Column: Tribute to forest firefighters | Outside

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One of the most common words used to describe summer 2021 is ‘hot’. With records from the beginning of June until October; county and federal fire restrictions starting early and continuing through late fall; and with little to no wet rain for weeks on end, it’s no wonder.

Any day this summer could have looked a lot like August 21, 1937, the day the Blackwater fire in the Shoshone National Forest near Cody, Wyoming got worse. It was hot, nearly 90 degrees according to historical reports. The fire had been smoldering in a drainage for a few days since lightning ignited it around August 18, 1937. It was thought to only extend over a few acres when fire crews were alerted and quickly began digging. hand lines to contain it.

On August 20, 1937, it spanned over 200 acres and 58 men were on hand to try to bring the blaze under control. Reinforcements arrived from Bighorn National Forest in the early morning hours of August 21, 1937 and were quickly dispatched to the line. That afternoon, around 3:30 p.m., a previously detected localized fire and a sudden change in weather caused the fire to explode.

Many firefighters could not escape and were burned. Nine men were killed instantly, six were so badly burned that death soon followed in hospital or during the evacuation and 38 others were injured. Twelve of the fatalities were from the Bighorn National Forest crew, including their two foremen, James T. Saban and Paul E. Tyrrell. At that time, it was the biggest loss of life from a single fire since 1910.

This is a scenario without a fire manager with every parent, sister, brother, friend, child, etc. wants repeated. So when a fire was reported in a remote and rugged area of ​​the Bighorn National Forest on July 17, 2021, managers were on high alert and fearful of sending people in for a direct attack. Thought to be caused by lightning, the blaze started out small, like the Blackwater, but in just a few hours it has grown to over 200 acres. Firefighters immediately began calling for reinforcements from a pool of resources from which all other fires in the region and country were also drawing. Fortunately, an intervention command team was available.

The team quickly determined that putting people in the steep canyon with fire, although this may have resulted in faster suppression of the fires, was not a feasible option due to concerns for safety and well-being. of those who would be sent. The plan was to build containment lines away from the main blazes of the fire, where crews could do so without unnecessary risk.

However, since this method leaves unburned fuels in the perimeter, it became apparent that this would be a long extinguishing fire that managers suspected could last until a weather event of end of season, like a big snowstorm, occurs.

Firefighting efforts have focused on building and maintaining containment lines and preventing perimeter growth and point fires. The crews were supported by helicopters that dropped water on indoor hotspots as they cooled and kept the blaze from spreading to its containment lines. High winds brought planes to a standstill and pushed flames over containment lines a few times in August and September. Crews have been able to prevent further growth since that time.

The Crater Ridge Fire went through a Type 2 and two Type 3 Incident Command Team. They are currently under the Sixth Type 4 Team. Long fire seasons can be taxing on our teams. They are deployed across the country and come from local, state and federal agencies. They are away from family and friends for weeks and can be fired after only a short break. The fire season is particularly becoming a phenomenon throughout the year with favorable weather conditions for forest fires that last longer, thus reducing the rest and recovery of firefighters formerly in “off season”.

Even with advancements in fire science and mathematical models of fire and over 100 years of experience in fire management that provide the USDA Forest Service with a wealth of knowledge on which to draw decisions. , the work is always exhausting, hot and dangerous. The rewards of protecting life, property and natural resources help bring our firefighters back every day. The next time you see a wildland firefighter please thank him for what he does. Help them by respecting closures and fire restrictions, and if you have any questions about local fire management, please contact one of the Bighorn National Forest offices.

Sara kirol is a public affairs officer for the Bighorn National Forest.


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