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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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Schroeder Fire Grows Slightly, Now Only A Mile From Rapid City

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The Schroeder wildfire in South Dakota has grown slightly, inching closer to Rapid City, but firefighters have a containment line around nearly half of the blaze.

The fire affected 2,200 acres but was at a 47% containment rate of as Thursday, three days after it was first discovered, according to fire tracking website InciWeb.

Around 170 people were fighting the fire, including the Rocky Mountain Blue Team, an emergency management team, according to spokesman Chris Zoller, who spoke during a Thursday morning briefing.

“The firefighters are getting a great handle on doing mop-up operations, they’re cleaning up fuels along the edge of the line, they’re putting water down where they have to,” Zoller said.

On Thursday, firefighters planned to continue protecting structures throughout the fire area and constructing and improving fire lines on the northern and southern edges of the fire perimeter, Zoller said.

Smoke and flames may be visible as the fire consumes unburned fuels within its interior, which is normal and expected.

However, red flag warnings were in effect in the area due to hot, dry and windy conditions. Wind gusts of 25 to 30 mph were expected Thursday.

Crews planned to watch for changing fire conditions as the wind shifted directions on Thursday.

The fuels in the area (timber and dead grass) are dry, which creates an ideal condition for rapid fire growth, Zoller said.

However, Zoller didn’t seem too worried about the red flag warning.

“We’re going to be nowhere near what we were Monday as far as the elevated fire danger,” he said. “We’re right in the very bottom of that red flag warning criteria.”

Officials warned people in the area to take extra care in order to prevent igniting a wildfire while recreating outdoors, such as avoiding parking over tall grasses, ensuring tools and vehicles are equipped with spark arresters and being careful with campfires and other ignition sources.

Mount Rushmore was closed to visitors on Tuesday and Wednesday, but reopened on Thursday. However, the Iron Mountain Road near the monument was closed to traffic on Thursday to allow firefighters to continue mop-up operations.

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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Firefighters Combat South Dakota Wildfire

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A 2,100-acre wildfire burning west of Rapid City, South Dakota, is currently almost halfway contained, after being discovered just two days ago.

The Schroeder Fire was 47% contained as of Wednesday morning, according to fire tracking website InciWeb. Around 250 people were fighting the fire.

The containment rate has stayed the same for about 24 hours.

The fire started sometime Monday morning, however, its cause is still unknown.

On Wednesday, firefighters planned to focus on protecting structures throughout the fire area and constructing and improving fire lines on the northern and southern areas of the fire’s perimeter.

However, gusty winds of up to 29 miles per hour were expected to present a challenge for the day.

Overnight crews were to continue patrolling and monitoring fire activity around structures and private property.

Currently, six aircraft are being used to combat the fire by dropping fire retardant on the flames.

On Monday, the Pennington County, South Dakota, Sheriff’s Office confirmed at least one home and two pole barns had been lost in the fire. According to KOTA TV, around 400 to 500 homes have been evacuated.

South Dakota Gov. Krisi Noem has declared a state of emergency in the face of the fire.

Due to the smoke and fire, Mount Rushmore even closed to visitors both Tuesday and Wednesday.

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Last Day of National Elk Refuge Feeding Set For Monday

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By Tom Ninnemann, Cowboy State Daily

The National Elk Refuge will end its supplemental feed program for elk on Monday, about four days earlier than average and about two weeks earlier than closure dates in years with similar snowpack depths.

Refuge Biologist Eric Cole explained the early closure is part of the refuge’s “Step-Down Plan” adopted in 2019. The plan is aimed at modifying elk distribution so fewer elk winter on the National Elk Refuge and reducing wildlife disease transmission.

A major part of the plan is reducing the feed season length on the refuge.

“Because we know the relationship between daily snowpack depth on the south end of the National Elk Refuge and when we ended feeding in the past, we can use that relationship to estimate a feeding end date that is two weeks early,” Cole said.

