Wyoming wildfire pushes into Washakie Wilderness

2011-07-26T19:31:00Z 2011-07-30T18:16:23Z Wyoming wildfire pushes into Washakie Wilderness

By MARTIN KIDSTON

The Billings Gazette

Casper Star-Tribune Online

CODY - The Norton Point fire on Tuesday continued to push into the Washakie Wilderness, where crews are planning an infrared flight to measure the fire’s latest perimeter.

Driven by stiff winds and fed by stands of beetle-killed trees, the lightning-sparked fire expanded to more than 3,500 acres Tuesday, up from 2,200 the day before.

The fire’s steady growth prompted forest officials to close much of the southern Washakie Wilderness, including those areas accessed from Double Cabin on the south end and Kirwin to the northeast.

“The fire is active today and we do expect to see some growth when we get our new information,” fire information officer Sarah Gallup said Tuesday evening. “We now have one helicopter on the fire and a total of 60 firefighters on the ground.”

The helicopter and firefighters arrived at the fire Tuesday, along with a Type II incident management team, which is now managing the blaze.

Gallup said ground crews have been deployed to the fire line, where they’re working to keep the blaze from creeping south in the direction of Double Cabin and surrounding campgrounds.

“That’s the one direction we don’t want the fire to go,” Gallup said. “As the fire widens out, that task will grow bigger, but for now, they’re managing the line just fine.”

The incident team has not requested any resources beyond what’s currently working the fire. Additional crews are available if they become necessary, Gallup said.

The area’s fuel indices, while high, are far from extreme. But stands of beetle-killed trees have given the fire plenty of fuel to burn, and steady winds have fanned the fire’s spread.

“Most of the management right now is point protection,” Gallup said. “We got a recon flight in today and they’re working on placing a radio repeater so crews on the ground have better communication.”

Despite a wet spring and a prolonged snowmelt, the fire danger across northern Wyoming and south-central Montana, including Yellowstone National Park, has inched up over the past week.

Jon Warder, fire management officer for the Big Horn National Forest near Sheridan, said the fire danger there was elevated to “high” on Sunday, the same day the Norton Point fire grew to 300 acres.

“Our large fuels are pretty dry, actually, and would support a fire,” Warder said. “We definitely track the lightning that comes through in the afternoons.”

Warder said no natural starts have occurred in the Big Horn National Forest this year, where the biggest threat remains abandoned campfires. Leaving a campfire unattended could justify a $150 fine, Warder said.

Conditions are also drying out in Yellowstone National Park, where fuel moistures currently range from 13 to 25 percent. Most of the region’s large fire starts occur in the months of August and September.

“We don’t really get concerned until we get down around 10 percent,” said Dan Hottle, park spokesman. “It’s still pretty wet out there, but we’re drying up slowly but surely.”

Since 1970, the Washakie Ranger District of the Shoshone National Forest has averaged 26 wildfires each year. Around 51 percent of those fires have started from natural causes, forest officials said.

Yet due to climate change and insect epidemics, along with changing philosophies in fire management, the annual acres burned have slowly increased from around 7,200 acres to 16,500.

Allowing fire to play its natural role when conditions allow marks a shift in philosophy from past years. The Shoshone’s fire management policies are similar to what’s employed in Yellowstone and on other national forests.

“Over the years, fire managers have learned that attempting to suppress all fire on the landscape has undesirable consequences,” Hottle said. “If we were to do so, we might limit the size of some fires for a period of time.”

Hottle said prolonged fire suppression allows forests to overgrow, leading to large stands of diseased trees. It creates greater fuel loads capable of supporting catastrophic fires, like those experienced in 1988.

“At some point this unnaturally created forest would experience an intense fire which would be difficult to suppress,” Hottle said. “It could burn over a very large area and create significant ecological and aesthetic impacts.”

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