BLM firefighters prep for fire seasonJul 16, 2017 By Daniel Bendtsen, Staff Writer
As BLM firefighters in the Wind River Basin prepare for things to heat up, the busy 2016 season remains fresh in their minds.
Last year, the Salt Center Fire north of Ten Sleep kicked things off on June 10, followed by several large fires including the Lava Mountain Fire north of Dubois, the Hatchery Fire east of Ten Sleep, the Whit Fire west of Cody and the Twin Lakes Fire south of Meeteetse.
These firefighters are frequent collaborators with their peers in the Bighorn Basin, where more than 200 fires burned approximately 38,000 acres within the Cody Dispatch Zone last summer.
Firm predictions about what we can expect this year are difficult to make. "
There was significant snow this spring so there is now an abundance of grasses and other fine fuels, especially cheatgrass," said BLM fire management officer Rich Zimmerlee. "These fine fuels are now dry and can ignite readily and burn easily. As a result, fire danger is high."
Rural fire partnerships
When a wildfire sparks, response usually comes from a mix of local and federal agencies. Nearby volunteers are often the first to arrive on-scene, and the BLM has fire partnerships with Fremont County.
"Partnerships with local volunteer fire departments make us better fire managers," said Zimmerlee. "Together, we can be more effective than as individual agencies."
To that end, district firefighters provided annual Fireline Safety Refresher Training, as well as some higher-level classes, to more than 200 rural volunteer firefighters this spring.
This cooperative effort began in 2002 and ensures all firefighters are prepared to safely respond to wildfires.
In preparation for fire season, 30 seasonal BLM firefighters now fortify the ranks of the district firefighting program, which includes the Cody, Lander and Worland field offices. Five engines and a 20-person hand crew are fully staffed.
The BLM also manages single engine air tanker bases in both Greybull and Riverton, vital to wildland firefighting efforts.
The new hires completed "Guard school," a course required of all state and federal employees who are training to become wildland firefighters. Guard school is a mix of both classroom training and field exercises, including suppression methods, tool use, map and compass use, engine and pump operations and a live fire exercise. Returning seasonal firefighters attended advanced courses to sharpen their skills and learn new skills.
Veterans firefighting crews
Running a chainsaw is one of the skills firefighters need to suppress wildfires. District firefighters joined two special military veterans crews -- the Devil's Canyon Hand Crew and national emergency responders from Team Rubicon -- for sawyer training and team building on public land in Markham Draw, northeast of Ten Sleep along the west slope of the Bighorn Mountains.
The cutting project reinvigorated aspen stands by reducing conifer encroachment and firefighters received needed on-the-job chainsaw training.
The BLM began assembling veterans firefighting crews in 2012 and there are currently eight in the U.S., including the 20-person Devil's Canyon Hand Crew stationed in Worland.
Hiring veterans for hand crews is a win-win strategy for the BLM and veterans alike, BLMR00;officials said. The BLM can hire military veterans who are well-equipped for the job. Veterans often have the skills, discipline, team focus and attention to safety that are critical in the dangerous work of firefighting. Veterans usually can find immediate employment opportunities through the Veterans Hiring Authority and other veterans hiring appointments.
This was the second year the BLM hosted members of Team Rubicon at the Markham Draw training.
Team Rubicon is an international non-profit disaster response organization that pairs the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders for rapid deployment of emergency response teams to communities affected by disasters.