Fire season hits hard in WyoWritten by Saige Albert
“When I appeared before the Joint Agriculture Committee in May, I told you I thought it was going to be a slightly above average fire season,” Crapser told the Federal Natural Resources Committee at it’s Aug. 14 meeting. “I must be the master of understatement.”
Scope of fire
“Normally we have three to four large fires in a normal season,” Crapser explained. “We have had 25 large fires this year.”
Of those fires, six type one or type two incident management teams have been deployed in the state, more than the state has ever seen.
Nearly 100 structures have been destroyed thus far this fire season, including 35 residences. Crapser noted that nearly half of the homes were the primary residence of families.
“When we have a fire in Wyoming, it gets reported to one of two places – the county 911 dispatcher, or if a forest service or state employee spots the fire, it will get called into interagency dispatch centers around the state,” explained Crapser.
After a fire is called into a county dispatch center, local county fire departments are deployed and the interagency dispatch center is contacted.
“For fires on Forest Service or BLM, counties still do the initial attack until Forest Service or BLM get there to take over or assist heavily,” Crapser continued. “It is important to remember that 98 percent of fires have been caught in the initial attack. In the first 12 hours, the fire is contained or suppressed.”
Because initial attack decisions were made more quickly this year due to extreme conditions, Crapser noted that successful fire containment or suppression have been increased.
“From a cost standpoint, it helps,” Crapser said of quick initial attack. “We get in and spend a little more upfront, but we spend less in the long run.”
While 98 percent of fires are caught on initial attack, Crapser mentioned that the remaining two percent of fires account for between 92 and 93 percent of spending for fire suppression.
The Wyoming fire suppression account includes 20 counties across the state. When counties experience fires, they can utilize the fund after a floor cost is met. Crapser said that floor cost could include things like initial attack resources and equipment, for example.
“Then we enter a cost-share agreement, which spells out, based on ownership, what the cost for each of the parties would be,” he explained. “Collectively, Forest Service, Parks Service, BLM, state and counties have spent over $70 million on fires this year.”
While final numbers won’t be in until the fire season is complete, Crapser estimated that the state is responsible for approximately $28 million currently.
“We’ve been working very closely with the government and members of the appropriations committee to put funds together,” he said, noting that the fire suppression account only contains about $6 million.
Despite the cost, fires must be contained to save both the landscape and private property.
“We have also been able to utilize federal resources, and our state resources have been kept busy,” Crapser said of the resources required to contain fires, specifically mentioning the helitack unit. “We utilize both Forest Service and BLM fire crew members on our helitack crew, and they have flown 38 fires so far this summer.”
The previous record for fires flown by helitack is 32 fires in an entire season, and Crapser said, “In one day this year, our helitack crew was on five fires.”
Aside from the helitack crew, Crapser has a team of 50 members that help, and when fires exceed local abilities, additional teams are brought in.
“We have had 4,000 firefighters from all over the country come to Wyoming,” Crapser mentioned.
In bringing in teams that have never worked together, Crapser said, “This summer has been really hectic. It has also strengthened relationships. Our interagency fire system works pretty good.”
Crapser continued, “Our fire system, how the system works and how we work together has been pretty amazing this summer. We couldn’t have had the success we have had without BLM and Forest Service in lockstep with us.”
The rest of fire season
Crapser also noted that we are about midway through this year’s fire season.
“Normally, we have a fairly active fire season until September,” Crapser added. “They have forecasted that through September to mid-October, we will see about normal fire behavior.”
Recently, however, he added that humidity and changes in weather have decreased fires in Wyoming.
“In June and early July, we had a 94 to 95 percent ignition probability,” Crapser said. “That means that with any spark has a 94 percent chance it will ignite.”
With humidity and cooler temperatures in the last several weeks, ignition probability has dropped to the mid-70 percent range.
“We have had a drying trend in the last week, and we are seeing more activity,” he added.
In order to better prepare and suppress fires, federal and local agencies signed a cooperative agreement. The agreement is a five year document, signed by the Forest Service, the Department of the Interior agencies, the Governor of Wyoming and Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser.
“The agreement basically lays out how we work together, how we charge each other for cost and how we define prescribed and escaped fires,” said Crapser, detailing a few of the items covered by the agreement. “At State Forestry, we sign an agreement with each county on how they agree to concur.”
The framework also defines how agencies work together, including decision making strategies.
Rick Cooksey, deputy forest supervisor on the Medicine Bow/Routt National Forest, added, “The purpose of this agreement is to document the commitment of the parties to improve efficiency by facilitating the coordination and exchange of personnel and equipment and in sustaining wildland fire activities.”
Cooksey continued, mentioning that the agreement was signed earlier this spring and has been vital to fire prevention, fire preparedness, fuels treatments and hazard mitigation, as well as suppression response and burned area rehabilitation.