where will this road lead us?

Hot, dry and black.

Emergency Management Agency Coordinator Russ Dalgarn describes the current fire season. He adds ugly as a side note.

Fitting, since multiple wildfires and grassland fires have blackened large amounts of Converse County is recent days . . . long before the traditional fire season of late July and August. The latest, the 2,500-plus acre Russell’s Camp Fire burning southeast of Douglas is the worst so far, forcing evacuations of summer homes, ranches and Forest Service campgrounds . . . and crews have yet to have any of it contained.

Uncharacteristically dry and hot weather conditions have already caused a slew of daunting and disastrous wildfires across the West this summer, and show no signs of slowing down.

But how did we get this bad so early in the season? Dalgarn says that although Wyoming summers are traditionally dry, current weather patterns have us off course.

“We got our normal snowpack that we have traditionally had, which was way less than it was over the last couple of years,” Dalgarn said. “For normal (summers), the snowpack comes out of the mountains nice and slow and gradual with some little, light rain showers and then the rain adds to the moisture in the mountains. This year it warmed up, the snow came out, and we’ve had no rain.”

The traditional fire season doesn’t begin for another couple of weeks, but this year, we are already in the thick of it.

On Tuesday, the National Weather Service had issued a Red Flag Warning for Converse County and much of the surrounding area, meaning that critical fire weather conditions are either occurring now or will shortly and that a combination of strong winds, low relative humidity and warm temperatures could create “explosive fire growth potential.”

On the not-so-bright side of things, the NWS is also forecasting dry thunderstorms and lots of lightning, which could mean a landscape of burnt, black, smoke-filled misery.

Wyoming’s famous winds haven’t helped matters thus far, either. Winds in excess of 50 mph June 17 quickly turned a cigarette ember from a careless I-25 driver into a five-mile grass fire that left emergency responders scrambling to protect speeding motorists and nearby homes.

The fire began near mile marker  146 on northbound I-25 and was quickly pushed northeast by wind gusts. Frantic radio clamor could be heard over emergency channels during the blaze, describing difficulty to keep ahead of the blaze as the wind pushed it closer to buildings and the city. Eventually, the fire jumped WYO 93 and headed toward the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy. There, emergency crews were able to keep the fire contained in a small gulch until flames licked at the North Platte River but ran out of fuel and any place to go.

At one point, the fire did jump the river, but crews were able to quickly snuff it out before it spread any further.

Simultaneously, as one fire’s smoke began to dwindle, another’s began to rise. Nearly 30 miles away as the crow flies, a second fire jumped up in the Medicine Bow National Forest. The Russell’s Camp Fire is still being fought and thus far has resisted containment, despite the best efforts of the hard-working men and women of the U.S. Forest Service. (See related story on the front page).

Due to rough terrain and an abundance of dry, wind-felled timber, the fire has been, thus far, hard to manage.

Making matters even worse are local “moths” who seem too attracted to the flame to resist. Photo-seeking motorists have caused headaches for fire crews attempting to battle the blaze by clogging already-narrow byways as they attempt to catch a glimpse of the fiery fiasco.

Officials are asking everyone to stay off the roads leading to and from fires.

“With the big fire that is going on right now, or any big fire, it was pitiful (June 17) to see all the looky-loos getting in the way and blocking the roads and taking pictures,” Dalgarn said. “Give these guys a break and give them a place to work.”

Converse County Sheriff Clint Becker echoed Dalgarn’s sentiments, “Be courteous of everybody else in the county and all the surrounding counties and restrain from throwing cigarettes out of vehicles, be real cautious when burning trash (with county permission) and absolutely no fireworks.”

A countywide fire ban went into full effect June 6 and will stay in effect through the foreseeable future. Open and outdoor fires throughout the unincorporated areas of the county, except gas and charcoal fires within enclosed grills, are prohibited.

The use of acetylene cutting torches and electric arc welders is restricted to cleared areas 10 feet in radius, as are propane or open fire branding activities.

Trash or refuse fires are allowed only between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. and only when they are attended and contained within containers with spark arresters, and located within a cleared area 10 feet in radius.

Controlled burns for range improvements will only be allowed with the written permission of the county fire warden.

The ban also prohibits the discharge of fireworks throughout the county, which brings up an important point. Independence Day could call for an abundance of self restraint for area residents as they celebrate the Fourth of July in two weeks. Baring a miracle monsoon, the countywide fire ban would, and should, put a stop to any of the traditional party flares, less it spark an epochally-uncontrollable disaster. But the good news for now is the “party” is still on on the official side of things, following an approval for a fireworks permit and funding grant by the city June 11 to the Douglas Volunteer Fire Department for their annual Independence Day show.

DVFD volunteers are currently fund raising for the legal, one-of-a-kind event, to make a contribution contact Cher Bailey at 351-3310.

 

It is still unclear what caused the blaze that is burning in the Medicine Bow National Forest South of Douglas, but emergency responders have been working day and night to put a stop to it.

  The Russell’s Camp fire, as it is being called, has already consumed an estimated 2,570 acres of private and public land near Cold Springs Road, including most of Buffalo Peak near Russell’s Campground and Campbell Creek Campground. More than 200 firefighting personnel were on the scene as of Tuesday.

With the help of Converse County Sheriff deputies June 18, the National Forest Service asked residents living in the area to evacuate to a safe location closer to Douglas. The Rec Center is currently being used to house evacuees needing a place to stay.

The blaze began around 3 p.m. June 17 approximately 30 miles south of Douglas and continues to grow at this time.

Fire combat is being managed by the NFS at this time with no word on how successful containment efforts had been by Tuesday afternoon.

Thus far, high winds have plagued firefighters, with gusts in excess of 25-40 mph pushing the fire further each day.

As of Tuesday, the fire had moved out of the trees and into open prairie lands east of Cold Springs Road, headed toward the Cold Springs and Old Fort Fetterman Road.

The NFS currently has 10 hand crews, along with 15 engines, a helicopter rappel team, three type I helicopters, one type II and two type III helicopters,  and two single-engine air attack planes helping to fight the blaze.

Bulldozers are also being used to cut fire lines to contain the fire.

This is the second thousand-plus acre fire to strike Medicine Bow this month. The other, the Cow Camp fire, lasted nine days south of Laramie Peak and consumed 2,000 man hours battling the blaze and 8,492 acres.

Below average rainfall, soaring temperatures and low relative humidity have already wreaked havoc on rural firefighters this summer, and the county is still two to three weeks away from the traditional start of fire season.

Countywide fire bans in Converse and Albany counties have been implemented and will be strictly enforced, officials said. They also are encouraging all residents to use caution when discarding  cigarettes or the like, or while using equipment that could inadvertently cause a spark.

Specific fire ban restrictions include no open or outdoor fires throughout the unincorporated areas of the county, except gas and charcoal fires within enclosed grills.

The use of acetylene cutting torches and electric arc welders is restricted to cleared areas 10 feet in radius, as are propane or open fire branding activities.

Trash or refuse fires are allowed only between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. and only when they are attended and contained within containers with spark arresters. They must be located within a cleared area 10 feet in radius.

Controlled burns for range improvements will only be allowed with the written permission of the county fire warden.

The ban also prohibits the discharge of fireworks throughout the county.

This week’s forecast is calling for increasing temperatures near 100, with wind gust from 15-25 mph.

The status of the fire, along with additional photos and news coverage, will be posted as it is available on the Budget’s website at www.douglas-budget.com

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