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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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UW Professor: Global Warming Is Causing Larger Wildfires In Rocky Mountains

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A University of Wyoming professor has co-authored a new research paper stating that global warming is contributing to larger wildfires in the Rocky Mountain region.

“Global warming is causing larger fires in Rocky Mountain forests than have burned for thousands of years,” said Bryan Shuman, a professor in the UW Department of Geology and Geophysics. “The last time anything similar may have occurred was during a warm portion of the medieval era.”

Shuman was the main co-author of a paper, titled “Rocky Mountain Subalpine Forests Now Burning More Than Any Time in Recent Millennia,” that was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the world’s most prestigious science journals.

Shuman and his fellow researchers found that by November 2020, wildfires in southern Wyoming and northern Colorado were responsible for 72% of the total area burned in high-elevation subalpine forests since 1984.

In 2020, Colorado saw three of its largest wildfires on record.

The 2020 fire season saw distinctly higher rates of burning than in the last 2,000 years. The researchers used charcoal found in lake sediment records to assemble the fire history across the Rocky Mountains.

They discovered that since 2000, wildfires are burning nearly twice as much area, on average, compared to the last 2,000 years.

Over that 2,000-year period, fires in high-elevation, subalpine forests historically burned, on average, once every 230 years. In the 21st century, those fires now occur, on average, every 117 years.

Philip Higuera, a professor of fire ecology in the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana, was the paper’s lead author. Kyra Wolf, a Ph.D. candidate in paleoecology and forest ecology at the University of Montana, also contributed to the paper.

Higuera and Shuman conceived and designed the study, while Higuera and Wolf analyzed the data to understand how current fire activity compared to wildfires of the past.

“As the 2020 fire season unfolded, we realized we already had a well-defined understanding of the fire history of many of the places burning, based on over 20 lake sediment records our teams had collected over the past 15 years,” Higuera says. “When the smoke settled, we thought ‘Wow, we may have witnessed something truly unprecedented here.’ So, we combined the existing records for the first time and compared them to recent fire activity. To our surprise, 2020 indeed pushed fire activity outside the range of variability these forests have experienced over at least the past two millennia.”

In the Rocky Mountains of northern Colorado and southern Wyoming, 840,000 acres have burned between 1984 and 2019. Another 660,000 acres burned in 2020.

Approximately 1.1 million acres burned in the past decade in the Colorado-Wyoming study area, even though only 400,000 acres, less than half as much, burned in the previous 25 years.

“The results indicate that, if fires continue to burn as often as they do now, every forest in the region could be burned by the beginning of the next century,” Shuman said. “In the past, it would have taken 200 to 300 years, if not longer, for fires to affect that much area.”

Subalpine forests are becoming less resilient and more susceptible to fires because the climate is warming, the researchers showed. Because humidity was extremely low, temperatures were high and storm events produced high winds, forest management had little impact on the 2020 fires.

The fires burned designated wilderness and national parks with limited fuel management, heavily managed areas with substantial timber removal and intact forest and areas with extensive beetle kill.

The extreme climate completely overrode all types of forest management, Shuman said.

“Snowfall in our high-elevation forests is lower now than in past decades, and summers are hotter. The changes convert trees into dry fuel, primed and ready to burn,” Shuman said. “With less snow now, the fire season lasts longer than before. When areas burn, the fires are bigger. They can burn longer. 

Continual warming will reinforce newly emerging fire activity in these high-elevation forests, with significant implications for ecosystems and society, according to the paper.

“It may sound dire, but it’s critical to remember that we have ample opportunities to limit or reverse climate warming, while still working to adapt to the increasing fire activity expected in upcoming decades,” Higuera said.

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Rising Humidity Helping Firefighters Battle 1,000-Acre Robinson Fire

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Milder temperatures and rising humidity are expected to help firefighters as they battle a wildfire covering more than 1,000 acres of land near Buffalo.

The Robinson Fire was started by lightning on June 8 and was pushed by high winds late last week into the Robinson Canyon, where it is currently burning.

Maribeth Pecotte, public information officer for the fire, told Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday that while temperatures were high in in the fire area, the firefighting team expected temperatures to be somewhat milder later in the week that would be coupled with some much-needed humidity in the air.

“People don’t always realize how just a little bit of humidity can be critical to stopping fire growth,” she said. “The humidity can really stem a fire and it just won’t climb any higher because the humidity is just smoldering it.”

While a wildfire is never an ideal situation, Pecotte noted that the Robinson Fire will actually be beneficial for the forest surrounding it.

Since this fire is burning around ponderosa pine trees, which have evolved to be around flames, it will mainly burn downed trees and common juniper trees in the area, which are quick to burn and can be a major fuel source for wildfires.

