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The Future Of Fires In Wyoming And The West

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By Mark Davis, Powell Tribune

Mark Giacoletto hasn’t been spending much time at home lately. His job with the Shoshone National Forest as fire management officer had him reassigned to massive fires in Colorado for much of the summer. He’s back home now, but it’s always possible that he could be packing his bags again. “We’re all at risk to be deployed nationally,” he said. But Giacoletto does know that after more than two decades on the job, fire seasons keep getting longer.

There are multiple active wildfires in Colorado, including the East Troublesome fire that burned 130,000 acres in one day and the neighboring Cameron Peak fire. They are the two largest wildfires in Colorado history.

“I’ve been right here in the thick of it,” Giacoletto said in a telephone interview last week.

Though it has snowed and the weather has slowed the fires, they are not out of the woods yet.

It’s November, long after wildfire season is typically over. The 2020 fire season has been devastating to many regions of the West, most notably in Colorado and California. Billions of dollars in property and dozens of lives have been lost.

Here in Wyoming the Mullen fire (38 miles west of Laramie) has burned nearly 177,000 acres and the Pilgrim Creek 1 fire in the Bridger-Teton National Forest burned about 500 acres. Earlier this year, the Lone Star Fire in Yellowstone National Park burned 4,123 acres in an area not far from Old Faithful.

According to the National Fire Information Center, 46,535 fires have burned more than 8.4 million acres this year — an area a little larger than the combined size of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and the Shoshone and Bridger-Teton national forests.

There have been 43 deaths reported this year in wildfires in the U.S., with more than 300 homes lost to the blazes in Colorado and more than 9,000 in California.

Giacoletto has seen the heartbreaking results from the raging wildfires during his career — neighborhoods destroyed, lives lost. “Our hearts go out to those folks,” he said.

The stories may seem distant to some, but not to Giacoletto. He and other employees, including from the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, travel anywhere in the nation where firefighters are needed.

Giacoletto joined the Forest Service in 2003. What he sees as he works from one hotspot to another is fuel in the form of dead and dying trees infested with beetles, as they are reaching the end of their life cycle. He calls some areas “a sea of dead trees.” The forests of northwest Wyoming may not currently have tragic stories unfolding like those scorching large swaths across the West, but they have in the past and likely will again, Giacoletto cautions. “The common denominator that makes this possible is the amount of dead forest that we have.”

As winter snow arrives, the fire season will fade, and nobody can predict what 2021 will bring. But it begs the question: What is being done to prepare for future fires in forests surrounding the Big Horn Basin?

Making plans in the Shoshone

Fire managers at the Shoshone National Forest made plans in the early 2000s to prioritize portions of the forest that are adjacent to private property with lodges and homes and near infrastructure, Giacoletto said. They have been thinning trees in those areas to give firefighters a buffer when fires start in the backcountry. “We usually take a stand in the front country where we’ve done our fuel treatments,” Giacoletto said. “And we’ve been effective doing that.”

They also work with county, state and other federal agencies to coordinate plans. Every county has wildland fire protection plans completed, he said.

Education is also a big part of the process. Firefighters work with property owners in the forest, suggesting how to build and maintain properties to be resistant to fires, like keeping brush cleared, cleaning gutters and using metal or asphalt roofing. With winter conditions in place, Shoshone officials plan to burn slash piles across the forest. The piles are a result of timber sales, fuel reduction work and community “fire wise” projects worked on over the past years.

On the northern half of the Shoshone, piles are located in the areas of the Sugarloaf Timber Sale and Sunlight Basin on the Clarks Fork Ranger District. Additional piles are located near North Fork summer homes on the Wapiti Ranger District as well as in the Timber Creek and the Wood River areas on the Greybull Ranger District. Smoke generated from the burning piles may be visible at times in Crandall, Cody, Meeteetse, Lander and Dubois. The duration of the projects will depend upon the weather and may last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, according to a press release from Kristie Salzmann, public affairs officer.

Cody Regional Health

The Bighorns and Yellowstone

In the Bighorn National Forest, it was an above average fire season with more than 20 fires. “Thankfully they all stayed small despite very dry fuel conditions,” said Jon Warder, Bighorn fire management officer.

Firefighters were deployed throughout the season to assist other fire suppression efforts. Forest officials are just now getting back 10 firefighters who worked fires in Colorado, but most of their fire personnel have already been laid off for the season.

