Fires raged across the state for months last summer. Health officials warned of the dangers of smoke inhalation, dark clouds covered mountain ranges and blazes tore through ranches and homes.
It was the worst fire season on record with more than 1,300 fires burning about 600,000 acres, state Forester Bill Crapser said.
And this summer could be worse.
To prepare for what could be another record-breaking fire year, Gov. Matt Mead proposed using a portion of Wyoming’s “rainy-day” fund to pay for the rest of the 2012 fires and the anticipated 2013 ones.
“The governor wants to be well-prepared,” said Renny MacKay, Mead’s communications director. “This gets us through next fire season.”
National predictions show 2013’s fire season may be worse than 2012’s, Crapser said.
Local predictions are a little harder to make because so many fires depend on weather events such as lightning. But, because predictions show the drought continuing for Wyoming, officials should probably prepare for the worst, Crapser said.
Wyoming’s final fire bill for 2012 totaled about $110 million. Of that, about $42.5 million was Wyoming’s responsibility, Crapser said.
That is why the governor proposed using $60 million from the $150 million rainy-day fund created for possible revenue shortfalls to help cover what costs were left and those to come. He sent his proposed budget to the Legislature for a final decision, MacKay said.
The governor thinks the state should also explore the effects of fires after they are extinguished, such as erosion.
“The emergency fire suppression account is for putting out fires, it does not deal with the after-effects of fires,” MacKay said.
Fire officials are also concerned about a national shortage of aerial resources going into 2013. The nation’s retardant tanker fleet, the planes that drop fire retardant on big blazes, is aging, Crapser said.
“We got a lot of good and important work done with aircraft this year,” Crapser said.
As a result, federal and state agencies are trying to plan for a summer with fewer aircraft available and are looking for ways to move resources around. Some of Alaska’s aircraft, for example, came down to the lower 48 last year because Alaska had a light fire season, Crapser said.
The state will also be working with local fire departments to make sure counties have the support and equipment they need going into the next fire season.
“We are working with our partners both local and federal on issues that arose this summer,” Crapser said. “We will be ready.”