“Ponderosas like to grow in wide open spaces and aren’t densely packed, so this fire will allow the surrounding trees to grow more vigorously in the future,” Pecotte said. “The fire has been burning more on the surface than the (tops of the trees), so this is going to help open up that forest and clean it up some.”

She noted that ponderosa pines have a thick bark that can withstand long exposure to flames and that the trees’ lowest branches could sit as high as 30 to 50 feet off the ground, meaning the fire will not affect these trees compared to the damage done by something like the Mullen Fire.

The fire is located 20 miles south of Buffalo. Almost 350 personnel are working to combat the fire.

The Rocky Mountain Area Type 2 blue team is currently working to direct resources and provide information about the fire. Pecotte said one smokejumper working the fire reported positive results from firefighting efforts earlier in the day on Tuesday.

Threats for wildfires are high around the state because of extended dry conditions and high temperatures.

In an effort to prevent wildfires, Campbell County commissioners implemented a burn ban this week that prohibited outdoor burning and fireworks in certain areas, according to County 17.

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Officials Report 300% Increase In Fires Inside Bridger Teton Since Last Year

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By staff reports, Cowboy State Daily

Abandoned campfires on the Bridger-Teton National Forest are causing concern, especially in the warmer and drier weather that the Forest is already experiencing this month.

“People just aren’t thinking of fire safety at this time of year. It’s like folks assume because it’s spring they don’t need to worry about putting out their campfires,” says Forest Public Affairs Officer Mary Cernicek. “It is early but it only takes a couple of days of warm, dry weather to dry things out.”

As of June 2, there have been 21 abandoned campfires, most of which have occurred on the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Compared to 2020, there were seven abandoned fires by the same date that year. In 2019, there were three.

Of the abandoned campfires discovered, some have been left smoldering and too hot to touch, while others had escaped its fire ring.

Fire personnel are routinely dispatched to extinguish the fires or smoke sightings that have been reported while others are discovered by patrollers.

“Individuals found responsible could be cited with violation notices and possibly fined,” said Cernicek.

Persons found responsible for starting a fire that escapes, resulting in a wildfire may be held responsible for the cost of putting it out.

“All too often people don’t intend to start wildfires, yet they leave campfires unattended or don’t completely put them out. These campfires have the potential to become disastrous,” says Cernicek.

The reports of unattended campfires have fire managers reiterating a fire safety message for all Forest users. Although an area may appear green, the danger for fire still exists.

“Even though it looks green, the drought conditions have left the dead materials and trees susceptible to fire and we still need to be careful with campfires on the Forest,” said Cernicek. “We just want to remind visitors to Bridger-Teton to build their campfires in a safe spot, not to leave them unattended and to extinguish them completely before leaving the area.”

Always keep a bucket of water and a shovel nearby. When putting a campfire out, drown it with water, stir with a shovel and never leave a fire until it is cold to the touch.

To report an abandoned campfire or wildfire, call Teton Interagency Dispatch at (307) 739-3630 or 911.

Lightning Ignites Grass Fire North of Gillette, Burns 275 Acres

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A 273-acre grass fire in a small town north of Gillette over the weekend was caused by lightning, officials said Sunday.

On Saturday morning, Campbell County firefighters responded to a home in Weston for a timber fire. The fire involved about 3.7 square miles of private land.

Lightning from a passing storm the previous night caused the fire, which was fully contained as of Sunday night. Nearly 60 firefighters helped battle the fire, including firefighters from Campbell County, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Tatanka Hotshots, with assistance provided by the Wyoming State Forestry Division’s helicopter.

Landowners and volunteers were also on site all day Saturday to assist with firefighting efforts.

Firefighters remained on the scene Monday to ensure the fire was under control.

In late April, Wyoming State Forestry Division’s fire management officer told Cowboy State Daily that the state’s fire outlook for the 2021 season wasn’t good.

However, Anthony Schultz did offer the caveat that while the outlook seemed bad to start the spring and summer season, there was a possibility nature could change its course and provide a rainy summer.

“Around 2017 or 2018, we were looking to have a pretty active fire season, but we ended up getting a lot of rain into June and July, so the fire season was muted,” he said. “It wasn’t something heavily predicted, so we weren’t really expecting it.”

The fire season in Wyoming usually begins around June, but is at its most dangerous in July and August, Schultz said, with fire restrictions across the state usually being fully lifted by the fall.

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Wyoming Man Charged For Intentionally Starting Two Wildfires In Big Horn County

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A Wyoming man has been charged with intentionally starting two wildfires in Big Horn County almost three years ago.

Brandon Kenneth Nyberg is charged with unlawfully starting a fire and burning timber, trees and other fuels on U.S. Bureau of Land Management land. If convicted, he could spend up to one year in jail, serve one year of supervised release and pay a fine of up to $1,000.

