It’s a hot, dry summer – and the risk for wildfires is extremely high here in Wyoming.
And in Wyoming, as in other western states, thousands of wildland firefighters put themselves in harm’s way every year to battle the these unpredictable and dangerous fires.
Last month, the death of Cody firefighter Tim Hart reminded residents of the dangers of those wildland fires.
Sam Wilde, marshal for Park County Fire District No. 1, said most of the firefighters he has known in his wildland firefighting career of almost 20 years have found themselves in dangerous situations at one time or another.
“It’s hard to talk to any wildland fire fighter that probably hasn’t been in a situation where they either got lucky or fortunate or just made the right decisions,” Wilde notes. “And you know, our number one priority on any wildland fire is safety.”
According to information compiled by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, over 400 on-duty fatalities occurred among wildland firefighters between 2000 and 2019. Common hazards faced on the fire line include burnovers and entrapments, heat-related injuries, smoke inhalation, vehicle-related injuries, including aircraft, and trips and falls.
Sadly, Park County is all too familiar with the tragedy that can strike with a wildland fire.
In addition to the loss this year of Hart, who died on a wildland firefighting mission in New Mexico, Park County was the location of one of the biggest firefighting tragedies in U.S. history, the Blackwater Fire between Cody and Yellowstone in 1937.
Fifteen firefighters were killed in the fire 35 miles west of Cody, and another 38 were injured. As firefighters battled the lightning-caused blaze, it generated spot fires that created a firestorm, trapping the firefighters.
Analysis of that event led to the introduction of the nation’s smokejumper program, which Hart belonged to at the time of his death.
According to Wilde, the loss of a firefighter affects much more than the immediate family and team.
“The firefighting community as a whole is a big family,” he said. “So, anytime there’s a loss, that kind of hits everyone hard.”
According to the National Weather Service, there are currently six active fires in western Wyoming* and with conditions optimal for runaway blazes this summer, the entire firefighting community is preparing for a busy fire season.