New BIA fire management agreement will allow fires to burn safely in remote reservation wilderness areas

The fire suppression zones on the Wind River Indian Reservation. In pink areas, firefighters will do everything possible to suppress a fire. In yellow zones, they may allow limited burning in safe areas. In green areas, safe burning is allowed to benefit the forest resources. (Click to enlarge)
By Ron Feemster
— July 25, 2013

Wildfires were burning about 2,500 acres in three Wyoming fires Wednesday night. So far this year no serious wildland fire has burned on the Wind River Indian Reservation, where last August the Alpine Lake Fire torched 42,000 acres, mostly in roadless, backcountry wilderness deep in the Wind River Mountains.

This year the fire season is starting more or less “on time,” according to Bob Jones, the fire management officer for the Wind River Agency. Jones leads a team of Bureau of Indian Affairs firefighters that cooperates closely with the tribes, Fremont County, the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies.

Bob Jones, fire management officer for the Wind River Agency. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

“We’re sitting right at the “high” level in some areas of the reservation and at “very high” in others,” Jones said of the current fire danger. But he went on to point out that the peak fire season usually runs between the third week of July and the third week of August.

The 20 full-time staffers and summer seasonal workers based in Fort Washakie have fought six non-structural fires so far in July. The largest was a 1.5-acre blaze in Fort Washakie Park that was started by lightning. Four of the five other, smaller fires that burned grass and sage lands were started by fireworks and trash burning. But the relatively small crew, with four fire engines and a helicopter, is responsible for fighting fires on the entire 2.2 million-acre reservation.

Last year, the BIA signed a new agreement with the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes to use some wildfires for “resource benefit.” In other words, firefighters might monitor some fires, including the Alpine Lake Fire, and allow them to burn areas heavy with fuel in order to generate fresh growth in the forests.

The new agreement, called the Fire Management Plan of 2012, replaces an earlier agreement in effect since 1996. This agreement will govern firefighting strategies until 2026. Although the plan designates some areas of the reservation for low fire suppression, the agency will look at every fire to see if it is safe to allow it to burn.

“That will depend on the time of year, on the fire danger and on the number of fires in the zone at the time,” Jones said. In addition, the decision about how aggressively to suppress a fire depends on how safely a team of firefighters can be moved to the fire and evacuate if things go wrong.

“That fire last year was so remote it was hard to get firefighters in and out,” Jones said. Jones, 48, began fighting fires in 1986 and fought the 1988 fire in Yellowstone Park. He spends a great deal of time thinking about firefighter safety and planning training exercises to teach safe firefighting. “My job is to make sure these guys make it home at night.”

In order to fly over the many 13,000-foot peaks in the Wind River Range, the BIA leases a B3 ASTAR helicopter every year for 100 days. The fast, high-altitude helicopter made history in 2005 as the only model ever to land on the summit of Mount Everest. The BIA helicopter is currently on loan fighting fires in Washington State.

The 2012 agreement, which was developed in consultation with the U.S. Forest Service, divides the reservation backcountry into three zones of decreasing fire suppression priority.

The pink zone on the reservation fire map is core area for sage grouse habitat. The BIA makes every effort to suppress fires that threaten this area. The yellow zone is rated fire-suppression caution. The firefighters let a fire burn but may attempt to steer it into a preferred area. In the green zone, Jones and his staff may let the fire continue burning if it begins late enough in the year.

“We have been suppressing fires in this area since 1910,” Jones said, noting that many areas of lodgepole pine are ready to burn after 25 years. “We did so well suppressing fires that we stopped a natural process. Sometimes Mother Nature says it’s time.”

The vast areas full of dead, fallen timber adds to the danger of the remote backcountry in the Wind River Range. “There’s so much fuel up there that you can’t safely put firefighters in there without a lot of risk,” Jones said. “In 2000, 11,000 acres burned in a single day.”

Like most agencies, the BIA’s firefighting force was hit by the federal sequester. But advance warning and some clever management held the damage to a minimum. The team hired two fewer seasonal employees this year. At the same time, five vacant positions on the full-time staff could not be filled.

Jones says he is not worried about his preparedness, especially since he can draw on crews of tribal members who can be hired with emergency funds. Twelve tribal employees are on loan to the Fairfield Fire near Lander to work on the camp crew and 10 more are in Meeker, Colo., as camp crew for another fire.

That said, there is other funding that Jones would like to see reinstated as soon as possible.

“Things have changed in the fire environment,” Jones said. “We now have more specialized crews. At the same time money for training is getting cut. I would restore some of that funding for training.”

— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at ron@wyofile.com.

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