Traveling west on Wyoming Highway 230, the blackened trees start about 8 miles up the mountain from Woods Landing. Initially, it’s some tinged trees, showing burnt orange needles.
Then it is obvious where the Badger Creek Fire has left its mark. Blackened trees and burnt logs strewn on the ground are visible on both sides of the highway just a few miles shy of Mountain Home. This small encampment of log homes and the Wy-Colo lodge were spared although blackened trees are just a softball throw away in some areas. Continuing to the west on the highway, fire effects wane quickly and, in no time, the trees are green once again.
Most gravel and dirt roads branching off the highway in the burn area remain closed. U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Aaron Voos said it is likely some areas affected by the fire will remain closed until the snow flies.
“While the Badger Creek Fire is considered about 80 percent contained, crews are always on the lookout for columns of smoke due to burning within the fire interior,” Voos said. “They are alert to the potential of the fire jumping the containment line, as happened June 28 when hot and windy weather whipped up the fire.”
At of the start of the week, the fire scorched 21,190 acres. The bulk of the burn is south of Highway 230 and not visible from the paved highway. It was first reported in late afternoon June 10 about 2 miles northwest of Mountain Home and it spread quickly due to high winds and dry conditions. Thanks to cooler weather about five days later, crews were able to get the upper hand on the fire and got containment around most of the perimeter.
“We expect internal fire activity to continue for some time,” Voos said. “We will open areas as they are deemed safe but it is unlikely some routes and paths, such as the south end of the Medicine Bow Rail Trail, will open again this season.”
Fire is not new to this area of the Medicine Bow National Forest. There have been five fires since 2003 that burned at least 100 acres each. The largest of the five was the Squirrel Creek Fire in 2012 that included portions of Sheep Mountain and ended up spreading to 11,000 acres.
When looking at a map of the fires, their location becomes notable: they are all in the southeastern portion of the Snowy Range and all are well south of Highway 130. Voos explained that in the northern part of the Snowy Range, such as around Sand Lake, the forest is dominated more by spruce trees instead of the lodgepole pine so prevalent in the south.
“Lodgepole pine is more susceptible to fire and it regenerates quite quickly following fire,” Voos said. “The cones open with the heat and they grow back fairly quickly.”
Another difference is the amount of precipitation. Throughout the winter, the snow measuring gauge at Sand Lake always reports considerably more snow cover in that area compared to the gauges at Brooklyn Lake or Cinnabar Park.
The Gramm Fire, which burned in 2003, covered 720 acres and is included in the area of the current Badger Creek Fire. In the 15 years since the initial blaze, the lodgepole pine trees regenerated and generally ranged from 5-10 feet in height. Voos said that area was an oasis that did not burn with the Badger Creek Fire.
“That area of the old burn had young and green trees,” Voos said. “They did not burn and likely played a role in keeping the Badger Creek Fire away from the homes located at Gramm.”
While bicycling or hiking on the Medicine Bow Rail Trail south of Highway 230 is not possible at this time, the pathway north of Highway 230 provides a way to look at some old burn areas to see how they regenerate after a fire. The trail passes through the 2014 Lake Owen Fire and the 2012 Squirrel Creek Fire. With the latter, new tree growth is abundant while the area of the Lake Owen Fire has excellent herbaceous growth with the trees just starting to get established.
Fire intensity also plays a role in how fast an area regenerates. Voos explained that if a fire moves slowly and is especially hot, it “cooks” the soil, making it harder for vegetation to re-establish.
“With the hot fires, the soil gets baked and creates a surface crust,” Voos said. “That crust makes it harder for rain to penetrate. Obviously, it is better to have a cooler fire where the burn goes through quickly.”
The Badger Creek Fire is a mix of both hot and cooler burned areas. That could change if interior fires continue to flare up in areas that were initially “cool” burning areas. For now, though, the Badger Creek Fire is a mosaic of fire of varied intensity and, as is evident when viewing from Highway 230 to the north, there are even large swaths completely untouched by fire.
Time will tell how fast regeneration of the Badger Creek Fire area will occur but if past fires are any indicator, there could be green appearing even a month from now in some areas.
Amber Travsky earned master’s degrees in wildlife biology and exercise physiology from the University of Wyoming. She runs her own environmental consulting company, as well as a martial arts school. She authored “Mountain Biking Wyoming” and “Mountain Biking Jackson Hole,” both published by Falcon Books. She is the tour director and founder of the Tour de Wyoming bicycle tour, which crosses the state every July.