A decade ago, State Forester Bill Crapser would have told you that 85 percent of the West’s wild fires were started by lightning. Humans just didn’t cause that many blazes.
But that statistic has changed.
“We’ve seen a huge upswing in human caused fires in the last few years,” he said. “It might be because of numbers of people, a change in conditions, or an increase in careless type things.”
It could also be a generation that is simply less familiar with Smokey the Bear’s messages.
Whatever it is, Crapser would like to see it change.
As the fall quickly approaches, the Star-Tribune asked safety experts like Crapser to break down the top five mistakes they see in bear country and with fire to remind people to stay safe.
Dusty Lasseter doesn’t even pause when asked about the biggest mistake he sees people do in grizzly country: they’re unprepared.
“Most of the human fatalities we’ve had in the ecosystem, they don’t have bear spray or a firearm on them,” said Lasseter, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Bear Wise coordinator.
And not being prepared, along with these other mistakes, are what can cause injury and death.
1) Not carrying bear spray or a firearm: Game and Fish does not have a formal recommendation on either bear spray or a firearm, but Lasseter is quick to say that more often than not, people can’t use firearms quickly or accurately enough to protect themselves during a bear attack. Bear spray, on the other hand, makes a cloud, which requires less training and precision. “And make sure it’s handy. It has to be where it’s accessible.”
2) Going alone: People are much less likely to be attacked when walking in larger groups. “We’re predators, too. We have eyes on the front of our heads, so we’re intimidating to bears if there’s groups of three or four people.”
3) Not properly storing food: Most people in grizzly country have learned to be vigilant about storing their food and other attractants like bird seed or dog food in bear proof containers. But people are less diligent in black bear country.
4) Being careless: “People don’t pay attention to their surroundings. They’re not aware… If you follow fresh bear scat long enough you will run into a bear.” If you see sign such as fresh scat or tracks, be more vigilant and make noise. Know there could be a bear around the corner.
5) Walking quietly through thick timber: The quickest way to surprise a bear during the day is to bushwhack through thick, dark timber. It’s where bears go during the hot summer day to rest and stay cool. If you stay on the main trails, you’re less likely to run into bears.
Prevent wild fires
April and May in Wyoming were cool and wet, which meant grass grew plentiful. That’s the good news. The bad news is when the dog days of summer hit, all of that long grass becomes fuel for fast-moving, hot-burning wild fires, Crapser said.
The Badger Creek Fire in the Medicine Bow National Forest in southeast Wyoming took about a month to be contained and burned about 20,300 acres. The Laney Rim fire in Sweetwater County burned about 13,000 acres in late July and early August.
“We won’t likely have a huge fire season like 2012, but we will have quite a bit of fire activity across the state,” he said.
Here are the five biggest mistakes he sees people make that contribute to the severity of Wyoming’s fire seasons.
1) Not putting out campfires: It seems like an easy one – but every year forest fires begin because someone leaves a campfire that is still hot. “If there’s any heat in it and you leave them unattended you can have the wind come up and have the fire rekindled pretty easy.”
2) Parking on dry grass: Catalytic converters sitting on top of long, dry grass start a surprising number of fires, he said. The danger isn’t necessarily driving over grass, but parking on top of it where the heat has time to build in the grass and ultimately ignite. The same lesson applies to mufflers, spark arresters and even chainsaws that aren’t well maintained.
3) Not paying attention to where you’re shooting: “We’ve seen a huge upswing over the last several years of fires started with recreational shooting either from tracer ammunition or ricochets or using tannerite explosives,” he said. Be aware of your target and its surroundings. Know where your backstop is, and realize how quickly a fire can start with something as small as a spark.
4) Dragging chains, overheating brakes and driving on flat tires: Chains attaching trailers to cars and trucks cause a remarkable number of fires, Crapser said. As do brakes that overheat and catch on fire. The Carr Fire, the sixth most destructive fire in California history, is still burning and started from a flat tire on a trailer.
5) Throwing cigarette butts: While it might seem like it’s out, cigarette butts still carry a surprising amount of heat. Firefighters battle blazes each year started by a cigarette butt launched from someone’s car window into dry grass on the side of the road, Crapser said. Just don’t do it.