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Two Major Wildfires Burning In Western Wyoming, Big Horn Mountains

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Smoke and haze – that’s been the rule for the skies of western Wyoming for the last week.

According to weather officials, most of the smoke is coming from wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington.

However, two fires large enough to be listed on the national InciWeb database are burning in Wyoming.

The Shale Creek fire in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, involving about 189 acres, was first reported July 16 and is expected to be fully contained by Saturday.

The fire, burning in remote and rugged terrain east of the Hams Fork River, has forced the closure of some access trails and forest roads by Bridger-Teton National Forest officials.

The Crater Ridge Fire, however, continued to grow in a remote area of the Bighorn National Forest, covering 564 acres as of Sunday with no containment of the flames reported.

The lightning-caused Crater Ridge Fire is located in an area heavily used for recreation. Numerous travel trailers are located in the area, which is about 30 miles northeast of Lovell.

The U.S. Forest Service closed much of the Bighorn National Forest north of Wyoming Highway 14 and east of the Big Horn-Sheridan county line.

Firefighting officials leadership are making long-term plans for full suppression of the Crater Ridge fire. Existing hazards, including difficult access, heavy fuels and steep terrain, are preventing fire personnel from working directly along the fire’s edge. 

In addition to the two large events, there have been other, smaller fires reported on the Shoshone National Forest in the past week, according to Kristie Salzmann, spokesperson for the agency.

“There were a few one-tenth acre fires on the Shoshone,” she told Cowboy State Daily, “But our firefighters were able to quickly contain them; so they did not meet the threshold of being added to Inciweb.”

One of the three smaller fires was discovered on Monday, July 19, west of Meeteetse approximately one-half mile from the Timber Creek Ranger Station on the Greybull Ranger District of the Shoshone National Forest.

A second fire was caused by a lightning strike in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area on the Clarks Fork Ranger District, one-half mile east of Willow Park and north of the Pilot Creek gravel pit. It was reported on July 21.

Another fire reported on July 21 was in the Brent Creek area on the Wind River Ranger District. 

“Responding firefighters hiked into the Tappan Creek area to find a single tree had been ignited by lightning,” said Wind River District Ranger Jeff von Kienast. “Their quick actions to contain the fire kept it from growing any larger in our dry conditions.”

Acting Shoshone National Forest Fire Management Officer Clint Dawson urged residents and visitors to use extreme caution. “Everyone who is spending time on public lands this summer should continue to do everything they can to lessen the chances of fires.”

Shoshone National Forest Supervisor Lisa Timchak echoed that warning.

“We anticipate this summer to be a long one for our firefighters and are thankful that our understanding public is helping keep human-caused fires to a minimum.”

Stage 1 Fire Restrictions have been implemented across the entire Shoshone National Forest. 

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Dry Fork Fire 40% Contained As Firefighters Battle Blaze In Campbell County

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By Jen Kocher, Cowboy State Daily

More than 80 firefighters on Tuesday continued to battle a 3,200-acre forest fire burning in the Thunder Basin National Grassland in northeastern Campbell County. 

As of Tuesday morning, the Dry Fork fire was 40% contained, according to Campbell County Fire Department Captain Sam Clikeman.

Campbell County has beeen hit hard by drought and riddled with grassfires that have kept firefighters hopping throughout the summer. The latest is the Dry Fork Fire, which started Sunday.

Authorities issued a “red flag” warning on Monday in the face of continued dry, hot weather expected to boost the threat of fire even further.

As of Tuesday, no homes had been lost to the Dry Fork Fire, Clikeman said, and firefighters had established a bulldozer and mechanical barrier around 90% of the fire. 

“That’s the big thing,” he said.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. 

Area rancher Acacia Acord and husband Shawn has been helping battle the blaze since it began Sunday late afternoon near their ranch 35 miles north of Gillette. 

“We were on it from 6 p.m. Sunday night until midnight and then again yesterday,” she said. “It barely came over on us, just a few feet but burned up a lot of our neighbors. It was hot and fast, a very nasty fire.” 

As of Tuesday, firefighters were on scene from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and state forestry division, assisted by firefighters from Kansas and Colorado. 

