Wildfire risk throughout Wyoming could hover at average or just above for another month if mid-to-late summer monsoons keep the state damp, a Wyoming Forestry Division spokesperson said.
“We’re a little wetter and cooler than in recent years,” said Jerod DeLay, the Forestry Division’s assistant state forester and fire management officer.
Heading into the first full week of July, forecasts called for most of Wyoming to have about an average potential wildfire risk, but some southern portions of the state were trending above average.
Cowboy State Daily Meteorologist Don Day Jr. said southern Wyoming saw more frequent high winds and fewer spring storms than central and northern Wyoming, contributing to a higher fire risk.
“From a weather perspective, this is a transition time,” Day said. “When we leave spring … the weather patterns that bring us precipitation fade away during June as we head into the summer season. There is the potential for a gap of precipitation during that transition, like we are seeing in the south.”
Monsoon season, however, could close that gap as southern Wyoming catches the northern edges of the North American Monsoon.
As the summer heat builds over North America, a region of high pressure forms over the southeaster U.S. and the wind shifts from dry and westerly to southerly and moisture-laden, traveling up from the Pacific Ocean and Gulf of California, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported.
“Monsoon season can peak in mid July and August, bringing most of our moisture in the form of afternoon showers,” Day said. “The flipside is the lightning that can accompany these monsoonal rains. Right now, my three month outlook is that I am encouraged – the monsoon forecast is average or a little better, and that will help mitigate some of the wildfire season dangers.”
Even with an average monsoon season, Wyoming’s wildfire fuels historically dry out in July and August.
“By August, the state’s forecasted fire potential will be above normal for everything east of continental divide,” DeLay said.
In case of an active wildfire season, the Forestry Division contracted for a “Type 3” helicopter, which is currently stationed at Duncan Ranch Helibase, south of Glenrock, he said.
Type 3 helicopters are typically small and fast, capable of carrying a few firefighters and a water bucket with a capacity of up to 180 gallons, the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reported.
With the potential to deliver up to 800 gallons of fire retardant or water, two Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) are also on standby in Casper, DeLay said.
Additionally, the state has 17 smokebusters, incarcerated individuals trained to fight wildland fires, stationed at the Honor Conservation Camp near Newcastle, he added.
“Smokebusters is a joint program with the Wyoming Division of Forestry and Department of Corrections,” he said.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages about 17.5 million acres throughout Wyoming and BLM State Fire Management Officer Paul Hohn said the agency is watching the state’s fire potential closely.
In Wyoming, the BLM has about 164 dedicated fire personnel, and Hohn estimated an additional 200 agency personnel are trained in supporting fire response.
“All of our folks are trained and ready,” Hohn said. “We’ve already sent a number of firefighters this year to support wildfire responses in Alaska, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona.
“They go out for about two weeks at a time, and when they return, we reassess local fire potential to determine whether they are needed more here or elsewhere.”
For the Medicine Bow National Forest and Thunder Basin Wilderness Area, U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Aaron Voos said his agency is optimistic about the current wildfire season.
“This year, we’ve got some additional out-of-area resources stationed in Colorado,” Voos said. “And, we have (fire) engines and personnel that work for our unit, doing a wide variety of fire prevention tasks.”
In conjunction with their own staff and firefighting resources, all three agencies said they rely heavily on local partners when fires break out.
“Wildland firefighting in Wyoming is unique because of the significantly disproportionate land-to-resource ratio,” Hohn said. “Federal firefighting agencies, counties, state and local fire departments all work so closely together that despite our limited resources, we are able to field an effective firefighting force when the need arises.”
“Only You …”
Responsible recreation, common sense and situational awareness are key factors in preventing wildfires, Hohn said.
“The public plays a huge role in helping wildland firefighters by being careful while on public lands,” he said. “It can be as simple as checking your trailers to make sure you are not dragging chains, don’t idle combustion engines in dry areas with lots of fine fuels and make sure you use spark arrestors on chainsaws, ATVs and side-by-sides.”
About 87 percent of all wildfire occurrences each year are human-caused, the NIFC reported, and most can be prevented.
The NIFC provides numerous fire education resources on its website, www.nifc.gov, including tips for campfire safety, fire-safe target practice, vehicle use, towing guidelines and backyard debris burning.
At www.smokeybear.com, readers of all ages can learn about wildfire prevention through a variety of mediums, including videos, digital content and lesson plans for educators.
While thoroughly extinguishing campfires is repeated advice through nearly every public land management office, Smokey Bear’s website includes information about picking a safe campfire location:
Select an area with about a 10-foot radius free of flammable materials;
Dig a pit about 1 foot deep;
Line the edge with rocks, and
Keep a bucket of water within arm’s reach of the flames.
“Even with the precipitation we’ve had this year, it’s extremely important people follow basic fire safety guidelines,” Voos said.
As the summer heat bears down on Wyoming’s wild spaces, fire danger could increase. While fire activity has been low through the first half of 2022, Day said the fire season is just getting underway.
“It’s only the first part of July, so we have to get all the way through to October,” he explained. “You can never really breathe easy until you get that first heavy fall snow storm.”