Fire season forecast

Been wishing for warmer weather? Lamenting springs where you were already in shorts, riding your bike and basking in ever-warming temperatures? Well, stop. Embrace the cool weather. It is perhaps the one thing that will prevent another raging season of wildfires in Wyoming.

This spring is shaping up a lot like last year — below average snowpack in much of the state and drought conditions making for ready-to-ignite fuel. Last March the weather was unseasonably warm. Much of the state experienced above average temperatures that depleted the snowpack early and allowed the fire season to start early.

There is one big and significant different though, said Tim Mathewson, fire meteorologist with the Rocky Mountain Coordination Center in Colorado. Temperatures have been cooler this month, which is helping keep the snow in the mountains, Mathewson said. Last spring also was dry. More storm systems, bringing moisture, are expected in the next few weeks and into spring, he said.

Kelsey Dayton

“We’ve really started to enter a critical time, here,” Mathewson said.

Mathewson provides data, information and fire predictions to the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Parks Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and the state of Wyoming. He said the Northwest part of the state is “abnormally dry,” while the central and eastern part of the state range from “extreme” to “exceptional” on the drought scale. Exceptional is the worst level for drought conditions. The dryness makes for easier-to-ignite- and- burn fire fuel. Spring storms are needed to “green up” the grasses, which will decrease the fire risk until July when the normal fire season starts, he said. How long the snow lasts and how much precipitation falls in the next two months will likely dictate the fire season.

There are areas of the state Mathewson is watching closely. Northern Wyoming, particularly near the Big Horn Mountains, hasn’t gotten the same moisture as the rest of the state. Southwest Wyoming, near Rawlins and Rock Springs is also particularly dry.

Even with a fire already burning more than 1,000 acres near Fort Collins, Colo., and grass fires whipped up by the wind near Pavillion, Wyoming agencies are preparing as usual for the fire season.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Larry Sandoval, spokesman with the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests.

There is a chance the Shoshone National Forest could have early fire restrictions, said Steve Schacht, district ranger for the Washakie Ranger District in Lander. There has been direction from Washington about letting more fires burn this summer, but those decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis depending on where the fires are and how they are burning, he said.

While the forest is dry, much of moisture it gets normally comes in March, April and May, he said.

Last year that didn’t happen and the forest remained extremely dry into the summer, but area didn’t have many fires, Schacht said. The thunderstorms that came through the area came with rain, which is expected to happen again this year.

The BLM is continuing with its normal fire preparation, hiring staff that will begin training in late spring.

“For us, it’s business as usual,” said Cynthia Wertz, spokeswoman with the BLM.

Much of Wyoming is in a severe or persistent drought, said Angie Foster, acting state fire management officers for the BLM. East of the Continental Divide is especially dry and Eastern Wyoming could be more susceptible to fires this year, she said.  Those are areas she’ll be keeping an especially close on eye.

Seasonal outlook are not a perfect science, Mathewson said.

“We always prepare for the worst,” he said.

In addition to changing conditions, the often unpredictable factor, is ignition, especially in cases where people accidentally start fires.

“The biggest wildcard in all this is ignition- at the right time,” Mathewson said, “or the wrong time.”

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com. Follower her on twitter @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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