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Jackson Hole, WY News

'Favorable winds' blow prescribed burns in the right direction

Intentionally set blazes aim to protect property by eliminating brush that could feed a wildfire.

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Butler Creek prescribed burn

As “burn boss” Andy Hall crunched through piles of snow on Tuesday, the forest swirled with ash.

The sound was like an angry, hissing firecracker or the tearing of a thousand sheets of paper.

Then came the dull roar of a thunderous wind, carrying smoke so thick it blocked out the sun.

Still, this was nothing compared with a real forest fire, said Hall, a Bridger-Teton National Forest employee who is overseeing the crew of interagency firefighters setting prescribed burns 10 miles south of Wilson as part of the Teton to Snake River Fuels Reduction Project.

These intentional blazes clear brush to give fire crews a fighting chance at saving neighborhoods in the event of an erratic wildfire in the dry season.

Butler Creek prescribed burn

Kemmerer firefighters Erik Becker and Cody McFarland watch as timber burns Monday afternoon during a prescribed burn along Butler Creek south of Wilson.

Hall has been closely monitoring weather conditions to ensure the intentional fires could be set safely.

“Favorable winds,” he said, make all the difference.

Pinedale firefighter Leslie Pratt weaved her way through the undergrowth Tuesday afternoon, looking for “pockets of opportunity” where the flame from her diesel drip torch could connect.

Within seconds those pilot burns were enough to send an entire evergreen up in flames, showcasing the risk of “ladder fuels,” which help fire spread from the forest floor to the canopy.

In the same field a pair of sub-alpine firs became 100-foot pillars of fire, the angry orange torrent engulfing one rung of branches at a time.

The stately torches put off waves of heat, enough to force the crew back a few steps as the fire leapt to smaller trees.

Lesley Williams Gomez, a fire prevention specialist for the Bridger-Teton National Forest, pointed to the cones in one dead lodgepole pine.

Butler Creek prescribed burn

Henry Sollitt uses a drip torch to ignite fuels along the "blackline" established at the border of U.S. Forest Service land and private property in the Butler Creek subdivision south of Wilson. The springtime prescribed burn helps to reduce available fuels that could otherwise ignite during dryer summer months and contribute to the spread of a potentially catastrophic wildfire.

“That tree could take out a home,” she said.

Closer to the houses in the Hidden Hills neighborhood, evidence of past prescribed burns is stark.

Here each pair of trees has room to breathe, and the younger aspens have clearly been prioritized.

“This wants to be an aspen grove,” Hall said. “We’re just helping it along.”

Some homeowners were concerned prescribed burns would mean a barren forest, but that isn’t the reality. Instead, fire has a rejuvenating effect, adding nutrients to the soil and encouraging new growth.

Butler Creek prescribed burn

Burn boss Andy Hall supervises prescribed fire activity Monday afternoon along Butler Creek south of Wilson, where private property abuts Bridger-Teton National Forest land. The prescribed fire is part of the larger Teton to Snake Fuels Reduction Project, which aims to protect private property from Teton Village south along the Snake River corridor by reducing fuels that could otherwise contribute to catastrophic wildfires.

Hall said he expects a “lush” new landscape by next season.

In the meantime the cleared patches resemble a massive manicured landscaping effort, each cluster of trees freed from choking weeds.

The residents of Hidden Hills have also gotten in on the action. On “community weekends,” folks have trimmed back trees and widened the dirt switchback road that winds through their development.

Combined with U.S. Forest Service efforts, these changes help ensure valley residents are prepared to survive a wildfire.

“My dream,” Williams Gomez said, “is to make communities fire adapted.”

That means understanding that fire is a fundamental part of forest ecosystems, but also taking steps to minimize the harm to human life and property.

Fuels reduction projects and community education are key to that mission.

Butler Creek prescribed burn

Leslie Pratt, a member of the U.S. Forest Service Engine 671 crew out of Pinedale, puts water on freshly-burned grass and brush Monday afternoon up Butler Creek south of Wilson. The prescribed fire is part of the larger Teton to Snake Fuels Reduction Project, which aims to protect private property from Teton Village south along the Snake River corridor by reducing fuels that could otherwise contribute to catastrophic wildfires. Pick up Wednesday’s Jackson Hole News&Guide for more on the burn work.

Contact Evan Robinson-Johnson at erj@jhnewsandguide.com or 732-5901.

Ryan Dorgan joined the staff as a photographer in 2016. He previously covered the state of Wyoming for the Casper Star-Tribune and worked at newspapers in Vermont and his home state of Indiana. He and his wife live in Kelly with their dog, Dottie.

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