SHERIDAN — More than 20 wildfires have erupted around Sheridan County and in the Bighorn National Forest since early June, increasing in recent weeks as temperatures rise and abundant grasses caused by heavy spring rains dry out and become flammable.
On Wednesday, county commissioners approved partial fire restrictions that will go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Monday on the request of all six fire districts in the county.
Fire bans apply to state, county and private lands within Sheridan County. Bighorn National Forest staff have not yet issued fire restrictions, but they do urge caution and ask that campers make sure to completely extinguish campfires.
Sheridan County Fire Warden Bill Biastock said this year’s fire ban resolution features two additions to prior resolutions.
One, the use of exploding targets such as Tannerite and similar devices that use binary compounds of ammonium nitrate and aluminum powder is not allowed under the ban.
Two, fire districts can now request restitution to cover expenses for extinguishing illegal fires when a person is found guilty in court. Biastock said the cost of extinguishing one fire can be $2,500 or more.
Anyone found violating the fire ban will be guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by a fine not to exceed $100, or jail time not to exceed 30 days, or both. Additional restitution may be sought on a case-by-case basis depending on the size and cost of a fire.
“There’s a lot of grass and fuels out there, more than normal. It’s really starting to dry out,” Biastock said. “The fire department guys are volunteers and they have other jobs sometimes, so it’s easier on them if they’re not out fighting fire all the time.”
Clearmont Fire District has seen the most activity in the county with 13 fires since early June, Fire Chief Fritz Bates said. Most have been 5-10 acre incidents resulting from the use of haying equipment and balers, but on Wednesday Clearmont crews did extinguish a 100-acre fire caused by lightning.
“It’s kind of the nature of the beast, actually. When you need to cut hay, you need to cut hay,” Bates said.
He did urge residents to avoid parking ATVs and vehicles in tall grass where hot exhaust pipes can ignite dry fuels.
Tongue River Fire Protection District Fire Chief Donnie Dobrenz said there have been two fires in the Ranchester area, one on Columbus Creek and another along Keystone Road. The Dayton Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department was called in to assist on the Columbus Creek fire, which was caused by lightning.
“I’m thankful it’s going as good as it is, but I’m afraid it’s going to get a little crazy,” Dobrenz said. “I’d appreciate it if everybody would be really careful about burning.”
Under the fire ban, residents are allowed to burn trash from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. in a container with a screen and a spark arrester. Brush piles cannot be burned until the ban is lifted.
Dayton Fire Chief Charlie Linhart said there have been no fires in the Dayton area yet, “knock on wood.”
“If I could explain it, I’d say it’s scary. There’s just so much grass out there,” Linhart said.
Linhart said typically this time of year, grasses are about a foot tall, but with all the rain, grasses are approximately 3 feet high. Linhart called grasses a one-hour fuel, meaning that even if they get wet with rain, they will be dry and flammable again with one hour of sunshine.
In the last three weeks, 15 illegal, abandoned or escaped campfires have been discovered in the Bighorn National Forest, according to a press release. These fires are becoming a concern because when fire crews spend time on them, it can delay responses to new wildfires.
Forest fire crews have also responded to six wildfires, four caused by lightning and two by escaped campfires.
“Abandoned campfires can smolder for weeks before spreading to surrounding vegetation and potentially becoming a wildfire,” Fire Management Officer Kevin Hillard said.
Hillard also noted that if a wildfire results from an escaped campfire, the person responsible may be subject to a fine between $225-$5,000 and/or up to six months in jail, as well as the cost to suppress the wildfire, which can run more than $100,000.
The most recent fire started Thursday night in Dry Fork Canyon about 10 miles north of Burgess Junction. It is in a remote area with steep terrain and not accessible by road, Bighorn National Forest Public Affairs Specialist Susie Douglas said. Smokejumpers from West Yellowstone were set to access the fire, which is currently 1-2 acres in size, this morning.
Douglas said smoke is visible but blending with smoke from the Lodge Grass Basin fire in the Bighorn Mountains in Montana on the Crow Reservation.
According to a Crow Agency fire update, that fire has spread to more than 110 acres and closed public access to the mountains on the Crow Reservation.
• Visit the Sheridan County website at sheridancounty.com for more details on the county fire ban.
• For the latest fire conditions in the Bighorn National Forest and to find out areas where campfires are not allowed, call the Sheridan office at 674-2600.
Put it out
Always check on fire ban status before building a campfire. Here are a few tips on how to safely extinguish a campfire:
• Keep water and a shovel nearby.
• Build campfires away from overhanging branches, steep slopes, rotten logs, stumps, dry grass and dead leaves.
• Scrape away litter, duff and any other flammable material in a minimum 5-foot diameter circle.
• Keep campfires small. A good bed of coals or a small fire surrounded by rocks gives plenty of heat.
• Never leave a campfire unattended. Even a small breeze can cause the fire to spread quickly.
• Drown the fire with water. Make sure all embers, coals, and sticks are wet. Move rocks (carefully, they may still be hot) as embers may be hiding underneath.
• Stir, add more water, and stir again. Be sure all burned material has been extinguished and cooled.
• If you don’t have water, use dirt. Mix enough sand or soil with the embers. Continue this process until all material is cold to the touch.
• Don’t bury coals as they can smolder and break out.
• If you use charcoal briquettes, soak the coals in lots of water, stir, and soak again.