Warder said Bighorn managers focus attention for reducing fuel near cabins, lodges and resorts and municipal watersheds. They rely on commercial timber sales and contracted hand thinning and piling. The forest is unique in that over 60% of the landscape is in roadless wilderness, he said, adding, “We typically schedule approximately 1,500 acres per year in prescribed burning to reduce fuels, but due to extreme conditions and the need to help out other fire suppression efforts, we did not conduct prescribed burning this year.”

In Yellowstone National Park, the tactics often emphasize point and zone protection over direct fire control, said John Cataldo, the park’s fire management officer. “That makes future fires here generally less problematic for those tasked with managing them,” he said.

In 1988, more than 100 square miles, or approximately half of the park, was involved in a large wildfire. The scars of the blaze can still be seen, especially on the east side, near Cody. Cataldo said the fire created a mosaic of fire scars that have helped to provide natural barriers to the spread of new fires. The fire suppression team works hard “within our budget” to prepare communities in the park for approaching wildfires. It has been a work in progress to create defensible space park-wide, especially in spaces near infrastructure.

“The maintenance of these fuels treatments will need to go on in perpetuity in order for them to be successful across future generations,” he said.

A warmer climate

Cataldo said there are many reasons for destructive wildfires, but he points to current conditions being compounded by a warmer, drier climate in already-arid western environments.

Climate change is, in part, responsible for longer fire seasons and greater economic costs, according to a paper written by William Matthew Jolly, a research ecologist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station. Over the past 35 years his team found that fire seasons have lengthened across one quarter of Earth’s vegetated surface, extending it by a bit each year and adding up to a large change over the full study period. For example, the fire season in parts of the western United States is more than a month longer than they were 35 years ago. The authors attribute the longer seasons in the western United States to climate changes, including the timing of snowmelt, vapor pressure, and the timing of spring rains.

The cost is high, with annual fire suppression costs in the U.S. reaching more than $2 billion. In a recent paper, David Willms pointed to the high cost of increasingly longer fire seasons. “Including state and local expenses, lost property, lost lives and local economic impacts, the cost of wildland fires [this year] escalates to tens of billions of dollars per year.”

A former adviser for Gov. Matt Mead, Willms is now the Senior Director for Western Wildlife at the National Wildlife Federation. He concentrates his efforts on wildlife issues like migration corridors, endangered species policy, oil and gas policy and public lands. He points out that while billions are being spent suppressing fires, little is going to proactive solutions.

“Time is of the essence, and the time to act is now. People are losing their homes and dying. Local economies are being destroyed,” Willms wrote. “Water supplies are at risk. Billions of dollars are allocated to the problem every year to fund reactive activities, with only limited resources allocated to proactive ones.”

He said changing the future won’t be easy, but there is hope if action is taken now. Some of Willms’ ideas include identifying ways to treat invasive species, using prescribed fires, selective and subsidized timber harvests, reforestation, climate change solutions, strategic grazing, better interagency coordination, infrastructure protection, road decommissioning, improving timber markets, funding additional research and certain statutory and regulatory reforms. However, a critical component is greatly reducing the 84% of wildland fires that are human caused, Willms said, suggesting “innovative education, appropriate regulation and aggressive enforcement.”

“Contrary to the opinions espoused by some politicians, certain non-government organizations, and the members of the general public, today’s fires are not the result of a single factor. They are a result of climate change, forest management practices tied to fire suppression and a complicated statutory/regulatory framework, invasive species, natural drought cycles, human ignitions, changing timber markets …, and likely several other factors,” Willms wrote “Consequently, solutions for addressing wildland fire issues are multifaceted and complex. Done correctly, these solutions could create thousands of jobs, save billions of dollars and dozens of lives every year, protect watersheds, and leave a healthier landscape for our wildlife and future generations.”

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Cheyenne Frontier Days, Other Locals Orgs Work To Help Victims Of Colorado Wildfires

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A number of organizations in Cheyenne are working together to help people in Colorado who have been displaced by wildfires.

Currently, there are eight wildfires burning across the state, but the two affecting northern Colorado are the Cameron Peak Fire (which has recently been declared as the largest in the state’s history) and the East Troublesome Fire.

The East Troublesome Fire has only popped up within the last week, but on Thursday, it forced the evacuation of much of the town of Estes Park. More evacuation notices are expected coming, as the fire is only at 5% containment.

