While the blaze raged, crews watched the neighborhood behind the burning building to make sure embers flying off the fire wouldn’t land and catch on other homes.
Thankfully, none did, and the fire didn’t spread. But Mills Fire Chief Wil Gay said that if the fire had happened at a warmer time, crews would have likely been facing a lot more trouble.
“We watched a video of that ember shower,” he said. “Yeah, it would have been very interesting in the middle of summer.”
And with lighter-than-average precipitation and an ongoing drought forecast for the coming months, this summer is shaping up to be another scorcher.
Drought conditions mean drier grass and brush on the ground, which can catch fire easily. Wyoming’s high winds don’t help. Colorado’s Marshall Fire in December was a harsh reminder that when things are dry, a fire can accelerate uncontrollably — anywhere and at any time. Even a trailer dragging chains on a hot paved road or a shard of broken glass catching the sun at just the right angle might be the spark.
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“A lot of it comes down to having the perfect conditions for it to happen,” Gay said. “A hundred times, it could not happen, but it’s going to be that one time where you have 50 mph winds, and off to the races you go.”
But you don’t have to leave the safety of your home and your land up entirely to chance — there’s plenty you can do to prepare for fire season, no matter where you live.
Wyoming got lucky last summer. It couldn’t escape the heat and drought that hung heavy over the Mountain West, but was spared the extreme devastation that wildfires inflicted in Colorado, Montana and other nearby states.
Wildfires, intensified by climate change, burned 53,496 acres in Wyoming in 2021, according to the National Interagency Fire Center’s annual report, compared with 279,243 acres in 2018, 41,857 acres in 2019 — the least dry of the last four years — and 339,783 acres in 2020.
The first few months of 2022 again brought worryingly little precipitation to Wyoming. Then April dumped above-average rain and snow on much of the state, including Natrona County.
Which is good, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture Hydrologist Jim Fahey, “because that sets the fire danger back a few more weeks through the summer.”
But there is a caveat. Wetter springs produce more vegetation, which can become additional kindling when it dries.
All that water increased moisture in parched soils and restored mountains’ rapidly dwindling snowpack to near-normal — and in a few places, even above-normal — levels across Wyoming. Wetter soils, Fahey said, are less likely to burn. And increased snowpack prolongs snowmelt further into the summer, decreasing fire risk.
“But all bets are off if we warm up too fast,” he said, “and a runoff occurs too early, and we don’t have any pretty beneficial precipitation in June. Like what occurred last year.”
That’s basically what forecasts say Wyoming is in for: Another hot, dry, dangerous fire season. Even after April’s precipitation, the drought that started in 2020 remains Wyoming’s worst in nearly a decade. The entire state has been classified since September as abnormally dry or worse by the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Still, Fahey said, the cooler and wetter it is this spring, the better off the state will be come summer.
The remoteness treasured by so many in Wyoming leaves its communities uniquely vulnerable to wildfires. When the state is most susceptible, just about everyone is at risk.
Wyoming is home to the highest share of people in any state — 82.2% — living in the fire-prone wildland-urban interface, defined by the U.S. Fire Administration as “the zone of transition between unoccupied land and human development,” where manmade structures “meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland or vegetative fuels.”
The designation doesn’t necessarily mean fires are likely, but refers to the type of place where residents have to stay vigilant in the summer, especially on the hottest, driest, windiest days.
“Everywhere in Wyoming is urban interface,” said Cody Parke, training lieutenant for Evansville Fire. “We have it in the middle of the city in some places.”
When an individual structure goes up in flames, firefighters do whatever they can to salvage it. But wildland fires are “kind of a whole different beast,” Parke said. As soon as a house starts to burn, even if it could’ve been saved under normal circumstances, it may already be too far gone.
In those situations, protective measures can make the difference — like they did during the Cole Creek Fire, which burned 10,000 acres and 14 homes in rural Evansville in 2015.
“The houses (where) their properties were clean, they survived,” said Evansville Fire Captain Dan Coursen. “The houses that had stuff piled up around them, that fire burned them down.”
Protecting your community starts at home, and local officials say the most important factor in preventing house fires is awareness.
Casper Deputy Fire Chief Devin Garvin said some of the most common causes of house fires in the Casper area are unattended cooking and smoking materials not being disposed properly.
Being more aware can mean refraining from going on your phone while something’s on the stove, or making sure your cigarette is totally out — cold to the touch — before you let it out of your sight.
Garvin said he’s seen multiple fires started by a cigarette catching on dead grass or leaves, then breaching into homes.
“We’ve had quite a few families actually displaced from those fires,” Garvin said.
It also means keeping an eye on any power sources or cords you’re using — even a charging laptop can heat up enough to catch if the conditions are right, Gay said.
In the winter, fire crews see plenty of buildings catch fire from overheated space heaters, clogged chimneys and still-hot fireplace ashes.
Matt Gacke, a marshal and investigator with the Natrona County Fire Protection District, said they tend to see more structure fires in the winter than the summer.
But structure fires still happen in the warmer months, coinciding with the more active wildland and grass fire season.
Instead of chimneys and space heaters, Gacke said, investigators find summer fires often start from dropped cigarettes, lightning storms, dragging chains throwing sparks off the road or people welding near tall, dry grasses. Fireworks, which are illegal in Natrona County but allowed in other parts of the state, can also set off grass fires.
“Fire is a tool, not a toy,” Garvin said.
