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Coal Seam Fire In Campbell County Contained At Under 5,300 Acres

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By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily

A 5,300-acre fire in western Campbell County that ignited from a coal seam was 50% contained as of Saturday morning.

At its peak, 120 firefighters from various federal and county agencies battled the flames that crossed over to burn in Johnson and Sheridan counties as well as Campbell.

The fire began Monday afternoon on U.S. Bureau of Land Management, state and private lands in Campbell, Johnson and Sheridan Counties. 

No structures or homes have been damaged and the fire burning in rural, rugged terrain has forced no evacuations or road closures.

As of Saturday morning, there were 79 people onsite managing the fire, assisted by a bulldozer, five fire engines and other assets. Most efforts Saturday were expected to focus on holding the fire’s containment line and patrolling for any hot spots, according to a news release from Melanie Wilmer, the fire’s informational officer.

Temperatures Saturday were expected to be in the high 80s with south winds up to 25 mph and isolated thunderstorms possibly in the afternoon. 

Coal seam fires are a natural burning of an outcrop of coal or an underground coal seam, according to Global Forest Watch, and can be ignited by lightning, wildfire, or low temperature oxidation and can burn for many years.

Most of the time they don’t present any issues, but if they reach the surface, they can cause fires. 

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Deer Creek 2 Fire In Northeast Wyo Grows To More Than 5,000 Acres

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By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily

Almost 100 firefighters from several federal, state and county fire agencies continued to battle the Deer Creek 2 fire burning in three northeastern Wyoming counties Wednesday, completing a containment line around 15% of the 5,295-acre blaze.

The fire ignited by a burning coal seam in western Campbell County on Monday afternoon has since spread into Johnson and Sheridan counties, according to Melanie Wilmer, emergency response coordinator assigned to the fire. 

Moisture and cooler temperatures are aided firefighters’ efforts, even though the fire grew by more than 2,000 acres from Wednesday to Thursday.

The fire burning in grass, juniper and ponderosa pine in rugged, remote terrain. Precipitation from overnight showers helped mitigate the spread of flames, according to a post on the Dry Creek 2 Fire Facebook page, though muddy conditions posed new challenges in the area of the fire, most of which cannot be accessed by fire engines.

According to the post, efforts Thursday were to focus on monitoring the fire activity in two areas in an attempt to keep the fire contained within the present containment lines until the fire intensity is significantly reduced to the unburned side of the line. 

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Almost 120 Firefighters Battle Deer Creek 2 Fire In Campbell County

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By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily

Almost 120 firefighters from multiple agencies were battling a 3,000-acre fire burning in three counties of northeast Wyoming on Wednesday.

Rough terrain, wind and unseasonably warm temperatures continued to hinder the efforts of firefighters to contain the Deer Creek 2 fire centered in western Campbell County.

The fire is burning 30 miles west of Gillette, but has crossed into Johnson and Sheridan counties. Officials believe it was started Monday by a burning coal seam that surfaced and began burning dry fuel, according to Melanie Wilmer, emergency response coordinator assigned to the fire. 

Given the remote location of the fire and difficult terrain, the fire has been labeled a type-3 incident, meaning it has surpassed the resources of the Campbell County Fire Department, allowing for other agencies to help.

Campbell County is being assisted by firefighters from Sheridan and Johnson counties, as well as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Wilmer said firefighters on the scene were being aided by bulldozers, fire engines, helicopters and several tractors equipped with blades.

The terrain is mostly sage, juniper and grass and is in a desolate area where no structures are threatened or roads closed. Campbell County is currently under a heat advisory with temperatures expected to reach the high 90s.

The area is also under an air quality alert.

However, the air quality alert is the result of smoke in the skies over Campbell County from fires on the West Coast, Wilmer said, not the Deer Creek 2 fire.

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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.)

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