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Wyoming wildfire outlook: average, with lots of brush to burn

While the formal forecast is “normal to average,” officials stress the need for vigilance amid an unusually busy March and April.

Fire officials and state leaders talk during the Wyoming Wildland Fire Interagency Briefing on May 31, 2024, in Cheyenne. (Madelyn Beck/WyoFile)

By Madelyn Beck

Wyoming faces an “average-to-normal” wildfire season forecast, state leaders and fire officials revealed Friday at an interagency briefing in Cheyenne.

“Northern Wyoming is currently the driest area in the state, and it is expected that northcentral Wyoming will have drought conditions probably … throughout the summer,” State Forester Kelly Norris said. “As summer continues, and our fuels in the grasslands and in the mountains dry out, we expect an uptick in fire activity, especially late summer and into the fall.”

When asked what “average” means, Norris told WyoFile that there is an equal chance of having a hot, fiery season and a more relaxed one, with around 800 anticipated fires.

“But we’ve already burned more acres this spring than we burned all of 2023 because we’ve had some pretty large grass fires,” she added. 

Among them was the Happy Jack Fire in March, which many saw as a harbinger for big fires to come. It burned 6,616 acres in southeast Wyoming, but only damaged three residences, according to emergency management personnel.

Even though the forecast seems somewhat hopeful, Norris said officials must stay vigilant. If they learned anything from the Happy Jack Fire, she added, it’s that there is a lot of brush to burn after all of last year’s precipitation.

“From my perspective, we have a substantial amount of fuel on the ground,” she said. “We grew a lot of fuel last year … And that is going to be the challenge we’re going to have to handle.”

With all the early fire dangers this year, Norris said state officials have already had to reassess resources to prepare for longer fire seasons. 

“We had counties go under fire restrictions in March, in April and May,” she said. “Many of them are lifted, but that’s something we had not seen and had never experienced before.”

As for seasonal wildland firefighters, Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service officials said they’re sufficiently staffed and ready for the season — even though the cost and availability of housing continues to create hiring challenges.

“We operate in really remote parts of the country, parts of the state. And sometimes the housing just isn’t there,” said Chris Campbell, the Forest Service’s deputy regional forester for the intermountain region. “Or it’s really old, and it’s not in good condition.”

Northwest Wyoming is particularly challenging for finding quality affordable housing and hiring seasonal firefighters, Wyoming BLM Director Andrew Archuleta and Campbell agreed. 

Meanwhile, the state’s six Helitack firefighters will be prepared to respond by helicopter from a ranch in Glenrock when fires do start. On average, they’ll be called out on around 40-45 missions a year, crew member Tommy Harvey said. And while his colleague Chris Norquist said they won’t really know how this fire year will go until it’s over, he has a feeling it’ll be an “average to busy year.” 

Five of the state six-man Helitack crew. (Madelyn Beck, WyoFile)

Prevention and planning

Again and again, speakers Friday asked the public to do what they can to prevent wildfires this year. 

“One of the most important components of making sure that we don’t have an aggressive fire season is that we as citizens take care,” Gov. Mark Gordon said. “That we don’t burn our trash and walk away. That we make sure that our forest fires are out. That we don’t do stupid things.”

About 85% of wildfires are human-caused, the BLM’s Archuleta said, adding that many of those types of unintentional fires happen around roads, towns and recreation areas.

“The public can really help by clearing and creating defensible space around homes, and really having an evacuation plan and being ready for the wildfire season,” he said. “But the number one thing is just being careful out there when you’re enjoying public lands. Putting out your campfires. Not tossing cigarettes. Things like that.”

At the same time, there has been significant work around the state to prevent fires from growing out of control by using treatments like prescribed burns.

“Through a variety of methods this last year, [the BLM] treated over 150,000 acres here in Wyoming for hazardous fuels,” Archuleta said. “A lot of that is in noxious weeds and pre-planned fires as well … We’re looking at treating about 85,000 acres this year.”

Campbell said his agency treated 134,000 acres of Forest Service land across the region over the last year via forest thinning, prescribed burns and working with other fire industry partners. And in Wyoming, the agency is on track for treating 18,000 acres by the end of this year. 

There have also been millions of federal grant dollars flowing into the state to help local communities and individuals to prepare for the worst.

“Recently, Wyoming received $1.75 million in grant funding from the U.S. Forest Service for large-scale fuels projects and mitigation planning across Wyoming,” Norris said. “Over the last three years, Wyoming has been awarded $5 million from competitive grants for 19 fuels mitigation projects across 13 counties, and that will complete critical field treatments on over 2,500 acres of private, in-state lands.”

Some grant money is going directly into creating community wildfire protection plans, Norris told WyoFile. Other communities are working to knock on doors and educate landowners about preventative measures.

“We’re [getting] new landowners,” she said. “And so it’s a constant, right? It doesn’t stop just because we did a wildfire prevention program five years ago.”

But to further prepare for major fires, many speakers pointed to a newly reconstructed base at the Casper airport that will house single-engine air tankers and be able to accommodate heavy air tankers, too. 

And finally, there are ongoing efforts to recruit more volunteer and paid firefighters around Wyoming. It’s something Shad Cooper — Sublette County Unified Fire chief and president of the Wyoming Rural Firefighters’ Association — said has been supported by recent efforts at the Wyoming Legislature. That included bills to allow for state employee leave to fight fires, provide cancer screening benefits and provide a health insurance option for volunteers, among many others. 

Fighting wildfires takes cooperation on every level from every agency, community and level of government, Cooper said.

“Everybody’s part of this because everybody’s affected by the problem,” he said. 

Gov. Mark Gordon shakes the hand of Frank Beum, who’s retiring after 43 years with the U.S. Forest Service. Wyoming State Forester Kelly Norris looks on. (Madelyn Beck/WyoFile)

Long-term outlook

Just a few days before officials announced Wyoming’s wildfire forecast, the Forest Service — in partnership with Headwaters Economics — performed its first major update of the models used to create national wildfire risk maps at wildfirerisk.org.

“The updates on wildfirerisk.com are using the latest available science, more recent data about vegetation and weather and buildings to give us a more precise and accurate picture of wildfire risk across the country,” said Kelly Pohl, associate director at Headwaters Economics.

That update shows what the analysts and researchers believe to be a more accurate assessment of fire danger — including higher risk in more places. As the climate changes, more communities are facing dangers, including those in higher elevations.

“All counties in Wyoming have at least moderate wildfire risk when compared to the whole country,” Pohl said. “And 86% of Wyoming’s population live in counties with high risk. So this is really a widespread issue across the state.”

(wildfirerisk.org)

The tool even includes a way to look at vulnerable populations who could be at higher risk if a fire blows through. 

“For example, you can look at where there might be neighborhoods with a high share of people who don’t speak English,” she said. “And so you might need to translate your resources and materials into other languages.”

But these maps don’t represent a week, month or year’s fire danger, but the danger over the long term, Pohl said.  

That may be helpful as fires increasingly pose a year-round danger to communities in the West, as officials reiterated on Friday.

“Our average season is really not average anymore,” Gordon said. “It’s all year round.”


This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.


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