Volume 7, Number 17 - July 19, 2007
brought to you online by Pinedale Online
Fire & Rain
Three of us lean against the pickup enjoying the evening, an icy drink from the cooler and each other’s company. Looking across Cottonwood Creek through meandering willows and a complacent herd of grazing cattle, we savor the peace of an uninterrupted moment. Remnants of the Horse Creek Fire gently smoke several miles away.
Then the first raindrops from billowing clouds splatter hard; my first instinct is to grab a jacket. The second impulse, which takes charge as the rain intensifies, is to turn my face toward the wind and bask in the raindrops.
“You couldn’t get me to go inside right now,” says our friend, a long-time rancher who like others (not only ranchers) in Sublette County is nervous about the lack of irrigation water, too-fast ripening hay, dried-up forage and “The Drought.”
The rain shower, all too brief, fades away after several minutes but the feeling of excitement it brought doesn’t. Throughout the weekend we pass through several more of these recurring intermittent rains and finally on Monday, we get some of our own – enough to dampen the ground and turn grass a lush green. Of course, it’s also the first day of haying season.
Let it rain – please
Although parts of Sublette County have enjoyed vigorous rain since last week after too many weeks without it, other areas are bypassed with zero to just a trace of precipitation recorded.
Wyoming State Climatologist Steve Gray contributed several statistics.
“First, rainfall totals will vary quit a bit throughout the area, but our best estimate is that only between 0.1 and 0.4 inches fell on Sublette County in the last two weeks (remember, some areas – especially in the mountains – would have seen more, but this gives you a reasonable idea of county-wide conditions),” he wrote in an email Tuesday.
“That still leaves most of the county running at about 50 percent of the historical average for the late spring and summer. In other words, those storms provided little more than temporary relief from a longer-term pattern of drought.
On top of already-low measures of recent rainfall comes today’s forecast for July 19 from the National Weather Service (www.weather.gov) showing an estimated zero-percent chance of a storm dropping measurable liquids on us.
Weather forecasts shouldn’t be taken as gospel; what counts most, especially with rain, is how much actually falls in a given area at a given time. Looking at state and county maps and charts from the past two years reveals a definite trend toward drought and lack of precipitation, according to the Wyoming State Climate Office and Wyoming Water Resources Data System (www.wrds.uwyo.edu/wrds/wsc).
Sublette County shows up in the bright colors of an under-rained-on area; as posted on July 2, the previous month (June 3 to July 2) reported in with only 25 to 50 percent of the average rainfall. Looking back 60 days (May 3 to July 2) brings up similar numbers and going back 90 days (April 3 to July 2) shows more of the county leaning toward 25 percent of the expected average precipitation. The six-month study shows the county between 25 and 50 percent and one year’s total precipitation (July 3, 2006, to July 2, 2007) portrays Sublette County as having received only 50 to 70 percent of its expected precipitation. Taking it back one more year to July 3, 2005, through July 2, 2007, the map shows the majority of Sublette County as having 50 to 70 percent of the average rain and snow.
“All of Sublette County is considered to be in ‘severe’ drought, and some areas (e.g. near South Pass and Big Sandy) are categorized as ‘extreme’ drought,” explained Gray.
July showers bring…?
Wildland firefighters have battled the combined effects of drought and high temperatures during several local blazes – the Horse Creek Fire, which started June 21, the Salt Lick Fire, which began July 11 and the Pole Fire which lit up the next day, according to Bridger-Teton National Forest (BTNF) reports.
The Horse Creek Fire appeared to steam and smoke after Sunday’s light rainfall but was already 100-percent contained on July 2, according to reports.
The Salt Lick and Pole fires received better treatment from recent rainfall, especially in the case of the Pole Fire, which began on private land near Fremont Lake and quickly grew to 1,044 blazing acres of dried grasses and sagebrush. It was “controlled” Sunday and mop-up efforts are underway.
That fire threatened homes and buildings and but a downpour later in its first day helped firefighters control that blaze.
“Due to wetting rains throughout the evening, (the fire) has calmed considerably,” reported an InciWeb summary (www.inciweb.org).
The Salt Lick Fire has received rain more often, but contrary to what many people think, the precipitation hasn’t really helped, forest officials say.
“We have received small amounts of rain on the fire almost every evening,” said Fire Prevention Technician Daria Day on Tuesday. While the moisture might have helped during suppression and mop-up efforts, it didn’t have a serious impact.
Pinedale District Ranger Ken Gephardt said that most of the rain, especially daytime precipitation, evaporates within several hours and leaves the forest in “very very high” danger conditions.
“Over the last three days we have gotten anything from a couple tenths’ to three-quarters’ (of an inch),” he said of the Salt Lick Fire, located partly in BTNF and partly in the Bridger Wilderness area. “All in all these rain events aren’t helping very much.
“Dead trees on the ground out there are as dry as a two-by-four,” Gephardt said. “So that tells us the fire severity is very, very high. ... We are so far into the drought cycle that a little bit of rain is not going anywhere to loosen up fire restrictions.”
