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Alpine Lake Fire one of Wyoming's giants this year

Sep 25, 2012 - By Christina George, Staff Writer

State wildfires

Arapaho Fire: 98,115 acres

Fontenelle Fire: 64,220

Oil Creek Fire: 62,318

Alpine Lake Fire: 43,032

North Buffalo Fire: 28,600

Sheep Herder: 15,556

Sawmill Canyon: 14,185

Squirrel Creek: 10,921

Ferris: 8,797

Combined: 371,614 acres

The Alpine Lake Fire burning on the Wind River Indian Reservation is the fourth largest wildfire in Wyoming so far this season, weather officials say.

According to a report from the National Weather Service office in Riverton, the lightning-caused fire has consumed 43,032 acres since it was detected Aug. 7.

Other wildfires

The Arapaho Fire 28 miles northwest of Wheatland tops the state list at a reported 98,115 acres, followed by the Fontenelle Fire near Big Piney that measures 64,220 acres. At 62,318 acres, the Oil Creek Fire northwest of Newcastle is ranked third.

Another nearby wildfire that made the list is the still-active North Buffalo Fire 35 miles northwest of Dubois in the Teton Wilderness. That fire has reached 28,600 acres.

Other fires listed were the Sheep Herder on Casper Mountain at 15,556 acres, the Sawmill Canyon near Glendo at 14,185 acres, the Squirrel Creek by Laramie at 10,921 acres and the Ferris wildfire near Rawlins at 8,797 acres.

According to the NWS, the fires combined have consumed 371,614 acres -- about 580 square miles or roughly half of the state of Rhode Island.

"It's definitely more fires than last year," NWS meteorologist Brett McDonald said. "The last two years we have had cooler, wet springs that have certainly prevented fires from taking off, and fires wouldn't start until the end of summer, early fall. This year, we've had fires all summer long."

Drought conditions

This year's fire weather sprung from the sudden onset of extreme to severe drought conditions that caused favorable conditions for large wildfires.

Officials said 2012 represented Wyoming's driest spring-summer on record because of a below-normal winter snowpack. Since Jan. 1, Lander has recorded 4.96 inches of rainfall, which is down from the normal 9.61 inches. Riverton has recorded 2.19 inches since Jan. 1, down from the normal 7.42 inches.

This summer, Wyoming reported its driest August on record, which dates back 118 years, with a statewide average of .12 inches of precipitation in 2012. Lander and Riverton saw even less rain in August, reporting .03 and .04 inches, respectively.

As of Sept. 13, extreme drought conditions expanded north across most of the Wind River and Big Horn basins, as well as most areas east of Interstate 25 and south of Interstate 90.

Looking to the future, the NWS reported that the seasonal outlook for September through November shows a chance for above-normal temperatures statewide. The highest chances, 40 percent or higher, will be east of the Continental Divide. Precipitation during the same time period is expected to be below normal to normal.

"The U.S. seasonal drought outlook released on September 6th showed that drought conditions were likely to persist or intensify through November across all areas in Wyoming that are currently in drought," reads a statement from the NWS.

According to the NWS report, Wyoming was 100 percent free of drought in 2011, though some abnormally dry conditions existed across the far eastern portion of the state.

Fall storms

Despite drought conditions likely to remain in the area for a while, McDonald said a weekend storm system dropped some rain on central Fremont County, and more is expected in the next few days.

He said the .09 inch recorded Sunday in Lander was the most seen statewide. Another .05 inch dropped Monday in Lander. Riverton reported .01 inches Sunday and Monday.

"We are looking to have precipitation the next two days that will definitely help out with fires," McDonald said. "There's a good chance some areas will see as much as a half-inch, but that will likely be in the higher elevations."

He said his agency is excited to see another storm.

"It's nice being able to shift from fire (concerns) to storms and precipitation," McDonald said.

Wind River Agency public information officer Karl Brauneis said the recent precipitation has helped with management of the Alpine Lake Fire.

"We're actually getting some moisture on the fire," Brauneis said.

He said the fire likely grew a couple hundred acres Sunday, but an aircrew did not fly Monday to get an accurate size.

"We have a pretty good handle on it," he said about the blaze. "We're still using the helicopter to drop water to cool certain areas, but we're scaling back."

Brauneis said smokejumpers and Calaveras crews have been released from the fire, and a crew from the Black Hills was going to be released Tuesday along with a number of engines.

"The next day or so we will demobilize some resources," he said. "We will still keep on it and have some crew action and some water drop, and if it turns hot, dry and windy, we will gear up again."

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