This photograph of burned trees in the Medicine Bow National Forest was taken on Thanksgiving Day. The Mullen Fire left a mosaic of burns across 176,878 acres. (Karlee Provenza)

Representative-elect Karlee Provenza, her husband and their canine companion took a Thanksgiving Day hike west of Laramie to survey what the Mullen Fire left behind.

Driving and hiking the Medicine Bow Forest around Lake Owen, a popular destination for summer fishermen and RV campers, the trio passed through a mosaic of charcoaled trees, scorched earth and erratic burn patterns.

“In some areas the burn just looks so catastrophic, and then across a dirt road you see a completely different type of burn,” Provenza said. “It was really intriguing to look at what the outcome was and wonder what made that happen.”

In particular, Provenza, a longtime photographer, was struck by a group of trees that had been warped by an unknown force. Some were bent until their tops touched the ground, others snapped mid-trunk. A friend who worked in forestry later told Provenza such patches were likely the result of the high winds that drove the fire. 

Trees in some areas touched by the Mullen Fire were bent until their tops touched the ground, or trunks snapped, perhaps as a result of fierce winds that drove the fire’s growth. (Karlee Provenza)

Indeed, it was the area’s fierce wind gusts, which firefighters at times clocked as high as 70 miles per hour, that transformed a fire start of unknown origins within the Savage Run Wilderness Area into a 176,878-acre monster that prompted hundreds of evacuations and indelibly altered the character of the Medicine Bow National Forest. 

The Mullen Fire’s intensity varied. Much of the fire area’s eastern half, where Provenza visited, burned more voraciously, according to an Oct. 25 map of soil burn severity posted by the U.S. Forest Service. Burn severity is measured by how much the fire consumes ground cover and organic matter — leaf litter, duff and “fine roots,” according to the USFS map. 

Just observing a stand of burned trees does not necessarily give a good indication of burn severity, USFS spokesperson Aaron Voos told WyoFile. “While the trees may look like blackened toothpicks, that doesn’t mean the soil burn was severe,” he said. Assessment work, as well as rehabilitating and combating an influx of invasive plant species like cheatgrass, will continue in the spring, Voos said. 

“This thing burned so late into the fall and went straight from active fire to snow cover that we haven’t been able to view a lot of the burnt area without snow on it,” he said.

The Mullen Fire was the largest fire on record in the Medicine Bow National Forest. It may also be the largest fire resulting from a single start in Wyoming history, Voos said. Though the famous 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park burned a larger area — nearly 800,000 acres — that complex of blazes began after a series of lightning strikes. The cause of the Mullen Fire remains under investigation, Voos said, but the fire began from one source. 

As of Oct. 24, fighting the fire had cost $41.2 million, according to a report the U.S. Forest Service posted online. Wyoming is on the hook for around 2% of that, a little more than $800,000, according to Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser. 

The charred forests Provenza passed through aren’t without life. She saw mule deer, and the tracks of other animals, on her outing. A WyoFile reporter exploring the forest the next day saw a pair of moose among willows that appeared to have been spared by the fire. 

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Andrew Graham

Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at andrew@wyofile.com, follow him @AndrewGraham88

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