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Understory, new fuels create tenuous start to fire season

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Casper – A rash of fires over the last weekend of July reminded many in Natrona County that fire season 2010 is upon us.
“We know there were five, and we think there were probably six,” says Natrona County Fire Chief Kevin Finn of the area’s fires, which were started by a passing storm cloud containing lightning on July 31. “One smoke column disappeared before anyone could find it, and two burned into one at one point.”
Two of the fires were large and easy to spot, burning west of Bar Nunn and north of Casper. Finn says the fleet of four fires in the Emigrant Gap/Poison Spider area west of town was more remote and harder to get to. 
“In Emigrant Gap, one side of the ridge you access from Poison Spider, and the other you access from Highway 20/26, and if you’re on the wrong side of the ridge, you’re hiking,” says Finn.
In addition to the July 31 fires, Finn says there had been another also started by lightning July 30 in the Bessemer Bend area. To date, most of the fires in Natrona County have been on private land, and state or BLM involvement has been minimal.
Looking into the future, Finn says the BLM is bringing in extra resources, pre-staging three additional engines and two aerial retardant single engine aircraft and a portable batch plant to mix slurry at the Casper airport.
“Our predictions are we’ll have a difficult season this year,” notes Finn. “We carried over a lot of dried grasses from last year, which has made a thick understory in addition to what we grew this year. There’s a lot of fuel out there, and we are getting dry. It’s starting to turn brown, and we’re anticipating an active season, although it’s hitting us a little later than normal. Fire season traditionally starts around July 4th.”
“Until we receive some moisture, we’ll have some difficult conditions,” he adds. “Between the grasshoppers and wildfires, hopefully we’ll still have some grass left for the ranchers.”
Finn says the grasshopper activity is amazing around the fires. “When we get around the fires, the grasshoppers tend to come out in the smoke columns, which is where we also tend to work. It’s like working in a wall of grasshoppers, with the way they move in front of the fires,” he says.
“The best advice is to report early,” says Finn of any fires spotted on the landscape. “If you see a smoke column, report it. The earlier we know about it, the better off we’ll be.”
He also adds that ranchers and farmers should make sure to clear the weeds from around their structures, creating defensible space. “The more they can give us, the better chance we’ll have of saving buildings, machinery and corrals,” says Finn. “That gives us the chance to get in there and keep the fire off.”
Finn says haystack fires like the one pictured at right are almost impossible to put out, because the fire gets down inside the stack seven to nine feet, and water only penetrates the top six inches. “You can’t get to the fire, short of tearing the stack apart, and then you end up with so much material spread out that if you miss one spark you’re back the next day,” he says.
He says the strategy on haystack fires is to move as much unaffected hay away from the fire as possible, then stand back and let it burn.
For more information about fire safety on rangelands and how to clear defensible space, visit Christy Hemken is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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