Wyoming fire rages on, crosses Colorado border
for The Fence Post
A fire roaring through the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest in Wyoming crossed into Colorado Wednesday night and had spread to more than 117,000 acres by Thursday morning.
Ranchers are “hopping busy” trying to keep their animals safe, said Brett Moline, director of governmental and public affairs for the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation, based in Laramie, Wyo. While some had already moved livestock off the national forestland, where they have grazing allotments, others are still scrambling to get animals out. And even if that’s done, there are plenty of ranches just outside the national forest, in areas that could be in the fire’s path, depending on the direction it goes.
The fire will cause financial losses, yes, but it’s the emotional toll that Moline said he couldn’t stress enough. Producers don’t want to see their animals suffer and they’re concerned about wildlife too. “It’s going to be emotional as hell for these people,” he said. “I think that’s one thing that people that aren’t involved in ag don’t understand.”
Known as the Mullen fire because it started in the Mullen Creek drainage area, 38 miles from Laramie, the fire is zero percent contained, said John Peterson, an information officer, in an interview Wednesday. The wind conditions, rugged terrain and ample fuel in a beetle-killed forest has kept firefighters so busy protecting homes and other structures there hasn’t been time or resources to work to contain the fire, which started Sept. 17.
“This fire has a long ways to go,” he said. “This fire is going to be put out by snow, it’s not going to be put out by firefighters.”
Jackie Roaque, rangeland management specialist for the U.S. Forest Service, Laramie ranger district, told The Fence Post she’s been working 16 hour days, helping livestock producers get their cattle out of the national forest.
The fire started just as many producers were beginning the work of locating cattle and moving them for the winter, said Geri Proctor, forest rangeland and invasive program manager for the U.S. Forest Service. The move off deadline for that area is generally Oct. 1.
“It’s definitely an impact to the producers out there and we’re trying to do everything we can to work with them,” she said, adding that includes help to move cattle and keeping producers informed. Once the fire is out, the next steps will be doing assessments to determine what grazing can happen next year as well as what damage has been sustained to things like fences or developed water sources.
Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said he’s been smelling the fire. Magagna is based out of the office in Cheyenne, Wyo., and travels across the state for work. He hadn’t heard of any livestock losses. He pointed to a snowfall that happened in that area a couple weeks ago. “I’m assuming that helped to get them out of the highest country,” he said.
Areas of the national forest have up to 80 to 90 percent beetle-killed trees, which provided a lot of fuel for the fire, Moline said. He is of the opinion that the situation wouldn’t be as bad if the forest had been properly managed and rejected the idea that it was caused by global warming. He pointed out that there used to be multiple sawmills in the area but now there’s only one in operation. “We’re feeling the effects of decades of no management,” he said.
The impact of this fire to grazing lands will continue for several years. If the fire burns quickly, plant life may come back quickly, he said. Unfortunately, undesirable weeds such as thistles are often the first to pop up, however. In areas with beetle-killed trees where the fire gets into the wood, it burns so hot it can semi sterilize the soil and take a lot longer for plant life to rebound. “There’s so many variables, you just don’t know how long it will take to recover,” he said.
MORE ABOUT THE FIRE
More than 900 personnel have been assigned to the fire and more are continuing to arrive, according to the National Wildlife Coordinating Group incident information system website. Command of the fire was transferred to the Rocky Mountain Area Incident Management Blue Team on Sept. 22. “The firefighting effort continues to prioritize public and firefighter safety, and protection of nearby communities and other values at risk including the city of Cheyenne water,” according to information on the website.
On Wednesday night, during a live question and answer session at the Mullen Fire Information Facebook page, incident commander Michael Hayden said it was a very active fire and resources to contain it are limited. “We do in fact have nearly 1,000 people on the Mullen fire, I’ll be honest, we want more,” he said. “We want more resources out there to protect structures, bridges, values at risk and the forest overall.”
He said there’s been an incredible outpouring of support from locals, cooperating agencies and more. Efforts to fight the fire included use of firefighting crews, heavy equipment and a lot of aircraft.
On Sept. 26, the Federal Emergency Management Agency authorized the use of federal funds to assist with the costs of fighting the Mullen fire. FEMA funding will be available to pay for up to 75 percent of Wyoming’s eligible firefighting costs, according to a FEMA press release.
Mandatory evacuations and road closures are in place in multiple areas in Wyoming and some areas of Colorado. On Wednesday, the Albany County Sheriff’s Office announced that damage assessments were completed in lower Keystone, Lake Creek and Foxborough. A total of 38 property owners experienced losses, adding up to 29 dwellings and 31 outbuildings lost.
Those that want to help are encouraged to support local first responders, as the Rocky Mountain Area team firefighters have everything they need. Donations can also be directed to the American Red Cross of Wyoming, which is providing services such as housing, food, medical and mental health support for people effected by the fire.
The cause of the fire is under investigation. Anyone with first-hand information about relevant activity in the south Mullen Creek drainage should call the Medicine Bow National Forest – Laramie Ranger District anonymous tip line at (307) 745-2392. ❖
— Jessen is a freelance writer living in Minnesota with her nurse husband and daughter. They recently settled down after more than three years living a travel lifestyle, thanks to her husband’s travel nurse job. She can be reached at email@example.com.