Fire danger high in Bighorns

Grainger Russell

District ranger urges caution as summer recreation ramps up


For thousands of years, fires have shaped Wyoming’s landscape, but between downed timber and excess plant material, this summer’s heat portends the potential for disaster.

Surrounded by the Big Horn Mountains on one side and the Rocky Mountains on the other, the Big Horn Basin is one of the driest areas in the state. Receiving only 5-8 inches of rain annually, forage grows fast and dries up even faster, and as the Big Horn Mountains’ busiest time of year approaches and temperatures rise, so does the fire risk.

There are two kinds of fires: natural and manmade. Natural fires are the result of either a lightning strike or what is known as spontaneous combustion — when trapped humidity heats plant matter to the point of ignition. Manmade fires, on the other hand, are typically the result of poorly extinguished campfires or sparks caused by dragging chains while pulling trailers. Despite the difference in ignition, both have equal ability to become deadly. 

“We have seen a lot of dried out conditions on the mountain,” observed Big Horn National Forest Ranger Mark Foster. “Unlike other years, the downed timber is drier than our sage or grass fields. The sagebrush has been pushing 40 years of inconsistent burning, which has developed a problem.

“Normally the plains would be a mosaic of interspersed sage and grasses; however, since fires started to be controlled, the sagebrush has flourished and succeeded in choking out much of the native grass.”

As a result, both the Forest Service and independently contracted firefighters are prepared for a dry summer with low precipitation and a high-risk for wildfires.

“We currently have three engines on the Bighorn National Forest, heavy tankers [airplanes] not too far away and helicopters ready to be deployed,” District Fire Management Officer Sage Decker said. “Once a report is received, the Incident Commander will scope the situation and determine the next step: whether our firefighters need to drive, hike or jump in.”

Foster added that while there are currently no fire restrictions in place, it may become a necessity moving forward, remarking, “We‘re in high fire danger right now and I don’t foresee that changing anytime soon.

“We had a relatively dry winter that led into a wet spring,” he explained, breaking down the situation further. “When that happens, the rainfall in the spring rushes plants to grow, but without the melt-off from the winter, there is less groundwater available to sustain them, leading to death. The upcoming hot summer may dry these grasses out, causing more dangerous fire conditions.”

And so, as recreationalists make their way up the Big Horn Mountains, campfires could potentially lead to disaster. 

“State laws require us to extinguish any human-caused fires,” Decker said. “While fire has shaped the land we live on, we can’t have it controlling it. The fires are good for the ecosystem, burning allows for new trees, like Lodgepole Pines and Aspens, to sprout.”

The benefits of fire that Decker refers to can, oddly enough, also help prevent future burns. The Forest Service has brought in prescribed fire analysts to recommend places the Big Horn Mountain ecosystem that might benefit from controlled, or prescribed, fires.

“Sometimes we have to use prescribed fire to help bring in the new forest, burning old downed timber when it’s safe to do so, not when it can become unstoppable. [In] taking care of the problem before it becomes one, [we can] do what’s best for the community and the forest,” Foster said.

As the Fourth of July approaches, both Foster and Decker would like to remind the public that fireworks are strictly prohibited in the Bighorn National Forest. As public land, it is everyone’s job to make sure it is preserved for future generations. Please be responsible with your celebrations and camp fires, and remember: properly extinguishing your fires is one of the most effective ways to protect the land.