Western U.S. fire outlook predicted
More than 1.8 million acres have burned throughout all Western states this season, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). California has seen the most fire activity, closely followed by Arizona and Oregon.
The North American Seasonal Fire Assessment and Outlook (NASFAO) predicts above normal significant fire potential, especially for the Great Basin, Pacific Northwest and northern Rockies. Dry fuels and lightning remain a concern and will likely result in increased fire activity well into September, according to the NASFAO.
Fire patterns tied to weather cycles
land fires are closely tied to weather patterns, especially wet and dry cycles,” shares University of Wyoming State Extension Range Management Specialist Derek Scasta. “This year is more on the extreme end of the dry cycle.”
Scasta explains during wet years the likelihood of fires is decreased as grass and other fire fuels are greener, therefore containing more moisture. However, wet years also provide accumulations of fire fuels and dry years often follow years with above average precipitation.
“During dry years, we tend to see extreme weather, like we see this year,” says Scasta. “Higher temperatures and lower relative humidity are perfect conditions for fire. Warmer weather and lower humidity is contributing to the problems we see now.”
According to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s United States Drought Monitor, much of Wyoming is considered to be in a moderate to severe drought. Natrona, Johnson, Sheridan, Bighorn, Washakie and Hot Springs counties contain areas considered to be in extreme drought.
“What grass is there, is ready to burn,” Scasta warns.
“The possibility of fires can be attributed to weather, but also to the management of rangelands and forests,” says Scasta. “Evidence shows forests which have a lot of beetle kill have more stands of dead or dying trees and tend to have more frequent and larger fires.”
“For example, the 2016 Beaver Creek fire in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming blazed through beetle-killed areas and areas of unlogged, old timber where fuel load was high, but jumped over younger trees in areas that had been logged,” Scasta explains.
Scasta shares a quote from a rancher he worked with, “If we don’t graze it or log it, we can expect it to burn.”
Fire impact on ag
Just as fires have impacted air quality and have consequences on health, fires also have the potential to impact agricultural production.
“If fires burn on public grazing allotments, agencies often will defer grazing on the allotment for two years,” explains Scasta.
“Infrastructure damage and loss of hay reserves can make winter difficult for ranchers,” Scasta continues. “Livestock that get trapped in a pasture or corner by a wildfire can lead to a heavy death loss of animals.”
If an allotment or pasture burns, it is also important to monitor the area for invasive species, such as cheatgrass or Canada thistle, according to Scasta.
“If I go to a Wyoming ranch, it is not uncommon for them to also be the rural fire department,” says Scasta. Many producers respond to rural fires directly from their ranch. Scasta knows of at least three ranchers around the state who have been busy fighting wildfires.
“Producers should closely watch the relative humidity as a predictor of the possibility of fire,” shares Scasta. “If relative humidity is in the teens or single digits, fire fuel is ready to ignite at any minute.”
“Ranchers should pay extra attention to their activities such as welding, think about the causes of fire ignition and watch the horizon, particularly on days with extremely low humidity,” Scasta adds. “Sometimes our activities can cause accidental ignitions.”
Scasta recommends being mindful of activities that may cause ignition such as certain recreation and welding projects. He also recommends grazing or mowing around buildings, fuel storage tanks and haystacks as a preventative measure.
More preventative steps to protect the farm and ranch can be found in an Extension bulletin titled “Wildfire: Preparing the ranch and farm,” prepared by range and fire specialists and published by the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service.
Averi Hales is the editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.