Shoshone Forest: In the shadow of a national forest that yearns to burn


During a normal hot summer fire season, a gorgeous red sunset and haze in the air scare the heck out of people in my part of Wyoming. We live next to the Shoshone National Forest.

Lately, the air has been so perfect and pristine, you can almost see 100 miles. It has not been this haze-free for years.  But based on how dry it is, all this can change quickly. Precipitation this spring was the lowest in years and it is already getting tinder dry.

The Shoshone National Forest is so remarkable that it was the first national forest created by Congress. The mountains in this 2.4 million-acre reserve in west-central Wyoming are the tallest in the state. The views in the area are breathtaking, and I am lucky enough to live within five miles of its border.

But like most people who live close to the Shoshone, I fear that it will burn up. Who would be affected? Folks in towns including Lander, Riverton, Dubois, the Wind River Indian Reservation, Thermopolis, Worland, Cody, Powell, Lovell, Greybull, Basin, and Meeteetse, to name just a few.

We all know the major reasons: Firefighting efforts have successfully prevented blazes in the forest over the past 60 years, leaving huge amounts of deadfall. Add to that increased visitation by campers, hikers and horseback enthusiasts, plus the subdivisions that have cropped up close to the forest – it is a recipe for an inferno.

And then sometimes, there are those oddball situations you can’t predict, such as the huge Colorado fire which was started a few years ago by a Forest Service employee who was upset over a letter from her husband. So, she burned the letter and thereby ignited the forest, destroying 100,000 acres before the fire was subdued.

A fire in Sinks Canyon a few years ago was caused by arson. Another of the more damaging fires in recent years was a controlled burn that got away from the firefighters. It damaged several cabins.

Seems like a lot of folks here in the time of COVID-19 are headed to the back country. Please be careful.

Back in 2002, my brother Pat and I were headed back to Lander from Jackson late in the evening when an out-of-control wildfire was burning between Thermopolis and Riverton, near Wind River Canyon. It was the Kate’s Basin Complex fire, and it would go on to burn 180,000 acres.

We stopped the car near Crowheart Butte. We stood there in the quiet watching a mountainside send plumes of fire into the night. Even though we were 50 miles away, the air smelled of smoke. One fireman would die in that blaze; another was severely injured.

As we stood there, I had this eerie feeling that behind me was the potential for a much worse fire. I recall looking over my shoulder at the huge blackness of the Shoshone National Forest and the Wind River Mountain Range.

Not a spark of light. When would it erupt into flames? The sight in front of us was awesome and frightening.

Two decades later, the Shoshone still has not burned. But this year does not bode well. We had a dry spring, so grass is turning brown early. June and July have been hotter and windier than usual. It could be dry as tinder in some places up there. Despite brief showers recently, the stage is set for serious fires all over Wyoming, but mainly in the Shoshone.

Many of us will never forget when Yellowstone National Park burned, with fires starting in late July and burning into the fall of 1988.

As a pilot, I welcomed the chance to fly over the two-million-acre national park to see the carnage.  I took along pilot Larry Hastings and veteran photographer Mike McClure to shoot additional photos.

The park is actually a little smaller than the Shoshone Forest but on this day it was gigantic. And it was mainly obscured by smoke from one end to the other.  Every so often you would see huge plumes of fire jutting up through the smoke. Each plume was like a geyser except that it was pure fire.

That flight was a hellish experience and we were choking on the smoke.  What a sight.

To me, that image will be in my brain forever.  And when I think about that flight, it reminds me of what the Shoshone Forest will look like when it goes up in smoke.

Let’s hope my worries do not materialize. I am holding my breath – literally.

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