SHERIDAN — In an effort to combine scattered attempts in preventing significant damage or destruction in a wildfire situation, U.S. Forest Service representatives have taken the lead on suppression efforts for the Story community and surrounding forested area.
Efforts have changed hands several times over the years, from community members — working alone or for neighbors under the direction of several agencies — to volunteer fire staff to the county fire warden. With education and experience in fire mitigation, USFS Bighorn National Forest Fire Management Officer Jon Warder led a meeting that detailed next steps for agencies involved in safety of the community to help in the mitigation process.
“The goal for me as the facilitator of it is just to bring the parties together to know each other and to know what a fire scenario might look like and the points they can interact on,” Warder said.
Changes among the county fire warden and the Story Volunteer Fire Department spurred conversation among USFS fire officials to help mitigate an ever-present risk of wildfire, especially since several believe the Bighorn National Forest is poised to burn in the near future.
“The fire cycle in Ponderosa pine historically is like 10 to 20 years; there should be a low-intensity fire through that stand,” Warder said. “That is what historically, naturally occurred, so yeah. We’re back at that deadline again.”
In the situation of a joint-agency response to forest fires coming down from the Bighorn National Forest boundary, local volunteer agencies protect structures and people as best they can while other responding agencies work on other aspects of the fire to stop it from spreading.
Two major aspects can aid in a pre-fire or fire situation: interagency collaboration and individual home mitigation efforts.
The meeting gathered folks from both Sheridan and Johnson counties, including sheriff’s office deputies, volunteer firefighters, county emergency management and county commissioners, among others. Those groups took turns sharing their active role during a forest fire and where and how they can best be reached during an incident.
From the meeting came planned follow-up action, including Story Volunteer Fire Department creating an evacuation plan and structure triage for the community. The department will also host an open house and fire wise education day May 25. A town hall meeting at 1 p.m. June 1 will include SVFD unveiling the evacuation plan, and the first evacuation drill will commence at 9 a.m. June 29.
“The evacuation drill is a Saturday training that will focus on water transfers, coordination and tactics,” Story Fire Chief Ken Damon wrote in an email to agency partners April 10.
Damon anticipates the training to include interagency collaboration.
The second directive is continuation of fuels reductions on individual levels. Warder said in an evacuation situation, the lead agency initiates the evacuation and people leave and “whatever happens, happens.” Eliminating potential fuels around homes and outbuildings may decrease risk of a home being consumed by a forest fire.
“There are still plenty of houses and people and issues that we better plan a little bit in advance,” Warder said.
From keepers of the Bighorn National Forest’s perspective, their part in fuels reduction is up for renewal, too.
“We need to be in there again on our side of the fence; we recognize that,” Warder said.
There are several ways to treat the forest to keep it healthy.
One way USFS and state forestry workers complete thinning in needed areas is commercial logging. But, only approximately 8 percent of the the total 1.2 million acres of the BNF can be mechanically treated to reduce fuels, according to Sara Evans Kirol, public relations for the Bighorn National Forest’s Tongue River Ranger District.
The USFS last completed treatments in that area between 2005 and 2007, so a redo of that area is needed and will be completed alongside other mitigation efforts by community members and emergency response agencies.
For now, community members can remain involved by completing fuels reductions on personal properties, helping out neighbors and attending future open houses and meetings in the next few months.