Where There’s Smoke

By on July 25, 2018

Northwest Wyoming has seen an exceedingly mild fire season to date, but factors unique to the area place residents and visitors in a vulnerable position

(Sargent Schutt) Snow King took on a volcanic glow during the 2012 Horsethief Canyon Fire.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Unlike other areas in the West engulfed in flames, Northwest Wyoming hasn’t felt much of the heat. Recent fires in the region are tame so far. Teton Interagency Fire reported two lightning-caused fires last week. On July 15, firefighters responded to a fire near Buck Mountain in Grand Teton National Park. Another fire was reported two days later in Bridger-Teton National Forest 27 miles north of Kemmerer. Bridger-Teton National Forest firefighters reported to the scene and are working to suppress the blaze. Teton Interagency helicopters and firefighters joined the efforts.

Teton Interagency firefighters also responded to several abandoned campfires last weekend and on Monday, Yellowstone National Park raised its fire danger level to “high” as a wildfire burns a few miles from the park border in Idaho. Firefighters from Custer-Gallatin National Forest and Yellowstone National Park are coordinating efforts to fight the 25-acre Bacon Rind Fire.

Still, fire danger levels remain “moderate” for Bridger-Teton National Forest and Grand Teton National Park. 

Meanwhile, massive forest fires have raged across Colorado, consuming tens of thousands of acres and destroying hundreds of homes. In June, forest fires burning across New Mexico forced the closure of Santa Fe National Forest and the Philmont Scout Ranch. Fire has scorched more than a hundred thousand acres in Utah, razing nearly a hundred homes. And in California, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency on July 5 as a wildfire blazed along the border with Oregon. One person died, three were injured, and dozens of homes were lost.

In Wyoming, southwest of Laramie, the Badger Creek Fire is still burning and has incinerated 21,000 acres. The fire forced the evacuation of several mountain communities in June before firefighters were able to contain most of the flames. One home and two buildings were destroyed.

Six years ago, during the 2012 Horsethief Canyon Fire, residents experienced some of the same anxieties people in other parts of the West are facing. Officials say that incident was a teachable moment.

A Moment of Reckoning

While the LoToJa cycling race was underway, Kathy Clay, fire marshal of Jackson Hole Fire and EMS, received a call on September 8 that a garbage fire was burning out of control. Clay’s firefighters and EMTs, on standby to attend to cyclist injuries, raced to the scene. “We all knew we were in a very bad situation; conditions were dry and perfect for a fire,” she said.

Despite firefighters’ efforts, the fire continued to spread. For two days, it burned away from Jackson. Then the winds changed and the flames roared up to the top of Snow King Mountain, threatening homes a few miles below.

At one point, Clay and her exhausted firefighters took in the fire roaring behind them. “An amazing smoke column rose up that showed us the ferocity of nature,” she said. “It was a very humbling experience. If the fire had gone over the hill, we would have had a major fire emergency on our hands.”

The winds shifted again and more moisture in the air allowed firefighters to gain the upper hand. Not a single structure was lost and no injuries were reported. The town of Jackson was spared.

Rich Ochs, the Coordinator for Teton County Emergency Management (TCEM), said the Horsethief Canyon Fire was a wake-up call for the community. Many neighborhoods in the valley are located in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) —the zone where wilderness meets human settlement. The WUI includes parts of South and East Jackson, most of Wilson, Teton Village, Kelly, Gros Ventre Junction, Game Creek and Moose.

Indeed, there are few areas in Teton County that are truly considered safe from forest fires, Ochs said. “You may assume that because you don’t live in a forest, you’re safe, but that’s not true. Embers fly far.”

Still, Ochs is confident Teton County has the resources to respond to a major wildfire. TCEM has a wildfire emergency management plan in place, he said. However, unique factors exist in Teton County that could interfere with a successful evacuation.

One is the language barrier. Of primary concern, Ochs said,  is how to communicate emergency procedures to people who speak little or no English. Every summer Jackson’s population triples as thousands of tourists descend on the valley. Many tourists come from other countries and lack the English needed to understand evacuation directions.

The National Elk Refuge became a base of sorts for fire personnel during the Horsethief blaze.

Accommodating residents is also a concern. More than 30 percent of Teton County’s population is Latino and many struggle to find resources in Jackson to learn English. Adults in particular lack access to ESL and literacy classes that would prepare them to follow emergency procedures.

Another factor that can complicate an evacuation is geography. Jackson Hole’s rugged terrain limits the routes of escape available for an evacuation. Only four roadways go in and out of the valley. During an emergency evacuation, Ochs said Teton County has limited manpower to safely supervise the flow of traffic on each roadway.

Dwindling Resources

As rising temperatures fuel more and more devastating fires across the Rocky Mountains, firefighters are finding their resources stretched to the limits.

The cost of fighting wildfires has risen astronomically. Matt Jolly, a research ecologist at the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, said the cost of suppressing fires on National Forest lands has increased from $161 million in 1985 to $2.4 billion in 2017. Twenty years ago, firefighting only accounted for 16 percent of the Forest Service’s budget. Today, wildfire suppression eats up more than half of its funding. By 2025, the Forest Service estimates that two out of every three dollars in federal funding will go toward fighting wildfires.  

