A mid-October snow dump put an early end to this year’s fire season. 

The Bighorn National Forest, the Bureau of Land Management and the county all lifted their fire restrictions after an Oct. 13 snowstorm dropped 18 inches in Buffalo, according to the National Weather Service. Agencies are now turning their attention to prescribed burns and pile burning. Land managers in and around Johnson County anticipated an active season after the Robinson fire that sparked in early June — the first Type 2 fire since 2003. Despite high temperatures and dry conditions, the anticipated busy season did not materialize within county lines, and the fire near Robinson Canyon that burned for a little more than two weeks and more than 1,000 acres would be the county’s only major fire, according to Kelly Norris, Wyoming State Forestry District 5 forester. 

As a whole, however, Norris’ district — which includes Johnson, Sheridan and Campbell counties — had its busiest fire season yet, she said. In Johnson County, the weather patterns coming out of Montana did not lead to as many lightning strikes like the one that started the Robinson fire.

“We tend to get a lot of dry lightning between the border of Montana and Wyoming, and Johnson County either gets to be a part of it, or it stays north,” Norris said. “And we were definitely a part of it in June. But then it seemed to move a little bit more north, or it didn’t really build until it made it into Campbell County.”

BLM High Plains District fire manager Craig Short said the season in northeastern Wyoming was on par with the 10-year average in terms of fire occurrence and well below average in terms of acreage. Johnson County’s BLM-managed lands alone, though, had a slow season, he said. 

Norris said she credits the mild season not only to the lack of dry lightning but also to agencies implementing fire restrictions early, leading to fewer human-caused ignitions. 

“I was beyond pleased with not only our private landowners but all of our recreationalists, local and beyond, really adhering to the fire restrictions,” she said. “Everybody brought up gas propane instead of having a campfire, and I think that’s why we had a great year in Johnson County after the Robinson fire.”

Most years, fire restrictions don’t start until early August, according to Jon Warder, the forest’s fire management officer. This year, the forest, the BLM and the county all enacted fire restrictions during the Robinson fire.

“That was just unheard of for us,” Warder said. 

On the forest, Warder said, there were roughly 10 fires throughout the season. Typically, there are between 20 and 30. According to the Casper Interagency Dispatch Center, which covers the BLM’s High Plains District and High Desert District in southern Wyoming, there have been 330 wildfires in the region this year as of Oct. 18. 

Warder said the forest’s fire management this year was aided by a Type 1 helicopter that moved into the region. 

“In early July, when we were starting to pick up fires, having that kind of asset readily respond and dump copious amounts of water on a fire is what saved us from having a couple other big ones,” he said.

The Crater Ridge fire outside of Sheridan was the agency’s “biggest headache,” he said, burning more than 7,600 acres since July 17, according to the Wyoming Type 3 Incident Management Team on the fire. 

“It’s just a lot of work on the local unit, because you’re bringing in new folks every two weeks, so you’ve got to get people all briefed up,” Warder said. “The hardest part with that fire was its remoteness and the steep terrain down there. We couldn’t just put firefighters in there to put it out, it just was not safe to do so.”

The snow extinguished the blaze over the weekend once the snow penetrated the tree canopy, Warder said.

Throughout the season, forest staff was also responsible for supporting other fires ongoing throughout the West, Warder said. The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, predicted “above normal” fire activity potential for Wyoming in August and “normal” activity in June and July due to dry conditions and high temperatures, according to previous Bulletin reporting. 

For Norris and State Forestry, much of their fire-related work in Johnson County this season has been focused on fire prevention in remote areas. Though the Robinson fire did not destroy any structures, the blaze burned near hundreds of cabins, she said.

“Come August, we were receiving two to three calls a day from cabin owners wanting us to come out and take a look at their property, help them look at defensible space,” Norris said. 

Now, Norris, Warder and Short are readying for a different kind of fire season that consists of prescribed burns and pile burning. The precipitation threatens the successes of these planned fires that aim to lessen the effects of fires come summertime.

Short said that the BLM is planning a burn in western central Johnson County, but whether or not it happens is weather-dependent. When the agency is unable to carry out prescribed fires, mechanical treatments such as thinning and logging are less effective than they would be, he said. 

The U.S. Forest Service planned to do a burn at Meadowlark Lake a few weeks ago that was ultimately unsuccessful, because one day was too dry and the next brought rain, Warder said.

“I will be surprised if we get another burn window,” he said. 

Despite the cold and snow, fires are still possible, land managers remind residents. Norris said that landowners who plan to burn piles should first notify the sheriff’s office and then stay with those fires to ensure all they burn out completely. Recreationists should also make sure campfires are fully out before leaving them. Drivers should check their chains and tire pressure, because roadside fires are still possible, Short said.

 

Sidebar:

 

HED: BLM, Forest Service to burn slash piles this fall

 

The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service plan to burn slash piles this fall and winter on public lands, the agencies announced.

In Johnson County, the BLM plans to burn beginning in October through April 2022 in Billy Creek. Pile burning is contingent on fuel moistures and weather conditions on site, the agency said in a press release. Smoke may be visible from surrounding areas during burning operations.

The BLM provides a public slash disposal site to homeowners in the Billy Creek area, which is intended for noncommercial use and can accommodate branches and small trees. Excavated stumps are not allowed in the pile because they are difficult to burn, the agency says.

Fire officials are planning pule burning in the Bighorn National Forest, the Forest Service announced. In the Powder River District, piles are in Dullknife, Caribou Creek, Grommund Creek, Summer Home areas, Poison Creek and Brush Creek areas. 

Smoke may be visible from communities surrounding these burns, the agencies say. 

Alex joined the Bulletin in March 2021 and covers health care, energy and natural resources. Reach out with ideas or comments at alex@buffalobulletin.com.

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