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Wyoming Wildland Firefighters Put Themselves In Danger Every Year

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

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.

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Firefighters Battle Lightning-Caused Fire In Drought-Stricken Campbell County

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By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily

Firefighters in drought-stricken Campbell County continued Tuesday to battle a lightning-caused wildfire that was ignited Monday.

About 70 firefighters were busy Tuesday battling the 150-acre Raccoon Ridge Fire in southern Campbell County, one of several wildfires that began during the Fourth of July holiday.

As of Tuesday morning, the fire was just around 25% contained, according Kate Eischeid, batallion chief for the Campbell County Fire Department.

Eischeid said crews from her department, assisted by firefighters from Johnson County, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management battled the blaze through the night.

Also present to help were single-engine air tankers that dropped fire retardant on the flames.

The rapidly spreading fire threatened several nearby residences, prompting some evacuations on Monday, although Eischeid said that to her knowledge as of Tuesday, the homeowners have since returned home and the area is no longer under threat. The fire is being pushed by brisk winds in the area already hit hard by dry conditions.

Before the Raccoon Ridge Fire broke out, CCFD had been working around the clock to extinguish two other grassfires in the northern end of the county: the Beason Fire near the Montana border and the Wild Horse Creek Fire, which was contained after burning almost 1,000 acres.

A small amount of rain fell on the area of the Raccoon Ridge Fire Monday, but Eischeid said not enough moisture fell to halt the spread of the flames.

“It wasn’t enough rain to be sufficient,” she said, “but we’ll take what we can get.”

Fire officials knew a difficult fire season was coming, Eischeid said, given the drought conditions and the relatively mild winter and spring. 

“This comes in cycles,” she said. “We assumed that this is where we would be at this point and we are.”

At this point, rain will do very little to help prevent further fires, Eischeid added, given that grasses already gone to seed and are dormant, and more rain will just going to create mud.

Eischeid urged residents to obey current fire restrictions within the county, noting that at least two grassfires have been tied to illegal fireworks or fires.

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Northwest Wyo Fire Officials Urge Residents To Avoid Fireworks

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Extremely dry and hot conditions have fire officials in northwestern Wyoming asking residents to stay away from fireworks this Fourth of July, even there there is no official ban on the explosives in the county.

Park County commissioners last week decided against issuing a fireworks ban for the county despite dry conditions, due largely to the fact the county would not have enough time to alert residents to the ban before the holiday weekend. Commissioners agreed to delay the ban until after the holiday.

 “The commissioners totally understand the conditions, and they knew they were more willing not to do it until after the Fourth, because they didn’t feel that they would get the word out in time,” said Jerry Parker, administrator for Park County Fire District No. 2 in Cody.

Statistics show that nationally during the the July Fourth holiday, nearly three times more wildfires are started than on any other day of the year — more than 7,000 were reported from 1992 to 2015. 

But this year, the risk is even higher due to hot, dry conditions.

“The conditions that we’re seeing across the state, it’s something that I’ve never seen in my firefighting career, for over 25 years,” said Sam Wilde, fire marshal for Park County Fire District No. 2.

Parker said that typically, Park County does not put fire bans in place until both the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service have imposed fire restrictions on public lands. 

“It just so happens that they both went into restrictions this year prior to the Fourth of July,” Parker said. “It’s been since 2016 the last time that we were in restrictions this early.”

In the absence of an official ban, fire officials are asking residents to police themselves.

“The Forest Service, BLM, and nearly every other county in northern Wyoming have implemented fire restrictions due to the dry fuel conditions,” Wilde said. 

“These are conditions that we typically see later in August, later in the year,” he said. “It’s not unusual to go under fire restrictions at that time of the year, especially when resources are scattered then and you know it’s hard to find those resources.”

In Park County Fire District No. 2, which encompasses the Cody area, west into the National Forest, Wilde said there are around 70 volunteer firefighters available. 

“So if something were to happen, we’ve got resources for one, two, three, maybe four fires,” he said. “And whenever you get conditions like this across the country, everybody is already on fires, everyone is spread thin. So it’s not like you can just pick up the phone and have a whole bunch of help coming, like you could normally this time of year.”

