CASPER, Wyo. — Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon began the 2021 “Wyoming Wildfire Briefing” on Thursday with a moment of silence for Wyoming smokejumper Tim Hart.
Hart, a smokejumper from the West Yellowstone Smokejumper base in Montana, passed away June 2 from injuries sustained in a hard landing while responding to the Eicks Fire in Hildago County, New Mexico.
Later in the briefing on Thursday, Gordon highlighted the need for the public to exercise caution this summer with wildfire officials reporting slightly worse conditions heading into the 2021 season compared with 2020.
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U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region Deputy Regional Forester Jacque Buchanan said during the 2021 “Wyoming Wildfire Briefing” that there has been a 65-70% increase in the number of people using public lands in the wake of the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When we have the fire danger that we have…being careless with fireworks, as we might see in a month or so, can be devastating,” Gordon said during the briefing.
He added that people doing target practice this summer should be aware of ricochets and Gordon said that people should not “try to use Tannerite,” which is an explosive target used for firearms practice.
The governor said that every dollar which has to be spent on wildfire suppression takes away funding that could be spent on other purposes such as maintaining campgrounds, managing forests or constructing roads.
He added that wildfires can put people’s, particularly firefighters, lives at risk, adding: “It is incredible this summer how dangerous these fire conditions are.”
Gordon added that people living in rural areas need to be sure they have established a defensible fire perimeter “or you will lose it” if there is a fire. He added that people should also clean debris from around their properties and from off of their roof.
“You need to make sure that your house is fire safe, probably this year more than most years,” Gordon said.
Buchanan said during the press briefing that 2020 was a tough year: “2020 was an amazing year in not a good way.”
She said that the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region, which includes Wyoming, Colorado South Dakota, Kansas and Nebraska, saw nearly one million acres burn last fire season.
“That’s significant,” Buchanan said. “We broke the record for fire size three times in Colorado.”
She also pointed to the Mullen Fire which began in southeast Wyoming and grew into Colorado, burning about 176,000 acres: “That’s a significant wildfire.”
“The bad news is we burned a lot of acres,” Buchanan said. “The good news is we are probably better positioned today to respond, going into this 2021 year than we have been in a while because we had so much activity last year.”
She said that the U.S. Forest Service in the Rocky Mountain Region has 525 firefighters available this season. They have five type one hotshot crews which Buchanan said “make or break the difference sometimes.”
Because of the 2020 wildfire season, Buchanan said the Forest Service has also added surge capacity for this season, including “four additional type 1 aircraft that will be operating here in this region.” One is based out of Laramie.
Buchanan said that while the increasing use of public lands does add to wildfire risk, she doesn’t want to discourage people from getting outdoors.
“That’s great because they are public lands and they are for the American citizens to enjoy but with that came a whole lot more additional risk around fire starts and potential for human-caused fire,” she said. “We still want folks out there.”
Buchanan added that response to wildfires does not end when the fire is out, noting that burn scar areas such as those caused by the Mullen Fire require a “tremendous amount of work.”
She said that it is better to see some rainfall in such areas “but not torrential downpours” which can lead to flooding in burn scars with soil exposed and unsecured by vegetation.
Buchanan said it is important to work to treat the land before unintentional wildfires get started. She said Wyoming has been a strong partner in conducting prescribed burns and that leading into the 2021 season, a lot of acres have been successfully treated but that a lot more is needed.
U.S. Forest Service Northern and Inter-mountain Region Director of State and Private Forestry Tim Garcia said that his sections of the agency has a total of 1,700 firefighters available. He added that 20 large air tankers are available nationally which are pre-positioned based on wildfire threat levels.
He said the Northern and Inter-mountain Regions have 12 hotshot crews and 139 engines along with 38 helicopters. Garcia added that such resources can be shifted around between regions based on need.
The resources the Northern and Inter-mountain Regions “sit in home bases in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and Idaho,” Garcia added.
Garcia said that with drought conditions across most of the west, some of the early season fires have burned with “heavy fuels that are much more receptive to fire.”
He said that is likely an indicator of what the regions will be dealing with as the fire season progresses.
Garcia said fire agencies are really asking for the public’s help this year to do everything they can to avoid starting human-caused fires.