An expansive, yearslong controlled burn project on the Bridger-Teton National Forest will get underway this fall along the forested front east of Star Valley.
The Star Valley Prescribed Burn Project covers a massive area — nearly 65,000 acres, a tract about a fifth the size of Grand Teton National Park. Wildland firefighters will chip away at the project piece by piece over a decade.
Just a fraction — 15% to 25% — of federal lands within the project perimeter is expected to burn. That’s because the project will be a mix of fuels-reduction work designed to prevent wildfires from creeping onto private lands to the west, and prescribed burns that mimic wildfire’s natural role of invigorating browse for elk and mule deer.
On tap this fall is a planned burn that falls into the latter category. Flames will fly in the Salt Range’s subalpine zone, way up high in the headwaters of Strawberry Creek.
“It’s almost at the top of the Salt Range,” Greys River District Ranger Justin Laycock said.
Specifically, “Unit 8” of the project area will be burned (see project map at JHNewsAndGuide.com). Although that swath of the Salt River Range stretches across 11,000 acres, no more than 3,000 is slated to burn this fall, Laycock said. There is no firm ignition date because it depends on the aridity of the environment and weather forecast. But the likelihood is that the fire will be started sometime between Sept. 1 and Oct. 30.
Impacts to the public are expected to be minimal, Laycock said. A couple of trails in the area will be affected, and resulting smoke could cast a bit of a haze over the communities of Bedford and Turnerville.
Laycock’s expectation is that this first operation will go off quickly and without a hitch.
“We plan to ignite within one day,” he said, “and really that’s going to burn pretty actively.”
Laycock’s predecessor, Richard Raione, signed off on the Star Valley Prescribed Burn Project back in 2014. There was no intensive examination of its impacts. Instead, the 100-square-mile project was approved via a “categorical exclusion” to the National Environmental Policy Act. Some 29 people weighed in during the planning process.
According to “design features” incorporated within the 5-year-old decision that’s just now being implemented, 40-acre no-burn zones will be incorporated around goshawk, great gray and boreal owl nests that are detected. Documented spotted frog and boreal toad breeding sites, similarly, are afforded a 200-yard buffer.
Another U.S. Forest Service commitment baked into the decision is a stipulation calling for additional patrolling to discourage rampant illegal ATV use in the Salt River Range’s freshly burned areas. Efforts will also be made to avoid burning regenerating stands of whitebark pine, a conifer species that has been hit hard by climate change and mountain pine beetle infestations.
The Bridger-Teton has had notable missteps with prescribed fire before in the southern reaches of the forest. A prescribed fire in the Wyoming Range’s Pole Creek drainage ran out of control in 2014 and was reclassified as a bona fide wildfire. The same thing — on the same prescribed burn unit — happened three years later. Layock said he’s confident that such mistakes will not be repeated under his watch.
“With prescribed fire in general across the nation, we’re very successful at what we do,” the Greys River District ranger said. “There’s a 99.7% success rate at meeting our objective and keeping [fires] within the prescribed area.”