Wilde said he is concerned as much for firefighters as for residents — especially during the holiday weekend.

“We do typically get some fires on the Fourth, but the difference this year with these conditions is these starts have the potential to grow out of control and beyond the capabilities of our forces,” he said. “It can be really easy to be overcome and not have the forces to deal with a large wildland fire right now, and it may take several days to get help here to help with those fires.”

Parker agreed. 

“We have fire departments in Clark, Meeteetse and Cody, and any one of them can be overrun with fires with the conditions we have,” he said. “And they are all volunteer, we have no paid firefighters in this town.”

Wilde said the public display of fireworks in Cody is still scheduled, but that organizers have the resources to manage the show, since it’s in one place and firefighters wouldn’t be pulled away to deal with incidents in other parts of the county.

“Our fear is, and it’s happened in the past, where we actually had a waiting list of fire calls  – waiting for a truck to get released to get to that fire,” Parker said. “So we don’t want to see that, because that one that we might not be able to get to right away? It could be going towards a structure.”

“Is it worth burning down your neighbors property or – God forbid – threatening someone’s home or life?” Wilde said. “Please consider enjoying the public show this year and put away the fireworks you got this year for a future date. We’re in for a busy fire season this year anyway… please do the right thing for the sake of your volunteers, your neighbors and your community, and make the right choice!”

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Fire Restrictions Take Effect As Fourth Nears

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

It’s getting a little warm out there.

And warm, in Wyoming’s summers, generally equals “dry” — which means that federal land managers are cautioning people to use caution when enjoying the outdoors during the upcoming holiday weekend.

In western Wyoming, the Shoshone National Forest implemented forest-wide “Stage 1” Fire Restrictions on June 25. 

These restrictions allow campfires only in permanent fire rings that are installed and maintained by the U.S. Forest Service or U.S. Bureau of Land Management at developed recreation sites. The use of personal, portable fire pits and rings is banned for the time being.

The same restrictions are in place for public lands in at least 10 of Wyoming’s 23 counties: Campbell, Converse, Crook, Goshen, Johnson, Natrona, Niobrara, Platte, Sheridan and Weston.

The restrictions in Shoshone National Forest were adopted after officials measured moisture in vegetation and reviewed predicted weather conditions and fire activity in the region, according to forest Supervisor Lisa Timchak.

“With increasing fire danger, we are implementing these restrictions to protect public health and safety,” she said. “These fire restrictions will remain in place on the entirety of the Shoshone National Forest until further notice. Our fire managers will continue to monitor conditions and if they improve, we will reassess the restrictions.”

Of course, fireworks are a specific no-no any time of the year on federal lands, something to remember as the Fourth of July nears.

Violators of the rule can receive an expensive Independence Day present — a fine of up to $5,000 for an individual or $10,000 for an organization, along with possible jail sentences.

Fuses, blasting caps, rockets, exploding targets, tracers and incendiary ammunition are also banned in any area under Stage 1 Fire Restrictions.

Other rules for areas under Stage 1 restrictions include a ban on smoking outside, unless the smoker is in a cleared area at least 3 feet in diameter. Chainsaws can only be operated if equipped with a spark arrestor and if a fire extinguisher is nearby. Welding is prohibited in an area that is not cleared for at least 10 feet around.

Almost 90% of all wildfires on public lands are started by humans. Anyone negligently or willfully starting a wildland fire could be held responsible for the costs of that fire.

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Authorities Arrest Bridger Man, Allege He Started Robertson Draw Fire

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By Mark Davis, Powell Tribune

A Bridger, Montana, man was arrested Wednesday on allegations that he started the 28,600-acre Robertson Draw Fire while off-trail on his motorcycle.

John Lightburn, 55, faces felony and misdemeanor counts of negligent arson which allege he put people’s lives and property in danger by “purposely or knowingly” starting the wildfire. A misdemeanor count of criminal mischief alleges that Lightburn operated his motorcycle in an area of the Custer Gallatin National Forest that’s closed to motorized vehicles and damaged public lands.