Cole explained that based on current snow conditions at Refuge Headquarters, feeding would have typically continued until April 12.

In recent days there have been approximately 8,500 elk and 300 bison on feed at The Refuge.

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14-Year-Old Causes 4-Acre Grass Fire In Gillette; Comes Within 100 Yards From Houses

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By Ryan Lewallen, County 17

Firefighters were able to extinguish a four-acre grass fire Monday afternoon 100 yards from a series of houses and structures on Highway 14-16, fire authorities said Wednesday.

The fire was reportedly started by a 14-year-old juvenile around noon March 15, who is believed to have been playing with a lighter and paper outside a residence, according to Battalion Chief Bryan Borgialli with the Campbell County Fire Department (CCFD).

“He was doing something that he wasn’t supposed to be doing and wasn’t able to keep it under control,” Borgialli said March 17. “This was the result of a bad decision.”

It could have been worse. The recent incident consumed only grass but it could have been anything with conditions being as they are, according to Borgialli.

Things are drier than usual across Campbell County with the mild winter; any moisture the area may have received over the last few days could disappear at a moment’s notice should the weather improve, Borgialli said.

“It’s pretty sensitive out there,” he noted. “All the fuels are dead from last summer and are ready to burn.”

The area is in a shoulder season—that part of the year between the end of a dry summer and the beginning of a green spring—which means any fire could get out of control if residents are not careful, according to Borgialli.

Fires need to be attended to at all times, he said. Any plans to burn should be reported to the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office, which will notify the CCFD, before anything is ignited.

Residents need to report where they are burning, what they are burning, and how long they will be burning, Borgialli said.

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Western Voters Increasingly Concerned About Wildfires, Support Funding Conservation, Poll Finds

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By Derek Draplin, The Center Square

Voters across the Mountain West states are increasingly concerned about wildfires and continue to support funding conservation efforts, according to a survey of eight states.

Colorado College on Thursday released its State of the Rockies Project poll, which gauges voter opinion on public lands and conservation issues and policies in eight Western states: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.

“We are seeing strong voter concern for nature, which is translating into calls for bold action on public lands in the West,” said Colorado College Assistant Professor Katrina Miller-Stevens, the project’s director. “If federal and state policy leaders are looking for direction on public lands, the view from the West is clear.” 

The poll found that 61% of respondents are worried for the future of nature, compared to 36% who are hopeful. A large majority (91%) also agreed their state should still fund conservation despite budget concerns. 

When it comes to wildfires, which ravaged several states over the summer, 71% of respondents said wildfires are “more of a problem” than a decade ago. Of those voters, 42% attributed the wildfires to climate change and 40% attributed them to drought. 

The wildfire mitigation actions that voters most supported were the removal of brush and dead trees (94%) and the use of controlled burns (91%), the poll found.

On oil and gas development on public lands, 59% of respondents said development should be “strictly limited”; 14% said “stop all” development; and 25% said “expand” development.

In Colorado, 70% of voters preferred their representative in Congress “emphasize conservation and recreation on public lands over maximizing the amount of land available for responsible energy development.” That number compares to 65% of voters in New Mexico, and 47% of voters in Wyoming, a state with significant oil and gas development that takes place on public land. 

The opinion poll comes as the President Joe Biden has prioritized combating climate change during the first weeks of his administration. 

Biden rejoined the Paris Climate Accord, revoked the Keystone XL pipeline’s permit, and last week signed an executive order halting all new leases for oil and natural gas development on federal land. 

The federal lease moratorium drew criticism from states like Wyoming, which brought in $1.67 billion in revenue from the industry in 2019, and industry groups that said the move would kill jobs and hurt the country’s energy independence.

The poll, which is in its 11th edition, surveyed approximately 400 registered voters in each of the eight states, and was conducted between January 2-13, 2021. It was conducted by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, a Democratic polling firm, and New Bridge Strategy, a Republican firm.

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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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