But Cheyenne organizations, including Cheyenne Frontier Days, are offering up their services and help to those in need.

CFD CEO Tom Hirsig told Cowboy State Daily that the rodeo organization is offering up its grounds to anyone who needs to store their horses or livestock because of evacuation.

“We have things we can offer these people, so why not do it?” Hirsig said. “It’s already devastating enough that these people might lose their homes, but these poor animals have got to be terrified.”

CFD even posted the notice to its Facebook page, letting anyone know they could call 307-778-7263 for more information.

The offer is not unprecedented for CFD, as Hirsig noted that the rodeo has always been willing to offer up its stalls or corrals to farmers, ranchers or a cowboy/girl in need, but he said the offers have never reached this scale.

Currently, no one from Colorado has had to bring their animals to Cheyenne just yet (thanks to many of the northern Colorado livestock boards, who have been helping in the interim), but Hirsig hopes that people will take advantage of the opportunity, should it be needed.

“Cheyenne Frontier Days was founded on helping our community, and our community is bigger than just Cheyenne,” he said. “I think many organizations get caught up chasing the almighty dollar, but this just shows that things can be taken away in an instant. It’s a time in our world where we can see the good in people.”

Visit Cheyenne has also partnered with many of the hotels in the city to offer heavily discounted rates to those displaced by the fires.

The organization currently has a list of hotels and their discounted rates for wildfire victims, which will be updated.

“We are all praying for your safety and Cheyenne is willing to help in any way we can,” Visit Cheyenne wrote in a tweet.

Some of the firefighters from Laramie County Fire District No. 2 have been traveling to Loveland to help staff the fire station and give their Colorado colleagues a much-needed break, according to 9News from Denver.

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Weekend Mullen Fire Work Pays Off On Slow Wednesday, Official Says

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

It was a slow Wednesday when it came to Mullen Fire activity, officials confirmed in an evening update.

While fire crews were concerned about the possible strong winds, operations manager John Wallace said that by mid-morning, precipitation fell on the fire, providing much-needed relief after weeks of toiling.

As of Wednesday evening, the fire has affected 176,371 acres and is at a 34% containment rate.

Since there was little fire activity, crews focused on cleanup efforts in the Ryan Park area, which Wallace believes crews will be moving out of by the end of the week.

However, just because the fire hasn’t grown doesn’t mean fire crews are done working.

“The area north of Albany…still has some heat on it, and we’re watching that area very closely,” Wallace said.

He added that crews are continuing to monitor to the Fox Park and Foxborough communities in the meantime. Fox Creek Road residents are also now allowed to return home, according to an update on fire tracking website InciWeb.

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Sunday PM Mullen Fire Update: Snowfall Keeps Fire At Bay

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily
Photo Credit: Kari Fleegel, Incident Meteorologist at NOAA

The predicted snowfall came as expected to a portion of southeast Wyoming on Sunday, providing much-needed relief for crews helping battle the Mullen Fire in Medicine Bow National Forest.

The fire barely made any headway at all on Sunday, according to operations manager John Wallace, who stated as much during a Facebook livestream update.

“Firefighters were still out there watching the structures, because we were still deeply concerned that the fire would move around before the snow started,” Wallace said in his Sunday evening update. “So once the snow did start and we saw that it wasn’t going to stop, we went ahead and pulled firefighters back out to the main roads.”

However, he doesn’t expect the fire to stay cool for long, adding that it will probably begin gaining traction again sometime Monday afternoon.

He did expect the containment rate to again increase in the next couple of days, though. As of Sunday evening, the fire is at a 25% containment rate and has affected 174,912 acres, according to fire tracking website InciWeb.

The biggest impact from the weather on Sunday was that gusty winds kept the fire crews from flying any aircraft, Wallace added.

The fire has not moved much at all over the weekend, with Wallace adding that it only grew by 500 acres total on Saturday.

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Friday AM Mullen Fire Update: Fire Now 18% Contained, Cool Weather On The Way

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The Mullen Fire in Medicine Bow National Forest has grown slightly in the last day, but is now at an 18% containment rate.

According to a Facebook post on the Mullen Fire Information page, the fire has now affected 173,747 acres as of late Thursday night.

John Wallace, operations manager of the fire management team, said in a Facebook livestream Friday morning that he and other officials decided they would no longer put people on the ground in the northern area of the fire, which has been an issue for crews in recent days.

