What is it?
A wildfire is an unwanted wildland fire not designated as a prescribed fire that requires appropriate suppressive action. Some forest fires that are started through natural causes are allowed to burn because they are far from developed areas and their remoteness makes them difficult to fight. Also, when an area is allowed to burn this reduces the amount of fuel for future fires.
It is when these fires endanger lives and/or structures that we become more concerned. The area where structures border on forested areas is known as the wildland/urban interface. These areas can be dangerous because they contain three things that don't mix in a wildfire situation: plenty of fuel in the form of trees, people, and structures.
Our wildfire season in Teton County runs from June through September, but we have had early wildfires in April and even some as late as December. Our risk is generally highest from July through August, which is when our climate is dry, many grasses die, and we have a higher probability of lightning storms that provide little precipitation.
What are the risk factors?
The reason many people live in and visit Teton County is because of the hundreds of thousands of acres of forest that surrounds us. This is one risk factor that we all face; here are some others:
The weather conditions.
The weather is a huge risk factor when it comes to potential wildfire. The level of humidity in the air, the dryness of fuels such as fallen timber, the amount of wind, and the temperature all play a part in creating favorable conditions for wildfire. The Bridger-Teton National Forest, Grand Teton National Park, and Jackson Hole Fire/EMS all have personnel that monitor the fire-weather situation to determine if county-wide restrictions need to be put in place such as limits on campfire use, requirements for spark arrestors, and bans on open burning.
You may have heard the term "red flag warning", which means that there is an ongoing or imminent critical fire weather situation. This can be a combination of high temperatures, very little moisture, and/or high winds. This warning is issued by our local National Weather Service office in Riverton,WY. When this is issued for an area, it lets local fire officials know that they need to be extra aggressive in both fire prevention and suppression.
Proximity to the wildland/urban interface.
If your home borders on forested land, your risk for being adversely affected by wildfire is much higher than those that are not.
If you live in the wildland/urban interface, check www.firewise.org for information on fire behavior, wildfire mitigation for your home, and much more.
Thick, "doghair" forests.
Forests that have not had a fire run through them in a very long time tend to become very dense with many small diameter trees. These are known as "doghair" forests, because the trees are "as thick as the hair on a dog's back." These forests tend to have many dead lower branches due to the lack of sunlight, which act as fuel for fires. There is also abundant fuel in the form of dead trees due to the competition for limited water, sunlight, and space.
Disease and insect infestation in forests.
The main infestation that we see locally are pine bark beetles infesting lodgepole pine trees. When the trees die due to the infestation, they soon dry out providing ample fuel for a forest fire.
What should I do?
You need to take action before a wildfire strikes to ensure the safety of your family and your home:
As for any disaster, have a plan and preparedness kit ready for your family.
If you don't have a family emergency plan and a 72 hour kit, click here to get started.
Contact Jackson Hole Fire/EMS to get a free evaluation of your wildfire risk.
Jackson Hole Fire/EMS offers this as a free service to help ensure a more disaster-resistant Teton County. They will come down and see what your wildfire risks are, then provide you with strategies to lower that risk. Visit their website for more information or call (307) 733-4732 to set up an appointment.
Implement wildfire mitigation strategies.
Follow through on the strategies suggested by Jackson Hole Fire/EMS when they did their evaluation of your home. FEMA has a thorough list of actions that you can take to mitigate your wildfire hazard. Firewise.org is another resource which offers tips and strategies for reducing your wildfire risk and protecting your home.
Stay tuned to EAS broadcasts for instruction before, during, and following the disaster.
Listen to your NOAA All-Hazards Weather Radio or another Emergency Alert System (EAS) broadcaster for instructions from emergency services before, during, and following a disaster.
Stay informed of local wildfire situations.
Listen to local radio and watch local television for information on fires nearby. You can begin preparing by implementing your fire mitigation strategies before you are given notice of a potential evacuation. A great internet resource for detailed wildfire information across the country is InciWeb. This is an interagency internet database of significant incidents, most of which are wildfires. It will give you information on total acreage consumed, percent containment, and any press releases issued for a fire.
If you are given notice of potential evacuation, begin preparing immediately.
If you are told you may need to evacuate, act as if it is going to happen. The next notice may be ordering you to leave immediately, so you want to take action before that happens. Check this link from FEMA on what to do during a potential wildfire evacuation.
Unless specifically instructed to do so by authorities, do not leave sprinklers or any other water running on your property. This reduces the water pressure, and forces firefighters to get dangerously close to the fire line. If deemed necessary, firefighters will set up special sprinkler systems designed for this purpose.
If told to evacuate, do so immediately.
When you are given an evacuation order, it is for the protection of human life. Follow the directions given to you as far as routes to take because some roads may be closed due to fire apparatus operations, fallen trees, heavy smoke, or fire.
DO NOT stay behind and try to defend your home. If you carried out your mitigation plan ahead of time and followed the potential evacuation instructions, you have done everything that you could. Firefighters will defend these properly prepared homes first because they have the best chances of surviving. You and your garden hose are no match for a wildfire, so keep yourself safe and evacuate with your family.
FEMA has a website that covers all aspects of wildfire preparation. You can view the different wildfire evacuation zones for Teton County on our GIS mapserver. You can also view Teton County's wildfire history.
For quick reference, you can print out these pamphlets on wildfire preparedness:
What are the impacts?
There can be many impacts to a large wildfire:
Loss of life and/or property.
Our main concern is the loss of human life, which is why we evacuate areas as wildfires approach. If citizens follow evacuation orders, there will be virtually no civilian casualties during a wildfire event. And although firefighters do everything that they can to save homes, it isn't always possible and there can be property loss.
Adverse health effects due to smoke.
The young, elderly, and those with respiratory illness need to be particularly careful when wildfires are in the area. Smoke hanging in the air can make it difficult for these at-risk populations to breathe. Wildfires needn't be nearby for this to occur; with the proper weather conditions we can have smoke from fires as far away as the west coast affecting us in Jackson Hole. You can check the Teton County Public Health website for more information on this topic.
Dangerous travel conditions and closed routes.
When a roadway is endangered by fire, it will be shut down. If it is one of Teton County's main arteries, this can make travel very difficult. Even if roads aren't closed, heavy smoke can make travel hazardous due to low visibility.
Reduction in business due to wildfires.
When people see on major news networks that there are fires in Jackson Hole, they are reluctant to travel here. The images show trees bursting into flames and firefighters doing everything that they can to fight the fire. Never mind that the fire is in an isolated part of the county and isn't affecting travel or other activities. This can hurt local businesses that depend on summer tourism to Teton County.
Depletion of local resources.
Fighting forest fires is a very resource-intensive task. Only highly trained and certified personnel are permitted to fill positions in a wildland fire fighting team, and when we have multiple outbreaks of wildfires we can exhaust our local resources quickly. If there are many wildfires nationwide, it can even be difficult to pull resources in from outside Teton County.