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Fuels, firefighters and funding: Wyoming prepares for increasingly longer fire seasons

Forester and Smokey Bear stand in front of a wildland fire truck.
Jordan Uplinger
Wyoming Public Media
Smokey Bear and a member of the State Forest Division look on as Gov. Mark Gordon speaks nearby.

Firefighters, state officials, and a helicopter attack crew all socialized in a forest service maintenance shop in Cheyenne. To each side of the podium, they’d parked ambulances and first responder vehicles. Gov. Mark Gordon was in attendance and Smokey Bear was expected to arrive later in the morning. And with that, the wildland fire press conference was ready to begin. Kelly Norris, Wyoming’s state forester, stepped up to speak.

I want to thank Governor Gordon … Smokey, you can come right on over here,” said Norris, before introducing more speakers.

Norris said the northeast corner of the state is going to be particularly dry this year, alongside drought conditions in northcentral Wyoming. She also said that Wyoming can expect to have a normal to average fire season. But that’s still a lot of fires. Around 800 wildfires are predicted this year. However, Norris also recognizes Wyoming’s strongest asset in fighting those hundreds of fires: a bunch of local, state, and federal agencies working together.

“Wyoming takes an ‘all hands, all lands’ approach to wildland fire suppression,” said Norris. “Interagency coordination is important for Wyoming.”

The Governor speaks at a Press Conference alongside two other state officials.
Jordan Uplinger
Wyoming Public Media
As Gov. Mark Gordon speaks, Wyoming State Forester Kelly Norris and Sublette County Firefighter Chief Shad Cooper listen.

These agencies have already coordinated on large-scale firefighting efforts earlier this year. The Happy Jack Fire saw over 6,000 acres burn. Seven fire districts, four local fire rescues, the U.S. Forest Service and the American Red Cross, among others, responded.

Cooperation is Wyoming’s weapon. And the targets: reduce fuels, recruit firefighters and ramp up funding. Let’s start with fuels, or combustible material. Vegetation in large, dry amounts creates highly flammable sources for wildfires.

Gov. Gordon said an invasive species is complicating the matter.

“When you look at things like cheatgrass, you can see what the fire danger is,” said Gordon. “If any of you have seen cheatgrass when it's dry, it's like gasoline, it just explodes. And if you put a wind behind that, you can have extraordinary property damage.”

To combat cheatgrass and the likes, Wyoming has received a plethora of funding – almost $7 million in private and public funds. Wyoming State Forester Norris said the funding was “successful” in treating 13 counties and 2,500 acres of public and private land. Gordon said the funds are also helpful for recruitment.

A large group of people stand around and talk outside of a fire dpeartment.
Jordan Uplinger
Wyoming Public Media
Helicopter pilots, state foresters, firefighters and members of the press talk after the conference.

“You know Wyoming has always relied a lot on its own volunteer firefighters,” said Gordon. “So it was a great thing this year to see recognition of the health benefits, recognition of how important it was to have proper compensation for what people are doing”.

Volunteer recruitment in general has been on the decline. Emergency first responder rates are down across the state and country. As a result, counties and towns have had to assist each other well outside their local areas. The Wyoming legislature has attempted to address the issue through several public assistance bills. Some of those bills were praised at the press conference, such as Senate File 3, which allows state employees who are emergency responders up to 24 hours a week to respond to emergency incidents; Senate File 8, which allows volunteers to access the state's group healthcare plan; and House Bill 66, which offers firefighter cancer screening benefits.

Individuals like Shad Cooper, the fire chief and county fire warden for Sublette County Unified, appreciate the Wyoming legislature making bills like this. It helps recruit and retain people in the extended fire seasons. According to Cooper, fire seasons weren’t always this long.

Fire seasons used to be in the summer months. I remember, you know, when I started in my career in the ‘90s, we scheduled it because we knew when we were going to be busy for a while … That's not the case anymore,” said Cooper.

Three wildland firetrucks parked together.
Jordan Uplinger
Wyoming Public Media
Three Wyoming Vehicles, to be used for wildfires and first response, are displayed near the press podium

Longer fire seasons do not necessarily mean more frequent or intense fire. But it does mean being prepared more often, through mitigation, training, pay rates and maintaining Wyoming’s helicopters and air tankers used to drop water on fires. State Forester Norris says the cost of fires will ultimately increase over time.

“It's getting more expensive because it's getting more year-round. We're needing more efficient equipment like aviation. We're needing engines. We're needing to bring in as much as we can and that's across the United States,” said Norris.

While agencies gear up and coordinate with Wyoming for fire season, Gordon has advice for the public this summer.

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: That we don't burn our trash and walk away, that we make sure our forest fires are out,” Gordon said. “That we don’t do stupid things”

Jordan Uplinger was born in NJ but has traveled since 2013 for academic study and work in Oklahoma, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. He gained experience in a multitude of areas, including general aviation, video editing, and political science. In 2021, Jordan's travels brought him to find work with the Wyoming Conservation Corps as a member of Americorps. After a season with WCC, Jordan continued his Americorps service with the local non-profit, Feeding Laramie Valley. His deep interest in the national discourse on class, identity, American politics and the state of material conditions globally has led him to his current internship with Wyoming Public Radio and NPR.
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