Most of the time, structure and wildland fires don’t mix, Gacke said. But sparks flung from a house fire are most likely to catch and spread in the summer. And in wildland-urban interface like western Natrona County and rural Evansville, where houses are interspersed with grassland, wildfires can consume the structures in their path.
Here are some steps you can take to minimize your own risk.
Inside the house
Smoke detectors — working, regularly tested ones — are essential: In the living room, the hallways and every bedroom. Local fire departments can help supply residents with the number of detectors they need.
Garvin also recommends installing carbon monoxide detectors, particularly in homes that use natural gas appliances or have attached garages. Those are also often available from fire departments.
Another key way to decrease the chance of fire starting is by keeping an eye on heat sources in all forms.
Space heaters, for example, should be at least three feet away from anything that can catch fire — including curtains, clothing, papers and furniture. While newer models have a tip-over switch that turns off if the heater is knocked over, most older ones will keep heating even if they’re face-down.
Garvin says he recommends people opt for wax warmers instead of candles, but says to keep an eye on the flame if you do light one in your home.
While cooking, don’t leave a hot stove unattended and remember to turn off the oven before you leave your house. If you do have to walk away from the kitchen while cooking, Garvin recommends taking something like a spatula or pot holder with you as a reminder to go right back.
When you go to bed, officials recommend closing your bedroom door. In case of a fire, a closed door can keep flames at bay.
If you use a fireplace, make sure to store ashes in a closed metal can to ensure they’re completely out and so that wind can’t pick up and carry them. And clean your chimney regularly so it gets enough ventilation; if you don’t have a brush, Casper fire stations can lend you one.
Meanwhile, those who use oxygen at home can request a thermal fuse device that stops any fire detected in and around the tubes. Garvin said installing those devices is especially crucial for those who smoke, but can save anyone’s life in case of a fire. Thanks to a state program, you can either contact your local fire department or use an online form to order one for free.
Outside the house
Many of the houses that burn down during wildfires survive the main flame front, then succumb to embers after firefighters have moved on. “We go off to fight the head of the fire,” Parke said, “and then there’s nobody back here to pay attention to these houses.”
Fire officials encourage clearing a “defensible space” around your home to prevent fire from catching — basically, mowing your lawn, clearing away dead leaves and other debris and trimming overhanging branches away from the house, porch, deck and ground. The space beneath your deck or porch should also be clear of anything that might catch fire, including tumbleweeds.
Once you’ve raked that all up, you can take your yard waste to the landfill and compost it for free.
For added security, Evansville Fire advises replacing flammable materials, like mulch, with crushed stone or gravel immediately beside the house and regularly inspecting and repairing shingles and roof tiles — and screening in roof and attic vents — to keep embers from finding their way in.
And to prevent a fire from starting on your property, if you have a fire pit or light any kind of fire on your property, make sure to put it out completely before leaving it or going to bed. Those pits should also have a spark arrestor, or a mesh screen that goes on top to capture live embers.
The same goes for campfires, which officials say you should only be burning in the first place when winds are below 15 mph and there’s no burn ban in the area. Don’t throw in trash or other things that don’t belong in an open fire, especially pressurized items like spray paint or adhesive cans.
Firewood stored outdoors should be kept some distance from the house, especially in the summer.
And if you smoke (even outside), make sure to put your butts out completely and leave them in a fire-safe container. Garvin recommends a glass jar with water, or a metal can with a lid to keep oxygen out.
Avoid using something that can melt or catch fire, like a plastic bucket, a trash can with contents that might ignite or a flower pot with any organic material inside.
If it happens
Your family should talk about the possibility of a fire in your home and make a plan, including where to meet once you get outside — a neighbor’s house, a nearby street corner or another landmark you can all remember. That way, when firefighters arrive, you can tell them whether anyone is still inside.
If a fire does start in another part of the house, feel your door before opening it. If it’s hot, try to stuff towels or clothing against the bottom and use a window to get out (and practice exiting through windows beforehand, especially if you have kids). Even if you can’t get out through the window, Garvin says you should go to it and yell, scream and make as much noise as possible so crews can find you more easily.
Or, if you are able to exit through your door, close it and any other doors you go through on your way out of the house to limit the amount of oxygen moving through. Fire officials say you should leave as quickly as possible, forget about saving that old family photo album and refrain from going back to look for a pet.
And, Garvin said, call 911 no matter how small you think the fire is — even if it’s a minor flame you can put out with water or a fire extinguisher. Professionals can look for remaining hot spots and make sure it’s safe to go back inside.
Officials recommend many of the same precautions for wildfires, including identifying safe ways out of the neighborhood, developing and practicing an emergency action plan for all people, pets and livestock and setting a safe meeting place. It’s also a good idea to review your insurance coverage every year and maintain a home inventory that can help you settle claims more quickly.
If there’s time before you evacuate, you should shut inside doors to limit oxygen flow, secure outer doors and windows to minimize embers’ ability to catch and remove anything flammable from near the house.
Sometimes, those small actions can determine whether a house survives.
“We triage the house,” Coursen said. “Literally, we’ll come in, look at the property, look at the stuff around that house. And if we tag it a red, it’s a no-save type thing. If we tag it a yellow or green, then we might be able to go in there, throw some stuff away from the house and save it. Green, it should be able to stand alone.”
But no house is worth risking your own safety. If you feel unsafe, evacuate — even if you haven’t been ordered to leave just yet.