“We’re just not making any progress with it,” Wallace said. “There’s a lot of dead and down trees, there’s a lot of heavy fuels, and we’re just not able to accomplish anything in there.”

Instead, crews will fall back to the A Bar A Ranch area and monitor the French Creek Canyon, which the fire has to encounter before it will cause any damage to people or structures.

Wallace added that the new 4% containment was in the western part in the fire

Friday’s planned activities include firing operations in the northeast part of the fire and structure preparation in Centennial, across the Highway 130 corridor and in the Ryan Park community.

Cooler temperatures and more moisture moving into the area over the weekend will moderate fire activity and allow firefighters to move in closer and work more directly on the fire’s edges.

Meteorologist Don Day said in his Friday morning weather forecast that a strong cold front would be moving in Saturday and Sunday and although it will limit precipitation, it will still be helpful regarding the fire.

“It’s really hard to get excited that this will produce much moisture, but it will produce some,” he said.

It will also be cool and breezy Monday, with Day adding that although the weekend cold front won’t quite bring fall weather, it will set long-term changes into motion that Wyomingites will see in the latter half of the month.

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Thursday PM Mullen Fire Update: Fire Moves North, Dead Trees Adding Complications

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The Mullen Fire in Medicine Bow National Forest continues to move north, albeit slowly, being hindered by cooler temperatures and higher humidities.

Officials gave an update on the fire during a Thursday night Facebook livestream.

Operations manager John Wallace said firefighters have been working in the northwest corner of the fire area to secure the perimeter, but have been hindered due to the roads being covered in dead Ponderosa lodgepole pine trees.

“There have been very difficult conditions in there and not a lot of success,” Wallace said. “So they’re going to start looking for other opportunities up to the north.”

Protection measures are being laid out in the Ryan Park area, with crews working on structure protection, although the fire was still about 10 miles away as of Thursday.

No update was given on the acreage during the livestream, but fire tracking website InciWeb reported 170,996 acres had been affected as of Thursday afternoon.

The fire has worked its way around Albany, so firefighters will focus suppression efforts in the transition between timber and grasslands along the old railroad line between Albany and Centennial.

Gov. Mark Gordon visited the area on Thursday to survey the damage and talk with fire crews, meteorologist Carrie Fleagle noted.

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Thursday AM Mullen Fire Update: Huge Amounts of Dead Lodgepole Pine Creating Resistance

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The cooler temperatures this week have been critical in helping firefighters put water on hot spots and prepare for full containment of the Mullen Fire in Medicine Bow National Forest, officials announced Thursday morning.

John Wallace, operations commander for the fire management team, discussed Wednesday’s operations and plans for Thursday during a Facebook livestream.

Certain areas in the southern region of the fire will likely be considered contained in the coming days, Wallace said.

However, the northern side is still burning actively.

“We are still in there working and trying to actively establish lines in there,” Wallace said. “But it’s been resistance primarily due to the amount of heavy down and dead fuel, largely the dead lodgepole pine.”

The fire has “really slowed down,” according to Wallace and had affected 170,996 acres as of Thursday morning. Nearly 1,100 personnel are working to combat the fire.

Although temperatures were cooler, a fire weather watch and red flag warning had been issued due to dry conditions and gusty winds.

A cold front will move into the area late Saturday into early Sunday, but “seasonal weather” will return for the next week, officials said.

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Centennial Resident Talks Anxiety, Fears Of Possible Evacuation

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

For about two weeks, Marie Kranz has begun every morning by getting her work uniform out of her suitcase.

The Centennial postmaster is not living away from her home. She’s just been living on the edge of a pre-evacuation notice for the last few weeks due to the Mullen Fire in Medicine Bow National Forest.

Centennial has been under a pre-evacuation notice for several weeks, with the Albany County Sheriff’s Office reiterating that the pre-evacuation order still stands: residents should be prepared to leave their homes at a moment’s notice.

Some of the pre-evacuation checklist tasks advise residents to make sure they have at least a half-tank of gas at all times, make sure important files are packed up and ready to go and that special or valuable items are ready to be picked up as soon as the evacuation order is issued.

Kranz has lived in Centennial for less than a year, but has spent the last two weeks in a near-constant state of anxiety. She’s packed up her belongings, categorized any items that insurance could replace and has her dog’s items ready, just in case the call comes.

