Wednesday, September 8, 2010


I'm not talking about Rice Krispies...I'm talking about wildfires.
I went home for Labor Day weekend to rest, relax and just catch up in general....

Then this happened. A thunderstorm with lots of lightning came through Saturday night and started several fires. Did I seriously consider taking my camera with me to a fire on the Wyoming plains...yes...did I actually do!
When a fire occurs on in eastern Wyoming it's very serious and dangerous, especially on years like this when there's a lot of grass. Wind can make the flames travel across the range faster than anyone can drive. Thousands of acres can be scorched before anyone can even arrive on the scene. With rough draws (small canyons) that are impassable on any motorized vehicle people often have to travel several miles out of their way to reach the flames.
Everyone where I'm from has a firefighting rig. These are homemade water sprayers designed specifically for fighting fire. We all have one because the closest fire house is over 50 miles away. It typically falls on the landowners to control blazes since it takes the "real" firefighters over an hour to arrive usually.
We took our sprayer off the morning this fire occured because it's September and my dad didn't want the sprayer to freeze. It's back on now.
One cool thing is that everyone works together and helps their neighbors tirelessly in an effort to save grass, homes, fences and trees when a fire occurs. As in so many areas of agriculture, fires bring people together to work for a common cause.
People will sit on the highest hill near their place on nights there are bad storms and watch for smoke or flames. These storms are common in the summer months, and we have fought fire every night for over two weeks in yeast past. Upon sighting flames and/or smoke we can communicate to each other with CB radios. If a spotted fire is under 10 or 15 miles from their place, ranchers will head in that direction with a sprayer, shovels, gloves and anything else to help put the fire out.
When the fight lasts over-night or for many hours, the women in the community will bring food, water, gaterade, coats and anything else to help those fighting the blaze.

Now that we've covered the general aspects of fighting fire we can get into specifics. There were several (4-6) fires spotted in northern Niobrara County Saturday night. The first was on our neighbors and several people and a couple rural fire rigs arrived and attempted to get to the flames. Finally the owner's daughter showed up and helped us find our way across the creek, through a couple gates and to the flames.
I should also note this was done in the dark, on a cloudy, moonless night.
We took two vehicles and I ended up parking in the neighbors yard and riding in a rural fire fighting six-by-six rig, holding a flashlight and controlling the volume on the CB radio. Upon reaching the flames I got back in with my dad and brother. At this point we were using our weed spraying rig, which can be seen below. Our fire fighting rig has a bigger tank and engine and is much more effective.

After putting the first fire out we were all watching another blaze gain momentum. It's very difficult to tell distances in the dark. Big fires can look like they're a couple miles away when they're actually 50-70 miles away. Likewise a smaller fire may be much closer than you think it is. After much discussion my dad, brother, the guy and myself decided to head in the direction we thought the fire was. Upon reaching the county road we quickly realized the dark had turned some people around and it was actually much closer to my parent's ranch.
So we raced across gravel county roads in the dark, onto our place, around corners and over hills. Then we popped over another hill and there it was, a unique dark and bright orangish/red blend of smoke and fire right next to the county road on our ranch. My dad quickly gets on the radio and informs people of the fire's location.
He and my brother take off to start spraying and the guy and I park the second pickup (without a sprayer) in the black (where it's already burned). Almost immediately a rural fire pickup arrives and I ask if he need someone to spray (stand in the back and run the water hose while he drives)
He says sure and we hop on. We begin driving on the black around the perimeter, dousing the flames with water. I provide information on draws, ditches and other directions as needed and with as much accuracy as I can.

Just as we get to the last 30 feet of flames between us and my dad and brother we run out of water. We race back to the county road to impatiently wait for a six-by-six that's on its way to fill us up. Meanwhile other ranchers begin showing up and I point them to two-track roads that lead to the blaze. We get filled up and rejoin the efforts. After getting the flames doused, several people drive the perimeter repeatedly, spraying anything that is smoking, glowing red or otherwise suspicious and near the edge of the burn. This is to prevent sparks from blowing into unburned grass and starting the fire again. Then the landowner and one or two larger rigs will "babysit" the burn until it's deemed safe. This depends on a variety of factors including wind and size.
It's a hot, dirty, exhausting job fighting fire. It's also an adrenaline rush, but gets old fast too. The next morning you feel like you're very hung over and spent the previous evening in a very smoky bar.
These pictures are all from our fire the morning after. We watched as the wind picked up and Kyle checked for hot spots on his motorcycle. Anything that was hot or smoking we sprayed with water.
We we were very fortunate that the fire occured in an easily accessible location and there was little to no wind! Fires can easily burn thousands of acres and continue burning for several days. They can also flare back up, which also happened on another fire near our place Sunday.
A big thanks to our friends and neighbors for their assistance!

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