According to charging documents from Carbon County Attorney Alex Nixon, Lightburn had been riding his motorbike on the morning of June 13 when the vehicle became flooded. As he tried to fix the cycle, Lightburn reportedly spilled gas “all over.” A subsequent attempt to see if he was getting a spark from his sparkplug set the nearby gasoline and surrounding vegetation ablaze, charging documents say.

Amid the hot, dry conditions, the Robertson Draw Fire quickly spread over the next few days, threatening the towns of Red Lodge and Bearcreek and burning 21 structures — including at least eight homes. Crews have been on scene battling the wildland fire, which has consumed a large area between Line Creek, north of Clark, to Mount Maurice, just west of Red Lodge.

Nixon said the fire’s rapid growth on June 15 “created dangerous conditions for both firefighters and local residents.” The prosecutor said that at least one law enforcement officer “was almost overtaken by the fire” while helping to evacuate residents and escorting them through the flame front.

“Damage to public and private property and the associated firefighting efforts, which are ongoing, have caused loss in the millions of dollars,” Nixon wrote.

According to what Lightburn told authorities, the fire started around 10 a.m. on June 13. It was reported to authorities around 2:30 p.m. and Lightburn was reportedly seen walking out of the fire area with burns around 4:30 p.m.

He was picked up by a retired investigator and delivered to U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer Katrina Haworth, who was responding to the scene after receiving reports of the fire.

Lightburn reported burning his foot in an attempt to extinguish the fire. However, Haworth did not observe any efforts to extinguish the fire while investigating the scene, though she did find Lightburn’s burned motorcycle and a few tools.

As of Wednesday evening, Lightburn was being held at the Gallatin County Detention Center, with bond set at $7,500.

(CJ Baker contributed reporting.)

Wyoming Already Seeing ‘Pretty Heavy’ Wildfire Activity

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By Elyse Kelly, The Center Square

As summer heats up in July and August, Wyoming’s wildfire season is likely to creep above average, although recent hot and dry weather has already stoked fires.

Many parts of the state continue in drought, some of it severe. The state’s predictive services are forecasting June fire levels to be average, trending to higher-than-normal levels later in the summer, according to Wyoming state forester Bill Crapser. 

It’s hard to even tell what normal is anymore, Crapser added.

“We’ve had pretty heavy fire activity for this early in June,” he told The Center Square. “It’s hard to say what’s average anymore, but I think we’re going to have an above-average fire season this year.”

Drought conditions are expected to continue with higher than normal temperatures and lower than normal precipitation across most of the state, according to Crapser. The western and northern parts of the state are likely to be the hardest hit, he added.

The state is preparing by adding two single-engine air tankers to be available to support counties along with heli-vac operations. Federal agencies have added surge resources as well.

“Right now in the state, even with the activity we’ve got, we have more federal heavy helicopters, that sort of thing, than we would have in a normal year right now,” he said.

Approximately 84% of fires in Wyoming last year were caused by humans, Crapser said, and he thinks it strictly because the state is seeing more human activity. 

“We have a lot more people recreating, taking advantage of the national forests, taking advantage of BLM lands and other public lands in the state for recreation, so we’re seeing an increase in that,” he said. “We also, like every other place in the west, have seen an increase in people living out in the wildland/urban interface.”

Crapser urged residents and visitors to be careful.

“A lot of the human-caused fires run the gamut from unattended campfires to ricochets from recreational shooting and exploding targets to fireworks to safety chains from trailers dragging and starting fires, so all sorts of things, and trash burning — everything you can think of from a human-caused fire, we’re seeing more of them,” he said.

The state’s forest service works closely with counties to create firewise communities. Crapser said residents have a much better chance of keeping their homes safe if they prepare ahead of time to create defensible space around the perimeters.

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Robertson Draw Fire Growth Slows; Milder Weather Helping Firefighters

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

After consuming over 21,000 acres of forest and grassland in three short days, the Robertson Draw Fire north of Park County has slowed its pace somewhat in the last 24 hours, officials reported Thursday.

Custer-Gallatin National Forest officials say that the fire south of Red Lodge, Montana grew by about 3,000 acres overnight, thanks to milder weather conditions which allowed fire crews to work on the northeastern, eastern, and southeastern sides of the fire. 