“I’ve been living out of boxes and suitcases for the last couple weeks,” she said. “It kind of reminds me of when I used to travel for work and I would be in hotels and living out of suitcases, but I’m in my home.”

The anxiety, at times, can be agonizing. She noted that a recent trip into Laramie earlier this week caused a near panic attack.

“I drove to Laramie to get dog food and some groceries and I was so worried the entire time I was gone that the evacuation notice would come down and I wouldn’t be able to go home and get my dog and my things,” she said. “Every single time I passed a police car, I would have to stop myself from pulling over and turning around. I kept thinking, ‘This is it.'”

Doing menial errands like grocery shopping has turned into a game of strategy, as Kranz worries that any time she leaves her home for anything other than work, it might be the last time she sees it.

But it’s not just her dog and belongings Kranz is worried about – it’s her neighbors, her newfound community in Centennial and the forest itself. It’s heartbreaking for Kranz and the Centennial residents to watch the beautiful trees go up in flames.

The smoke has also been a problem in Centennial, Kranz noted. Some days, the skies are clear and as blue as the ocean.

Others, it looks overcast outside, but instead of gray, the sky is red.

“Sometimes, like today, the sky will be so black, you can’t even see the sun,” she said. “It’s scary, because you think ‘If there’s smoke, there’s fire.’ When you see smoke like that, you realize how close the fire is.”

So for now, Kranz and the rest of the Centennial community will continue to wait, either for an all clear sign or an evacuation notice. The only thing that can put Kranz at ease right now is precipitation.

“I don’t care if it’s rain or snow, just something wet falling from the sky,” she said.

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Wednesday Night Mullen Fire Update: Fire Inches Closer To Ryan Park

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Firefighters spent much of the day Wednesday conducting structure assessments, prep work and ordering supplies to keep the Mullen Fire at bay, officials announced during their regular briefing.

John Wallace, operations section chief for the Type I management team on the fire, gave the rundown on Wednesday’s operations during a Facebook livestream.

No notice was given about how much the fire had grown on Wednesday or if the containment rate was still at 14%.

The Ryan Park area was a major focus for fire crews today, as they began looking to that community for structure assessment and preparing structures for protection against the flames.

Although the main fire is still relatively far from Ryan Park, spot fires have been popping up in the woods near there, concerning crews.

Centennial is also being eyed for structure assessment this week.

“We’ve got folks in Centennial doing structure assessments, and [Thursday] you’re going to start seeing people again, getting hoses out of trucks, setting up big orange tanks, working with local fire departments,” Wallace said.

The closest portion of the fire is about eight miles away from Centennial and moved “very little” on Wednesday. Wallace said crews believe the higher elevations and the September snowstorm have kept it at bay.

Temperatures were in the upper 60s on Wednesday, but there will be a red flag warning going into effect on Thursday due to high winds and dry weather conditions.

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Wednesday Morning Mullen Update: Aircraft To Drop Retardant On Albany Area

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

It will look like an airshow in the Albany area on Wednesday as multiple aircraft will be coming in to help battle the Mullen Fire in Medicine Bow National Forest.

John Wallace, operations section chief for the management team on the fire, said heavy air tankers would fly over the Albany area throughout Wednesday to drop retardant on the fire.

Wallace, part of a new Type I management team that took over the fire’s management Tuesday, provided his update by Facebook livestream Wednesady morning.

The Mullen Fire has now affected 166,588 acres and is still 14% contained.

Wallace said during his update that firefighters saw “a lot” of activity Tuesday afternoon and evening, with many personnel working to protect structures in the Albany area. The fire reached 311 Road, but was held back by crews, he said.

“We’re just getting things ready for if the fire does move past Rambler, past Keystone and begin to move out and start threatening Centennial,” Wallace said. “So we’ve done a lot of cleanup work yesterday and last night, getting ready for the next three or four days.”

Although Centennial still hasn’t been evacuated, crews are preparing for the fire to move in that direction, taking this time to work on structure protection and placing hoses, just in case.

Smoke will also be heavy throughout Wednesday, Wallace added.

According to fire tracking website InciWeb, lighter winds are expected Wednesday, the lightest that fire crews will see until at least early next week. Fire weather conditions will stay elevated, despite the lighter winds.

Temperatures will cool over the weekend, as well.

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