Summer brings not just warmth and long, beautiful days to the region; the hotter temperatures also bring a certain amount of unease as area skies become hazy with smoke.
Often, the wildfires are burning far away: in the wilds of Canada, across grasslands in Montana or forests in Oregon.
But sometimes, a fire hits closer to home.
Two weeks ago, on July 18, the June Fire started on the North Fork area of the Shoshone National Forest. By the end of the next day, it had already ripped through roughly 1,500 acres, or more than 2.3 square miles.
The Shoshone is well known as a “backcountry” forest, with acre after acre of remote, untouched wilderness. But the North Fork area is an exception. The corridor along U.S. Highway 14/16/20 is lined with hundreds of structures. Many guest ranches, camps and cabins were at risk if the blaze headed in the wrong direction.
A Shoshone crew and engine and the Wyoming Interagency Hotshots — based in Greybull — sprung into action soon after the fire started, but its quick growth in some rugged country proved too difficult for those crews to handle alone.
More firefighters and a more advanced management team were summoned. Within days, upwards of 275 people from around the country were on the scene and working to contain and extinguish the June Fire.
Thanks to those efforts (and some cooperative weather), the June Fire was effectively stopped in its tracks. When the blaze threatened to jump out of its boundaries and head east, firefighters snuffed out those spot fires.
By Wednesday — just a little more than a week after the blaze started — things were already back to some sense of normalcy; all closures in the area were lifted and many workers headed for home or other wildfires across the country. On Friday, crews actually spent part of the day restoring some of the fire breaks they had cut into the forest as precautions. The most recent estimates pegged the fire’s size at 1,618 acres — only about 118 acres larger than after its first day.
Given their efficiency in containing the June Fire, it might be easy to take the firefighters’ and leaders’ work for granted, but it’s worth remembering the threats they face. As a very real example, consider that a portion of the June Fire burned through part of the area scorched in the 1937 Blackwater Fire, which claimed the lives of 15 firefighters and injured 38 others. While techniques and equipment may have improved since then, the dangers faced by firefighters remain.
We are fortunate to have so many men and women ready and willing to put themselves in harm’s way to protect our properties and lives. We owe them our thanks for their recent work on the North Fork.
We see that same type of dedication almost every day from our own local volunteer fire departments. However, as the June Fire reminds us, some incidents are simply too large for local crews to handle.
The federal government draws plenty of complaints for doing things poorly or for getting its hands into areas where they don’t belong. There’s no doubt the government has room for improvement in fighting wildfires; as one example, we think that, in certain places, it would be worth trying to harvest dying timber before it becomes fire-feeding fuel. In the meantime, however, we appreciate the hundreds of millions of dollars that Congress has set aside to fund federal firefighting. We hope lawmakers and our country as a whole continue to recognize the critical importance of those efforts.
When the dog days of summer bring smoky skies and wildfires, it’s reassuring to know helicopters, fire engines, “Super Scoopers,” hotshots and others stand ready to lend a hand.