According to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Casper, in July 2018, BLM Supervisory Ranger Brad Jones was working near the Terek Fire in Big Horn County when he was alerted to another fire in Manderson. While attempting to gain access to the Manderson fire, another fire on the same highway was reported.

Both fires were believed to be human-caused.

When Jones arrived in Manderson, he saw Nyberg and Sierra Brown with a water hose standing near a barn and house.

When the ranger interviewed him, Nyberg said he hadn’t seen much and he had been watching the fire in the distance when he noticed it burning in the field near his grandparents’ house. He said he didn’t see anyone in the area who could have started the fire, so he believed it was a spot fire caused by embers from the Terek Fire.

Nyberg denied starting either of the two smaller fires.

Brown said she was sleeping when Nyberg woke her and told her to turn on the water. She didn’t see anyone in the field who could have started the fires.

The next day, BLM Ranger Robert Lind was on the scene of the first smaller fire when he was approached by Nyberg on a bicycle. Lind asked Nyberg if he had any photos of the prior day’s fires, which Nyberg did, and he agreed to transfer photos to the ranger.

He repeated a similar story to Lind, that he and Brown returned home from a hike, she took a nap and he woke her when he noticed the fire in the area.

One week later, it was determined that the first fire was started on and burned 6 acres of BLM land, while the second fire was started on private property and spread to BLM land.

In May 2019, Nyberg was interviewed by police at his grandparents’ residence in Manderson. When confronted with evidence, he initially claimed he might have accidentally started the fires with a lit cigarette, but when pushed, he admitted to starting both fires with a lighter.

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Wyoming Fire Management Officer On 2021 Wildfire Risk: “It’s Not Looking Good”

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s wildfire outlook for the 2021 season is not a good one, according to the Wyoming State Forestry Division’s fire management officer.

However, Anthony Schultz did offer the caveat that while the outlook may seem bad now, there is a possibility nature could change its course and provide a rainy summer.

“Around 2017 or 2018, we were looking to have a pretty active fire season, but we ended up getting a lot of rain into June and July, so the fire season was muted,” Schultz told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday. “It wasn’t something heavily predicted, so we weren’t really expecting it.”

So although nature is a fickle beast and nothing about the coming summer season is certain,, Schultz said Wyoming and numerous other western states are trending toward having a drier, warmer fire season than normal, meaning there could be wildfires spreading throughout the state this summer.

Schultz noted that South Dakota, in particular, has already been seeing wildfires this year, such as the Schroeder Fire that closed Mount Rushmore last month.

The fire season in Wyoming usually begins around June, but is at its most dangerous in July and August, Schultz said, with fire restrictions across the state usually being fully lifted by the fall.

He added that for Wyoming, the southwestern corner of the state and the northeastern portion (including Sundance and Newcastle) could very likely see wildfires this season.

“The northeastern portion of the state hasn’t had a major fire season since about 2016, so it’s due for one,” Schultz said.

He reminded visitors and residents of Wyoming to remember to practice certain fire safety rules, such as fully extinguishing campfires when leaving a site.

Additionally, keeping trees trimmed and firewood away from a home will help keep down fire risk at a person’s home, he said.

“Use common sense measures, keep your home in a general sense of order, observe good campfire practices, all of these things will reduce our wildfire risk,” he said.

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South Dakota Fire Grows In Size, But Also Containment

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The Schroeder Fire in South Dakota might have grown in size somewhat on Thursday, but so did its containment rate.

The fire grew to 2,224 acres on Thursday, but its containment level also reached 86%, according to the fire tracking website InciWeb.

Nearly 220 people are working to combat the fire as of Friday, an increase from 170 who were working on fire management on Thursday.

The plans for Friday were to determine when the last evacuation orders could be lifted. A red flag warning is in effect until Friday evening, and officials warned against potential fire hazards during the Easter weekend.

“The safety record has been outstanding, but it is important to continue to stay engaged and maintain awareness of your surroundings,” fire incident commander Matt Spring said.

Crews also planned to focus on mop-up operations and patrolling the fire line, protecting structures and rehabilitating containment lines from firefighting efforts.

There is now only one aircraft being used to combat the fire.

Smoke and flames were expected to be visible on Friday as the fire continued to consume unburned fuels within the fire’s interior, but this was normal.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

The fire was discovered Monday and grew rapidly near a heavily populated area in the burn scar of the 1988 Westberry Fire. The fire is located about three miles from Rapid City, South Dakota.

South Dakota Gov. Krisi Noem has declared a state of emergency in the face of the fire. Around 400 to 500 homes in the area were evacuated.

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