoming were human started.

“Put out your fires, recreate responsibly, and think about the consequences of not doing that, not just financially but what it may cost your neighbor,” said Schultz

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