Extended wild growth could lead to high fire danger

Plumes of smoke from a grass fire that has encompassed land, and possibly structures, in Goshen County and Scotts Bluff County in July 2016.

GERING — The spring and early summer weather have allowed wild vegetation in the region to remain green well beyond when it would normally have turned brown.

“The late snows and rains that we had seemingly every week have really kept the whole area very green,” Scotts Bluff National Monument Superintendent Dan Morford said. “The clover especially has just exploded. ... The cool weather and the rain were just perfect for clover growth.”

That growth does not come without a risk, though. The more rains that come to keep the vegetation green for as long as possible, the better.

“The fire danger could go through the roof if it does dry out,” Morford said. “There will be a lot of available fuel, so the fire departments will have to be on alert for that.”

Gering Fire Chief Nathan Flowers said his department has only had one grass fire this year that was started by lightning, but it was followed by a rain, so it was contained fairly quickly.

Meteorologist Jeff Garmon of the National Weather Service in Cheyenne said the fire risk is being watched.

“That’s a concern that we have,” Garmon said. “Especially now as we go into late summer, early fall, what we classify as fire season. It gets more windy and it’s something that we have to be cognizant of with the types of storms that we’ll typically have. ... The climatology as we approach September is that the storms are fewer and they’re drier, so you can get dry lightning that comes with those systems, and that would be a concern.”

Grassland has dried out more in the southern Panhandle and eastern Wyoming than in the central and northern Panhandle due to fewer storms, according to Garmon. A series of upper level disturbances left the Scottsbluff area almost 2 1/2 inches above normal for precipitation year-to-date, but the next couple of weeks are projected to be below normal precipitation and will allow more of the vegetation to dry out.

“We’re seeing the parameters line up for more risk and the potential of fires as those grasses will dry out,” Garmon said.

Flowers said fall adds to the fire danger risk as people on public lands or even hunters may be driving their vehicle and toss out an inadvertent cigarette or park a hot vehicle in tall grass where it can ignite.

“I guess the main thing is for hunters and people using public lands to be cognizant of where they’re parking,” he said. “Turn off your vehicle when you park so that it doesn’t stay hot, and don’t park in an area where there’s tall grasses.”

Individuals conducting land management burns should understand the weather situation. Garmon said winds from the northwest or west are more likely to push a fire along. Flowers said always make sure you have a good prescribed fire plan before conducting a burn to keep it under control, keeping in mind that what a section may have done in past years when the vegetation was shorter may not react the same this year with the higher growth.

Next spring may also be a hazard, Flowers said. Ditches that are typically burned in the spring will have more fuel next year, so those conducting the burns will have to stay aware of the risks.

The best thing for the public is to watch the NWS website at weather.gov/cys for fire danger warnings and listen to local officials.

“Pay close attention to what your local fire managers are saying,” Garmon said. “They’re more boots-on-the-ground than we are, and they can see more of what’s going on locally.”

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Mark McCarthy is a reporter with the Star-Herald. He can be reached at 308-632-9049 or via email at mark.mccarthy@starherald.com.

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