Early fire season starts in WyoWritten by Saige Albert
After a fire swept across rangelands on March 24 near Chugwater, Wyoming ranchers are considering the impacts of a lack of recent moisture and looking at what that might mean for the upcoming fire season.
The fire covered just shy of 2,000 acres, says Fire Management Officer Ron Graham with the Wyoming State Forestry Division, and reports have indicated that it may have been started by lighting, though an investigation has not been conducted.
“There were eyewitnesses who saw lightning and saw the fire start. That isn’t overly common this time of year,” Graham explains. “This time of year the majority of fires are human caused – whether through equipment use, burning or other activities.”
Graham mentions that, while the State Forestry Division doesn’t focus on predicting fires, it is slightly earlier than normal to see fires of this size, though it isn’t unheard of.
“Part of why we are seeing this situation is that we had fairly adequate moisture in the last couple of years, which tends to grow a lot of grass,” he explains. “This spring, we have a lot of fine fuels that are cured out and dead.”
With plenty of dry, dead grass across the range, coupled with a lack of snowpack, Graham notes that susceptibility for fire increases. At the same time, recent moisture has been lacking, and the ground is dry.
“We’ve had warm, windy days, and the conditions are right for the spring, pre-green-up fire season,” he says. “It has been more active in some areas with a couple of fairly large fires by now.”
This year, Graham notes that conditions are also deceptive.
“Fine fuel fires are the primary carrier for fire spread,” he mentions. “When there is adequate fuel, fires spread quickly and unpredictably.”
Fine fuel fires are also characterized by frequent wind shifts, which can create problems in extinguishing the blaze.
Richard Emmanuel, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service Office in Cheyenne, comments, “Conditions are such that our forecasters expect fire weather conditions.”
In southeast Wyoming in particular, the National Weather Service has issued elevated and critical fire risk warnings over the last week.
The current fire risk can be found by visiting spc.noaa.gov. This resource, called the Fire Weather Outlook, is updated several times each day and is determined based on relative humidity, wind conditions and presence of dry fuels.
“Individual offices issue fire weather watches and red flag warnings with more detailed information,” Emmanuel adds.
For the coming year, it is still difficult to predict what fire season might look like.
“We don’t try to predict what the season will look like right now because it can quickly change,” Graham says. “Right now, it is very dry and trending to be an average to slightly above average fire season. A couple of good storms in late March, April and early May could significantly change the outlook.”
He also mentions that long-term predictive services at the National Interagency Fire Center have predicted that Wyoming will likely have a normal fire season, over the long-term.
Their prediction is updated on a monthly basis.
Graham also looked at the fires seen in Wyoming over the past several years, noting that establishing “normal” is a challenge, especially in looking at the last five year’s data.
“Last year was way below average,” he says. “2013 was slightly below average, but 2012 was on the extreme end of above average. 2011 was also slightly above average.”
Graham also notes that often, between 750 and 1,000 fires can be expected.
“These are only fires that are officially reported,” he adds. “We know that fire departments and county fire programs respond to many more fires.”
He continues, “The majority of these fires are very small – less than 10 acres. Ten percent or fewer of our fires are large fires.”
The agriculture industry occasionally utilizes fire and burning in their management, and Graham notes that the State Forestry Division understands these practices. However, he encourages farmers and ranchers to take some precautions.
“We ask that farmers and ranchers take a common sense approach and don’t burn on extremely windy days or when there are fire weather watches and warnings,” Graham mentions. “When in doubt, contact the local fire department or State Forestry Office for advice and approval.”
In the event that a fire occurs, Graham emphasizes, “Don’t hesitate to call if there is a fire. Calling for help is more effective sooner rather than later.”