According to the nation’s official wildfire website, inciweb.nwcg.gov, the fire was human-caused, although it is still under investigation.

Homes and campgrounds in the area of the fire are under an evacuation order, which means residents are urged to leave their homes immediately. All area residents have also been urged to have a household evacuation plan ready, and told to remain vigilant. 

An area closure is in place for the area south of Highway 212, east to the area along the Beartooth Front and south to the Wyoming border. 

There are currently 162 people actively fighting the blaze, according to forest officials. 

On Tuesday, crews and equipment worked to tie in bulldozed containment lines to burned areas that had cooled down in the rangeland grass areas.

Meanwhile, air tanker water and retardant drops were conducted along the northwest side of Mount Maurice to check fire spread.

The fire remained active along portions of the northern edge and in the timbered areas south of Mount Maurice. 

The Federal Aviation Administration has issued a Temporary Flight Restriction over the area of the Crooked Creek Fire to provide a safe environment so firefighting aircraft may operate in the area.

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Robertson Fire, Just Outside of Park County, Explodes to More Than 21,000 Acres

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

The 2021 fire season has kicked off with a bang.

The Robertson Draw Fire has grown exponentially since it sparked just three days ago and, as of June 16, has exploded to 21,000 acres and is blanketing a good portion of northern Wyoming in smoke.

The blaze is consuming sage, timber and grassy areas along the front range of the Beartooth Mountains between Red Lodge, Montana and Clark, Wyoming.

According to InciWeb.gov evacuations and evacuation warnings are in place for multiple areas near the fire. Firefighters are focusing their efforts on structure protection and containment. 

Investigators have determined that the fire is human-caused, and was first reported around 3 p.m. on Sunday, June 13.

On Tuesday, June 15, the fire was reported at ten times the size from 24 hours previously, and the Custer-Gallatin National Forest drew upon resources including handcrews, engines, helicopters, a rappel crew, and support personnel. 

Air tankers continue supporting the incident, and a Type 2 Incident Management Team took command of the fire Wednesday.

An area closure is in place for the region south of Highway 212, east along the Beartooth Front and south to the Wyoming border. Evacuation orders are in place in the area south of Highway 308 from Red Lodge to Highway 72, and east of 72 to the Wyoming border.

All campgrounds, dispersed camping and trailheads from the Lake Fork north to Red Lodge including the dispersed camping area just west of the Lake Fork Road have also been ordered to evacuate.

Jim and Carol Ingram are residents in Clark, Wyoming, who have watched the fire grow from a small 40-acre blaze to its current status. On Wednesday morning, Jim Ingram said the smoke had obscured the foothills just west of their home.

“Yesterday afternoon the fire simply exploded and raced around the northeast corner of the mountains (Mt. Maurice) toward Red Lodge and then northeast toward Bear Creek and Belfry out into the plains,” Ingram said. “That’s a run of 14 miles in one afternoon.  Our hope is that the reversal of wind direction will push the fire lines back into already-burned areas where they’ll fizzle out.”

A shelter for evacuees has been set up at the Red Lodge Community Church, and the Red Cross has set up a shelter at the Veteran Memorial Civic Center in Red Lodge.

“I’m sure we’ll be fine, with plenty of notice if we are in any danger,” Ingram said. “Two of our neighbors across the road serve on the Clark fire/EMT team.”  

Continued record high temperatures and relative humidity in the single digits yesterday provided a challenging firefighting situation in rugged and inaccessible terrain, according to Forest Service officials.

That extreme fire behavior on Tuesday made it nearly impossible to fight the fire safely on the ground, and the high winds prevented aircraft from fighting the fire with retardant and water drops.  

But on Wednesday, humidity increased and temperatures lowered, which makes conditions more favorable for firefighting, officials noted. They expect to see more growth on the South and Eastern portions of the fire, but their priorities remain structure protection, building line around the fire and, as always, firefighter and public safety.

There is a virtual and in-person public meeting planned for June 16 at 7:00 p.m. at the Red Lodge, Montana High School.  The meeting will be live streamed on the Custer Gallatin National Forest’s Facebook page at CusterGallatinNationalForest.

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