HANNA — Heavy, wet snow Tuesday put out a 14,201-acre wildfire that burned just outside Hanna over Labor Day weekend.
“We were at 60 percent containment (Monday) night, and due to the weather event today, I think we are pretty safe to say that the thing is down and cold,” Carbon County Fire Warden Ron Brown said on Tuesday.
FEMA on Saturday authorized the use of federal funds to help with firefighting costs due to the blaze, which threatened roughly 200 homes and 846 residents. As of Tuesday, no structures within or outside the city limits were destroyed.
Fire officials issued an evacuation order for residents in the area on Saturday, and Black Hills Energy activated its emergency response plan to maintain natural gas infrastructure threatened by the wildfire. Also at the request of fire officials, Black Hills Energy shut off natural gas service to customers in Hanna. By Sunday afternoon, the Carbon County Office of Emergency Management was working with local authorities to bring back the residents who evacuated under a shelter-in-place order, which was lifted Tuesday morning.
Hanna Mayor Lois Buchanan said she witnessed the fire come frighteningly close to the south end of town Saturday afternoon.
“It was the wildest Labor Day weekend I’ve ever had in my life,” Buchanan said. “It was a big scare — a huge scare — and something that was new to everyone in town. I don’t think we have ever had to evacuate before.”
Buchanan was in awe of the responding agencies at the staging area Saturday night, which included crews from Colorado and Oregon and the BLM, and from every fire department from Sweetwater County to Albany County.
“It was amazing,” Buchanan said. “It was a huge learning curve, and there were things we learned if it should ever happen again, but for the most part, everything came together. It was something to behold, all the agencies working together.”
Because of the rapidly changing fire conditions, misinformation also spread over the weekend. According to FEMA reports, the fire burned over the town’s water treatment plant and destroyed one engine, but after the snow Tuesday, crews discovered neither were lost.
“The fire was fast-moving, and there was a lot of information that came out of this incident that proved to be false,” Brown said. “It was such a rapid-moving incident that when it was reported at 7,500 acres, it was still growing. It was literally getting bigger every 30 minutes.”
An engine did get into heat, Brown said, but was not destroyed. Because of the fire’s location, crews were unable to protect the Hanna water treatment plant early on, and it was assumed to be a loss.
“It was assumed that it was destroyed, when in fact it was not. The fire went right around it and didn’t even touch it. They are running 100 percent capacity,” Brown said. “Everything is perfectly intact. The fire only affected the grass and sage, and we were able to divert around structures.”
Hanna resident Brett Smith said that on Sunday, volunteers went to the firehouse to feed firefighters hot dogs and burgers.
“They were pretty grateful to get in and get some food,” said Smith.
Early snow and record cold temperatures stretched across the Rocky Mountains on Monday night. On Monday afternoon, the high in Hanna was 77 degrees, and by Tuesday the temperature was hovering around 25 degrees.
“As a Wyoming resident, we see one day turn completely opposite of the day before … but this is a little bit of an extreme pattern,” Brown said. “This cold front really had a lot of power to it. It was an interesting event how the weather turned out on this one.”
In forested areas and burning willows, when a fire burns underground and in root systems, snowpack can insulate fire.
“You get a good fire going below a dust layer or in the roots system, and you get a snowpack on top of it — that can insulate the fire,” Brown said. “That fire can burn under the surface until the snow melts, and then it pops back up one day and burns again.”
Near Hanna though, the fire was primarily fueled by sage and grass.
“Grass is very receptive to moisture, as it is to drought. It is the quickest to change out of all the fuel models,” Brown said. “The sage brush generally has a shallow-root system, so the snow out there is going to be much more effective on snuffing that out as opposed to a heavier, deeper rooted fueled fire.”
The snow was a welcome sight, he continued.
“I’m not ready for winter, but I was glad to see the snow to put the fire down,” Brown said. “I know we are going to warm back up and that this was a very early storm. With this type of weather and having warming temperatures by the first of next week, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if we don’t see green grass pop up where the fire was.”
By Tuesday afternoon, Buchanan was still absorbing the events of the past several days.
“We had no serious injuries, it is fantastic. How could there have been a better outcome?” she said. “I am speechless and there is so much gratitude, I don’t even know where to begin.”