SWEETWATER COUNTY – As people stock up on fireworks for the Fourth of July holiday, officials in Wyoming point out that most fires are caused by humans and added COVID-19-related health restrictions could further complicate firefighting efforts.
Sweetwater County Fire Warden Michael Bournazian said planning is underway for July Fourth. He asked residents to think about the consequences of their actions.
“Each year we respond to numerous wildland fires started by fireworks, mostly in areas that people have no business lighting them off. Areas such as dry grass, on public lands where they are prohibited, or near homes or in neighborhoods,” he said in a press release.
He asked, “Why would anyone think they can predict or control where a firework that is launched up into the sky will go up, explode and come back down? Isn’t it funny that they never come back down where they were lit? It’s always somewhere else.”
The fire warden said depending on where that “somewhere else” is, it could and may start a wildfire in someone’s backyard or out in the dry grass.
“Then what? What happens when it does, those that lit it in the first place often drive off or run away. It takes time for fire engines and firefighters to get to these locations. What happens if someone’s home is burned down or one of our firefighters is injured or worse. Is it really worth it?” Bournazian asked.
He said almost every firefighter enjoys fireworks, which are an awesome sight, but we have to know when and where to light them safely.
“We need to learn to enjoy the firework displays that are put on by professionals in the right places in and around our communities. We need the public to act safely and in the right locations if they want to light their own fireworks. We all want our freedom and liberty each and every day and especially on the Fourth of July as we celebrate our independence. I just ask that everyone please do so in the right place and with their safety and their neighbors’ safety first.”
The fire warden reminds the public that fireworks are not allowed in the city limits of Rock Springs and Green River, nor on public managed lands such as the Ashley National Forest (the entire shoreline of the Gorge), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and Wyoming state lands.
Fireworks are allowed on private property outside of city limits with the landowner’s permission.
“Every fire department in Sweetwater County expects to be busy all day on the Fourth of July this year as it falls on a Saturday and many folks will already be well into lighting fireworks and other devices that day, long before nightfall,” Bournazian said.
“It only takes a couple of small fires or one large one to deplete all the available wildland firefighting resources in the entire county. If we are already working one or two wildfires, it makes it extremely difficult to respond to new fires without jeopardizing the safety of our firefighters and the public. We live and protect a very large county that is already a challenge to respond to and suppress wildland fires without the complications of firework fires that stretch all of our agencies to the point we cannot respond to new fires. These additional firework caused fires then grow rapidly with thunderstorms or winds putting the public in undo harm and risk to their property and homes in some cases.”
WHAT ABOUT THE FIRE SEASON?
Fire Warden Bournazian declined to make specific predictions about the 2020 fire season.
“People often ask me what the fire season will be like. I cannot, and nor should anyone be predicting the fire season,” he said. “What we can do is use all the tools at our disposal to plan for and prepare based upon forecasted weather, long-term outlooks, fuel moistures now and as the summer progresses, the number of fires already occurring, and what our available resources are, to and where best to stage them at certain times of the year.”
He said the fire season is no longer limited to just the summer. Here in Sweetwater County, Bournazian noted they have responded to and suppressed wildland fires in every month of the year depending on the conditions at the time.
“It is very important to remember this, it only takes one bad fire to have a bad fire season,” he said.
Bournazian said Sweetwater County is fortunate that with all the fire departments and agencies it has, firefighters are able to keep about 95% of all wildland fires small, under 10 acres. However, he said it only takes one to get up and run on a hot, dry, windy day. And if that one fire is around anyone’s home, it only takes minutes to spread and now catch a home or many homes on fire before firefighers can arrive.
“So I ask everyone to please think twice about your safety, your kids’ safety, and your neighbors’ safety before lighting off any fireworks, especially on the Fourth of July,” he said.
The Wyoming State Forestry Division usually hosts a yearly wildfire briefing that covers a range of topics regarding the upcoming fire season. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this briefing has been canceled, according to a press release. In lieu of a formal briefing, the WSFD provided a brief overview of the 2020 wildfire season as changes can be expected in light of COVID-19.
“While the projections for Wyoming’s fire season point to a normal season, the WSFD expects a multitude of fires that will threaten lives and property. As usual, fires will be aggressively suppressed across the state of Wyoming,” a press release said.
The WSFD provides a helicopter and crew available for fire suppression and has added additional aviation capacity in the form of two single-engine air tankers (SEATs). Already, the WSFD’s Helitack has assisted in the suppression of several wildfires as well as the successful evacuation of a family threatened by a fire. The two SEATs have also been utilized to suppress several wildfires.
“The increased focus on aggressive fire suppression is an additional effort to keep fires small. By ensuring fires stay small, risk is reduced to firefighters and the public from potential COVID-19 spread due to incoming resources,” the release said.
“Should a wildfire grow large despite aggressive suppression efforts, one can expect that fire suppression strategy and tactics will reflect social distancing considerations. As a result, the number of resources on a wildfire may be limited, incident command posts may restrict public access, and multiple fire camps may be required to distance firefighters and other personnel.
The Forestry Division stressed this is done in an attempt to protect firefighters and the public from COVID-19 during fire suppression and represents a change from past operations.
“With this in mind, it is important to understand that most wildfires in Wyoming are human caused. The WSFD asks that the public help protect firefighters and their neighbors by utilizing fire responsibility. It is particularly important to remain vigilant with recreational fire use this year as any new fire may exacerbate the risks to the health and well-being of firefighters and the public in light of COVID-19,” the release concluded.