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Jun 5, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

'Normal' fire danger is no cause for complacency as summer nears

Of course it was good to hear that wildfire danger in Fremont County and Western Wyoming is not extreme in the weeks just before summer begins.

But we'd best not get complacent.

A day or two ago the land managers and analysts who assess fire risk classified Fremont County's condition as "normal" for this time of year. While normal is better than extreme, normal fire danger in Western Wyoming is a far different thing from normal fire danger in, say, Florida.

Acknowledging up front that this observation has not been verified through research, it's likely that many of the biggest forest or wildfires seen in Wyoming over the past 50 years were sparked during years when the fire danger was listed as "normal."

Our normal conditions as summer nears in undeveloped areas in Wyoming are:

- hot, with temperatures routinely in the 90s in the valleys and even reaching 80 in upper country forests;

- dry, with what limited rainfall we do get most likely having fallen by the time the summer solstice arrives;

- prone to lightning, with afternoon and evening thunderstorms commonplace, particularly in mountain areas that are heavily forested;

- windy, with strong gusts that can accelerate flames quickly, particularly around thunderstorm areas;

- remote, with fires able to grow to significant proportions before they are detected, and often occurring in regions far removed from fast response by firefighters;

- and well-used by recreation-loving Wyoming citizens, who drive vehicles into fire-prone areas, who build campfires, who may smoke cigarettes, and who, despite good training, good habits and best intentions, occasionally do something that causes a fire.

We had a late surge of precipitation in April and early May across the Wind River Basin and surrounding forest land. No doubt that has brought forth a vigorous growth of grass and underbrush, which looks nice now but will become an enemy of sorts later in the year as the new growth dries out. Anyone care to bet that the fire danger rating for the area won't stay "normal" for long?

Even in the best of years, fire-wise, we are at one of the highest risk levels for forest wildfires in the nation. Don't let labels fool you. We need to be careful, starting right now.

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