Fire concerns intensify under extreme drought

by nathan oster

As wildfires rage out of control across Montana, its neighbor to the south has been relatively fortunate thus far. But with recent drought conditions drying up the same grasses that flourished after a wet spring, the potential for a similar devastation exists in Wyoming, too.

An incident Saturday morning near Shell illustrates how easily a fire can start — and spread.

Bill Hayes and Karen Hayes, who reside one mile west of Shell at 1470 Highway 14, were removing unwanted vegetation from the side of a hill and using a four-wheeler to move the slashed debris to place where it could be safely burned after drying.

“We kept going back and forth, from the bottom of the hill to the top of the hill,” said Bill. “Well at the bottom, the cheat grass is a foot high in some places, and when Karen made a trip down there at about 11 or 11:15, the muffler must have been hot enough that it sparked something.

“It was like throwing gasoline on a fire. There was a ‘poof’ — then it just took off.”

They called the county dispatch center, which immediately paged members of the Shell Fire Department. Personnel and equipment from the Greybull Fire Department arrived a short time later.

With the equipment they had, which included a shovel, the Hayes tried their best to slow the blaze, but to no avail. It spread onto Bureau of Land Management land, consuming a total of 72 acres before being brought under control.

Sarah Beckwith, in public affairs for the BLM Wyoming Wind River/Bighorn Basin District, said personnel and equipment from the Bighorn and Shoshone national forests and the BLM also responded to the fire.

Although there were several homes in close proximity, none were damaged. Two slurry bombers, summoned from the Greybull airport, were credited with helping to bring the fire under control.

Shell firefighters spent about two to three hours on scene before clearing.

“It’s very dry,” said Terry Mueller, one of the Shell firefighters who responded to the call. “And with hunters coming in soon, you just can’t be too careful. We’ve seen four-wheelers start fires. I’ve even seen bullets do it.”

Brent Godfrey, the Big Horn County fire warden, agreed. “Any little spark is capable of setting off a fire,” he said.

To date, the only fire of note, besides the one in shell, was on the very southern tip of the county, off of Five Mile Road. Called in about a week earlier, it had started in the same way, only in an oilfield.

Bighorn National Forest firefighters spent Tuesday mopping up the Burnt Mountain fire in the Medicine Wheel Ranger District. Located about 4 miles northeast of Porcupine Ranger Station, it consumed about two acres. A lightning strike was identified as the cause. Firefighters were hoping to have it under control by sometime Wednesday afternoon.

Looking back on Saturday’s fire, Hayes said he is thankful that no homes or property was damaged, although he acknowledged that he’ll likely have to put in a new wooden fence post or two for his neighbor, Ken Jeziorski.

“I guess it’s a reminder that you always have to be extremely vigilant,” he said. “When it’s so dry, it can all happen so fast.”

Godfrey was asked about the haze that has settled in over the Big Horn Basin from the fires that are burning out of control in Montana. He said anyone with a breathing disorder should stay inside whenever possible.

“The only way the smoke is going to clear is if we get a wind that pushes it out of the valley,” he said.

Godfrey asks people to be extra careful and to put off burning if possible.