The ranger district has received special emergency funding to pay for rangers patrolling nights and weekends as “forest protection officers,” he said.
“They can even write tickets,” Gephardt said. “It’s just that important.”
Causes of the three fires, which fed heartily on over-dried fuels such as grasses, brush, deadfall and beetle-killed trees, are as-yet nonspecific. What started the Horse Creek Fire is listed as “unknown” in reports.
“They have several potions, none of which have been ruled out,” said BTNF Public Affairs Officer Mary Cernicek. “Lightning, cigarette, fireworks, catalytic converter from a car, campfire, arson, etc.”
The Pole Fire’s cause is “under investigation” and the Salt Lick Fire has “human” listed as its origin.
“It is pretty obvious where the fire started” near the end of the road but “exactly how and what physical activity took place, we’re not sure,” Gephardt said, citing an ongoing investigation into the Salt Lick Fire.
Fire Prevention Technician Daria Day said Tuesday that forest wildland fire investigators are working with county and forest law enforcement to uncover the cause.
“Should an individual be found responsible for setting the fire they can be held responsible for suppression costs and/or resource damage costs,” she said. “Fire causes will be eliminated by the investigators as the investigation continues.”
What is clear to forest officials is that, despite recent precipitation, Sublette County and public lands aren’t out of the woods yet in regards to the severe fire dangers faced in a continuing drought.
“Despite receiving periodic moisture, the BTNF remains in extreme fire danger,” Day said. “Lower than normal snow pack and precipitation has resulted in extremely dry conditions and vegetation with record-breaking low fuel moistures. These pre-existing conditions mean that the area is primed for fire activity and residents are reminded that the fire season is far from over.”
Dry lightning is a potential fire starter in such dry times, according to Cernicek.
“Wetting rains are really what is needed to make a difference on a fire,” she said. “A lot of times we see ... dry lightning – lightning that moves through an area with an insignificant amount of rain. With the coming of thunderheads comes shifting winds and that always poses a situation to firefighters where they have to be on the lookout. Winds can change a fire’s behavior in a heartbeat.
“It isn’t just rain that firefighters look to for help from Mother Nature on a fire,” Cernicek said. “There are several weather factors, including relative humidity, temperature, winds and rain. Overall, it is the status of our fuels. We have dry fuels on the ground, low moisture content in the trees, sage, grasses, and those are all components that officials look at when deciding on fire restrictions and fire danger for the forest.”
From the ashes
Experiences such as the Yellowstone fires of 1988 shows that with a wildfire’s obvious destruction come the flip side – a regeneration of healthy plants and trees and more fertile soil.
“Time and experience has taught us that wildfires play an essential role in maintaining a healthy forest ecosystem,” said Day. “Years of suppressing wildfires have led to imbalances in the wildlands ... Many of the highly valued wildlife species in the BTNF require open spaces with pockets of mixed species, early succession trees, shrubs and grasses.”
The Salt Lick Fire removed beetle-killed trees and thinned lodge-pole pine stands to reduce beetle infestation and future fire danger, she added.
Big Horn sheep, elk, moose, grizzly and black bears and deer all benefit from open spaces created in burned areas, Day said, with “succulent growth of vegetation ... and increased nutrients in the soil.”
Elk, moose, deer and grizzlies are already returning to the Salt Lick Fire area, she said.
While there is no permitted livestock grazing in the Pole and Salt Lick fire areas, the Horse Creek Fire burned half of Merna rancher Louie Roberts’ 17,000-acre BTNF grazing allotment.
The north half of his allotment burned in 2002, he said.
“They think I’m the only permittee that’s happened to. We’ll have more grass though,” Roberts said. “We had more grass than ever after the first half burned and in three or four years it’ll be grass waist-high.”
Fish fish fishin’
Believe it or not, fish can suffer – and benefit - from wildland fires as well, according to Gephardt, who is a fisheries biologist by training.
“Depending on fire severity, you can lose an isolated fish population,” he said. Fish don’t die from the fire itself but from aftereffects such as slipping of unstable steep slopes and erosion.
“In Gypsum Creek (of the Salt Lick area) there is a conservation population of Colorado cutthroat trout,” he said. “A team of researchers will be looking at the potential effects on the fish populations, erosion and if we need to do some rehabilitation projects.”
Streams can “rebound very quickly with the nutrients added to water from a fire,” he said. “These fish populations can actually be very resilient and come back very very fast.”
In the meantime, fire danger, wildlife habitat and vegetative growth hinges on alleviating the current drought, which can only happen with unrealistic amounts of rain, according to Gray.
“Everything from here on out will just get drier,” he said last week. “That’s historical ... You don’t have a reasonable chance of receiving that precipitation in that amount of time.”
While checking weather forecasts can be akin to reading horoscopes, there is some hope offered in the National Weather Service’s upcoming forecast:
“Friday/night: A 20-percent chance to “slight chance” of showers and thunderstorms after noon ... Saturday: A slight chance of showers and thunderstorm ... Sunday: Partly cloudy, with a high near 90. Monday: A slight chance of showers and thunderstorms. Partly cloudy, with a high near 89.”
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