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SHERIDAN — They look like a tornado, swirling taller than a tree, 40, 50, 60 feet high.
They are bright and hot, blazing hot.
“You can definitely feel a fire whirl. Just watch pictures of a tornado and see the fallout of a tornado. That’s the same kind of thing you get out of a fire whirl except that it’s throwing embers, sticks, sagebrush, and most of that stuff is on fire,” Clearmont Fire Chief Fritz Bates said. “You get in situations like that and it’s like a tornado. You don’t actually know which way that’s going to travel. You have an idea, but you cannot predict it.”
Summer 2012 was a tough fire season for the Clearmont Volunteer Fire Department, whose district stretches from the Montana border to the Campbell and Johnson County lines. Bates said he saw some of the worst fire behavior he’s ever seen in his career, but, fortunately, no structures were lost and crews stayed safe.
More than 10,000 acres were burned in eight large fires that had dozens of firefighters from the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and area fire departments working day and night to keep them contained.
And for wildland firefighters, working means 10- and 12-hour shifts of building fire line, of scraping and digging fuels — dry grass, sagebrush — out of chain after 66-foot chain of fire line, all with a 45-pound pack on your back in the hot summer sun.
But it has to be done. The land has to be saved. So volunteer firefighters take time away from paying jobs to protect the grasslands and forests — and the nearby civilizations — in Sheridan County from the wildfires that inevitably blaze each summer.
Predicting fire season
According to Jon Warder, fire management officer for the U.S. Forest Service in the Bighorn National Forest, this fire season is predicted to be average for the Rocky Mountain area. Last year was considered average, too, with approximately 30 fires in the forest.
“Half of those were lightning caused, and the other half, which we always need help with, were human caused or abandoned camp fires,” Warder said. “If we could control 15 of those, that would help out a whole bunch.”
In short, campers should put out fires when they leave them and everyone should pay attention to fire restrictions when they arise, Warder said.
Snowpack is about 91 percent currently, which helps with fire season a little, but the main predictor of how severe a season will be is spring and summer rains, Warder said. Last year, the rains just shut off.
The U.S. Drought Monitor lists Sheridan County in severe drought as of Tuesday, but fire season doesn’t typically begin until early July.
“It’s completely natural for the forest to burn and then regenerate through natural sources,” Warder said, noting forest fires run on a 200-year cycle.
Preparing for fire season
As Bates would say, he lost the crystal ball he used to predict exactly what an upcoming fire season would hold.
“There’s no way to predict,” Bill Biastoch, county fire warden, said. “All you can try to do is be ready.”
For the six volunteer fire districts in Sheridan County — Big Horn, Clearmont, Dayton, Tongue River, Story and Goose Valley (rural Sheridan area) — being ready means physical training, setting plans for this season and servicing gear, Biastoch said. It means recruiting more firefighters to join the 80 or so who already serve.
Dozers, fire trucks and road graders need to be in tip-top shape. Tools used in fighting fires also need to be sharp and clean.
Bodies need to be fit.
Minds need to be ready, too. Steve Hanson, fire science instructor for Sheridan County School District 1, teaches his students about fire terminology and behavior. He uses examples of past fires to help them learn how to fight smart — and safe.
“That’s one of our rules: Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first. All firefighters abide by those rules,” Hanson said.
Hanson recently taught his classes how to build fire line, which should be 1 1/2 times as wide as the fuel source is high.
For example, a fire line in grass that is 2-feet tall would be 3 1/2-feet wide. All fuel sources, all grass, weeds, shrubs and roots, must be removed in order to stop a fire.
Several of Hanson’s students have said they hope to join volunteer fire departments this summer.
Once preparations are as complete as they can be, firefighters must be ready to go.
That’s what firefighters will do this season. They will go to the fire — be it grassland or forest — and they will fight until every fire is fully suppressed and structures are safe.
Homeowners are encouraged to be prepared for fire season, too. Create defensible space around houses by maintaining grasses, weeds, shrubs and lower branches on trees. Ask volunteer fire departments for help preparing. They will come out and inspect property and offer advice.
Get a copy of “Living with Wildfire in Wyoming,” a 48-page guide to help landowners prepare for fire, at www.uwyo.edu/barnbackyard. Find local information in the Wyoming Fire Service Directory at http://wyofire.state.wy.us/pdf/Directory.pdf.