With most of the agency’s money directed to firefighting, the Forest Service has less to spend on other forest management activities, Jolly said. These include preventative measures like prescribed burns or thinning out fuel sources such as stands of beetle-killed trees.

Forest Service firefighters are frequently sent to other locations to help with fire emergencies as wildfire incidents grow. Mary Cernicek, public affairs officer for Bridger-Teton National Forest, said local firefighters have been pulled from the region to help with fires in other states. If a wildfire were to ignite in Jackson, the federal National Interagency Fire Center would have to pull firefighters from another national forest to help fill the gap left in Bridger-Teton. As more firefighters are shuffled around, more forests are left vulnerable.

The housing crisis also has an impact on the region’s emergency preparedness.  

Jackson Hole Fire and EMS finds it increasingly difficult to recruit and maintain a team of volunteer firefighters due to a lack of affordable housing. Jackson Hole Fire/EMS relies on teams of volunteer firefighters and EMTs to reinforce the staff of full-time employees, Mike Redwine, Battalion Chief, told Planet Jackson Hole. Each volunteer has to live close enough to their fire house to respond to an emergency within five to 10 minutes.  

Redwine said he finds it relatively easy to find volunteers to staff the Pearl Street fire station in Jackson. Yet Teton County is a vast area, Redwine said, and trying to find volunteers to staff the other fire stations can be daunting. This is especially true on the West Bank. Communities like Wilson are prohibitively expensive for housing and have few affordable options for renting.  

The valley has six fire stations and staffing for each presents problems. Redwine said he receives around 20 applications a year for volunteer firefighters to serve in Jackson, but only 10 combined for Wilson, Moran, Village Road, and Fall Creek Road stations. Many of those outlying firehouses are in the wildland-urban interface that are prone to forest fires.

Ochs said that the housing crisis has also affected TCEM’s ability to recruit and maintain volunteers. Volunteers from the Red Cross, Teton County Emergency Response Team and other organizations like churches are a crucial part of any emergency response. However, fewer people in the valley are able to volunteer because they are working several jobs to cover their rent or mortgage, Ochs said.

Temperatures Rise

The threat from wildfires will only worsen as the climate in the region continues to warm.

Dr. Monica Turner, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has studied forest fires in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) for the past 30 years. For centuries, weather conditions in the GYE kept forest fires to a minimum. “Traditionally, in the forests around Yellowstone, summers were too cool and wet for major fires to break out with any frequency,” she said.

But rising temperatures have led to longer summers with extremely dry, windy and warm weather. Forest fires thrive in these conditions. Turner’s research predicts that by the end of the 21st century, the weather in the Rocky Mountain West will be too hot and dry to prevent wildfires. Massive, out of control wildfires, like the ones that ravaged Yellowstone in 1988, will become the norm, Turner said.

Climate change has also increased the amount of fuel available for fires to burn. Vast stands of dead trees left in the wake of the mountain pine beetle epidemic act as tinder for wildfires. Pine beetles are a natural part of the forest ecosystem in the GYE, Turner said, and bitter cold winter temperatures historically kept the population of beetles low. Warmer winters over the past two decades have diminished nature’s ability to kill off the beetles. Left unchecked, beetles have chewed through 65,000 square miles of forest, according to a recent study published by the U.S. Forest Service.

Despite the Trump administration’s refusal to acknowledge science-based evidence, most scientists agree that human-caused carbon emissions are unequivocally accelerating climate change. “There is no question that, globally speaking, human carbon emissions and widespread deforestation have led to climate change,” said Dr. Rachel Cleetus, policy director for Climate and Energy at the Union for Concerned Scientists.

Global climate change plays out in different ways in each ecosystem, Cleetus said. In the Rocky Mountain West, temperatures have risen an average of 2 degrees Celsius, causing extreme drought conditions across most of the region. The droughts are compounded by earlier snow melts and parched forests are the “perfect tinderbox” for disastrous wildfires, she said.

Forest fires have also threatened populated areas with greater frequency and that’s happening as more people move into the wildland-urban interface. After all, people want to live in beautiful, attractive natural settings, Turner said. Those are the same areas that are becoming more fire- prone as temperatures rise.    

To date, Jackson Hole Fire/EMS and the Forest Service have not lost a single structure to a wildfire. “We should be proud of our record,” Clay said. “But we can’t be complacent. Now is the time to protect your home.”

Clay urged Jacksonites living in the wildland-urban interface to avoid using combustible materials in home construction, especially shake roofs. Homeowners should establish a 30-foot radius around their home and remove anything that could possibly ignite a fire from the perimeter.

Clay and Ochs encourage all homeowners and members of the public to attend informational meetings organized by Teton Area Wildfire Protection Coalition to learn about how to be fire-wise. The next meeting is 6 p.m. Thursday at Teton County Library.


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