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Hot, dry, dangerous: Fire risk extreme, officials warn

Jun 26, 2012 - By Christina George, Staff Writer

Several agencies, including those in Fremont County, are on high alert due to extreme fire risk in nearly all of Wyoming.

"It's going to remain really, really dry, and everyone needs to watch anything that has to do with outdoor burning," said Paul Skrbac, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Riverton.

On Tuesday, a red-flag warning for fire danger remained in effect for most of the state.

Recent record-breaking heat isn't helping and has some officials drawing comparisons between the current fire threats and catastrophic incidents in past years.

"The dry conditions that we are experiencing today rival those of the 1988 Yellowstone fire season and the 1999-2003 drought seasons," said Wind River Agency fire management officer Bob Jones in a news release issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs Forestry and Wildland Fire Management.

Record heat

On Friday, a heat wave entered the area, heightening the fire risk. The National Weather Service attributed the warmth to a ridge of high pressure over the central high plains that pulled a hot and extremely dry air mass from the southwest of the country across west and central Wyoming.

The 97-degree high set in downtown Riverton on Friday, made it the third-hottest June 22 reported since recordkeeping began in 1907.

In nearby Lander, Friday warmed to 94 degrees, making it the fifth- warmest June 22 on record for the city since 1892.

Although no records were broken, Saturday remained warm.

With a 100-degree high, Worland was the state's hottest place. Downtown Riverton was a close second at 99 degrees. Saturday's temperature in Riverton now ranks as the city's fourth-warmest June 23 ever.

Saturday's high temperature of 96 degrees in Lander tied for the third-warmest June 23 documented there, where records date back to the late 19th century.

Sunday, June 24, also was a scorcher, with records broken in Riverton and Rock Springs.

Rock Springs reported a 105-degree high on Sunday, which shattered the previous 102-degree record set in 1974 and 1988.

Downtown Riverton experienced a 101-degree high, tying the 1990 record.

Lander was a degree shy from hitting the 99-degree record set in 1988. Sunday's 98-degree high is the city's second-hottest June 24 in the record books.

Things didn't cool off Monday, June 25, with record-breakers in Casper and Rock Springs at 100 and 93 degrees, respectively.

Locally, downtown Riverton experienced a 99-degree high, tying for the second-warmest June 25 in the logbooks.

Monday's high temperature in Lander tied for the third warmest on record, at a reported 95 degrees.

Surrounding fires

Despite a few close calls, including an unattended campfire in the Wind River Mountains last week that burned 1/10th of an acre before firefighters extinguished the flames, the county has been spared from major wildfires of the type raging in elsewhere Wyoming and in neighboring states.

"People really need to be careful with fireworks and fires right now," Fremont County Fire Protection District Chief Craig Haslam said. "Do not leave them unattended, and be very careful."

Hazy skies hovering over the Wind River Basin from fires burning in surrounding places show the risk for the region.

As of Tuesday morning, there were two major fires burning in Wyoming, both of which are producing smoke that can be seen in Fremont County.

In the Medicine Bow National Forest, the Russell's Camp Fire that started on June 17 has scorched nearly 5,500 acres.

Also in progress is the newer Fontenelle Fire northwest of LaBarge in Lincoln County that has burned 300 acres since it started on Sunday.

There were also reports of two other fires starting this week near Ten Sleep and in Johnson County.

Skrbac said other fires contributing to the smoky skies in the county are in Utah, Nevada, Colorado and South Dakota.

No fire restrictions yet

"Fremont County has been lucky so far, and we need to keep it that way because the conditions are getting drier and drier every day," Skrbac said.

"Check with the local forest service for restrictions. There aren't any in place yet, but I expect them to be forthcoming," he added.

Haslam asks the public to be mindful.

"We are very concerned with how dry it is in the county right now," Haslam said. "We are asking people to be careful."

In a news release, the Bureau of Land Management's Wind River/Bighorn Basin District urged those using public lands for recreating to use caution.

"We are experiencing a lack of moisture and unseasonably hot and dry conditions which are expected to continue for the foreseeable future," assistant fire management officer Ryan Sundberg said in the release. "Please be fire safe while recreating this summer."

Sundberg cautions campers and those recreating to be aware of the dried vegetation that can easily burn.

"Ensure your campfire is completely out before turning in for the night," he added.

Reservation concern

Since the fire season got under way, the Wind River Agency has suppressed more than 60 fires on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

Because the agency expects the figure to climb, it is bringing in additional firefighting resources to be staged for initial attack on the reservation.

Jones believes the reservation is at the same time and place as the extreme fire seasons seen in past years such as the 2000 Kates Basin fire that burned more than 137,000 acres in the Owl Creek Mountains, and the 2002 South Fork Fire that burned more than 15,000 acres in the Wind River Mountain Range.

The recent mountain pine beetle infestation and white pine blister rust have contributed to a heavy dead fuel load that makes for an "explosive" fire condition, the release states.

More danger

On Monday, the National Weather Service issued a warning of possible strong winds and lightning in the area through Tuesday evening. Skrbac said the storms likely would exacerbate fire conditions.

"The thunderstorms will be dry but will produce wind and possible lightning strikes," he said.

The high-pressure center is expected to bring in a steady stream of hot and dry air, creating favorable conditions for dry thunderstorms.

"Humidity will continue to be low, in the low teens, with some in the single digits, and very gusty and erratic winds are expected with the thunderstorms," the weather station's report reads.

This week's temperatures in both Riverton and Lander are expected to fall a bit to 90-degree range, with the warmest day for both communities occurring on Tuesday at about 95 degrees.

The only chance of precipitation for the neighboring cities is Tuesday evening, with a 20 percent possibility.

For more information about the state's fire danger and weather forecast, visit the National Weather Service's website at http://www.crh.noaa.gov/riw/.

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