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State Forester Says It Could Be A Robust Fire Season

Forest fire burning up trees
U.S. Forest Service
Wyoming's 2020 Mullen fire

Forecasters predict that by late summer Wyoming may have another rugged fire season. Some early fires are showing signs that those forecasts may be spot on. State Forester Bill Crapser joined us to discuss that and how they are planning to address things.

Bob Beck: We're already starting to see some fires happening across the state. Anything there that gives you cause for concern?

Bill Crapser: Right now we're a little bit ahead of where we were last year. So that's concerning the way last year turned out. Predictive Services, which is the interagency group that looks at fuels, weather, and predicts what they think is going to happen in the summer, they're saying that in June and July, most of the state will be in the high end of a normal fire season. But for August, they have the entire state in an above-average fire season. So we're pretty concerned about where we're going to be going this summer.

BB: Now that it strikes me as interesting, you just said the entire state. There are times that I recall where you've discussed areas of the state that are a greater concern. Is it unusual to say that the entire state is a problem?

BC: Yeah, it really is. This year, it seems like the high fire danger is kind of building from the southwest and moving across the state. But the large fires we're having right now are in the northeastern part of the state. So it's kind of counter what the predictive folks are saying. So it really all comes down to about a five-day weather pattern. As you know, Bob, in Wyoming, we're five days away from a drought. If we get hot, dry weather for five days, it's dried out. So short spurts of hot, dry weather can really make a difference in fire and fire behavior.

BB: I know you pay attention to the weather over the winter and spring. Did anything happen over those months that led you to believe that we might have a particular fire season?

BC: Overall, we had a fairly dry winter until those late spring snowstorms. If you look at the northern tier part of the state, they didn't get a lot of moisture. So they're really dry right now. In the Black Hills area between Newcastle and Buffalo, that whole string across Campbell County is really, really dry right now. The good part of that is they have fewer fine fuels. In a lot of the state, like here in the southeast, we had a fairly wet spring. And we have a lot of fine fuels grown on a lot of grasses. And then they're expecting a hot dry band to come through. So those grasses will (dry) out. So it's kind of a catch 22 ,if you have a dry spring, you're setting yourself up for an early fire season. If you have a wet spring, you get a lot of fine fuels. So if the weather changes in June and July, you have a lot of fuel out there.

BB: During a news conference this week, it was mentioned that you might have more resources available to you, which would be important if things get bad. Can you tell me a little bit about that and how that might help?

BC: Well, there's a couple of things. Last year, partially because of COVID, partially because of the way the season was shaking out, we got the okay from the governor and the state (to add) some single-engine air tankers, which is the first time the state has (added) those resources. We're able to do that again this year. Last year, they made an incredible difference keeping fires small. They were available for an initial attack across the state to get some retardant on a fire in a hurry. We also, as we've had for several years, our state helicopters that comes on next week and will be available. The other resources that are kind of over and above what are normally there, the Forest Service and the BLM both got a little bit of extra money and they're putting what they call surge resources in place. So there's a couple heavy helicopters that will be available in Wyoming that aren't normally stationed here. That really made a difference last year having those. I'm guessing it's going to make a difference again this year. The problem with the federal resources when the whole rest of the West starts lighting up, which it is predicted to do. Those federal resources are national federal resources, so they can get pulled away out of the state for other fires. Where the state resources, like the single engineer tankers in our heli-attack, are committed to stay in the state.

BB: One of the things that we learned last year, because of COVID-19, a lot of people want to do stuff outside. So they went outdoors and we're already hearing that there could be some big numbers of visitors in the state. And already we're hearing about some incidents. For instance, Bridger Teton (National Forest) mentioned that people were leaving campfires abandoned and things like that. What are the things that scare you that people might do that might not be helpful?

BC: You know, 15 years ago, over half the wildfires in Wyoming were lightning-caused fires. And we had on average, probably 500 to 600 fires a year, during an average year. Last year, we had over 1,200 reported fires in the state, and 84 percent of them were human-caused. So the switch from mostly natural caused fire to human-caused fires is real concerning to us. We're seeing a lot of fires and like the Bridger Teton report, people are being pretty careless with campfires, leaving campfires unattended. Last year we saw quite a few starts from fireworks, we saw quite a few starts from exploding targets, and ricochets when people out target practicing. And then the normal people "starts" from safety chains on trailers dragging on the highway, catalytic converters, all that sort of thing. But I think as we get more and more people recreating outdoors, I think somehow they've kind of lost the thought process of... that this fuel can actually start a fire and I have to be careful with what I'm doing.

BB: Is there any public information campaign, other than obviously this fine program here, that has worked in other places that could turn this around?

BC: You know, nationally, of course, it's state foresters in conjunction with the Forest Service that are the Smokey Bear people and use Smokey Bear in the whole Smokey Bear campaign. There's been a lot of training that we've worked on with other states on being fire-wise, fire aware. For as small an outfit we have, the Wyoming state forestry division does have a fairly big social media presence with a lot of fire prevention. My people tell me a lot of people are watching our social media and I think a lot of that is important. I think a lot of it is people just understanding and using some common sense when they're out and about.

BB: As a final question, as you head into this busy season, what is the approach you take?

BC: We are pretty much in the same position of being as aggressive as we can in the initial attack, but maintaining that our firefighter safety and public safety is our number one priority. But we've tried to do some things, several of the National Forests that we've worked with real close are doing what we're calling fire pods. And some preseason work, if we have a fire in this area, how are we going to react? What are the resources that we are going to try to bring to bear? So we do a lot more of that than we did in the old days. The problem always gets when you get in the thick of it, especially with small organizations, it's easy to run out of people in a big hurry. We used to have a mentality years ago that people could run forever and we ran people probably a lot (harder) than we should. We're really trying now to make sure our folks are aggressive and they hit things hard and we take care of fires. But that they don't overextend themselves and put themselves, or other people in jeopardy.

Bob Beck retired from Wyoming Public Media after serving as News Director of Wyoming Public Radio for 34 years. During his time as News Director WPR has won over 100 national, regional and state news awards.
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