Drought and wildfires that laid waste to millions of acres were twin scourges of the West this past summer. The drought came first, leaving forests and rangelands tinder dry. Then came lightning strikes and careless acts by humans that resulted in devastating fires. By the time snow covered the high country, some 6.5 millions of acres of land had been blackened by hundreds of fires. Hardest hit was Bitterroot National Forest in Montana, where 370,000 acres, or roughly 25% of the forest, was burned, along with 32,000 acres of private lands, 70 residences, and 170 other structures.

In that area alone, approximately 15,000 firefighters joined forces with local residents to fight the blazes. Frequent high winds drove the fires at high speed, sending showers of cinders and sparks flying through the air to ignite even more fires in advance of the main blaze.

Two towns were seriously threatened, one in Montana and one in Wyoming. Residents of Red Lodge, Mont., were poised for evacuation when a fire that had been roaring toward the scenic and quaint town was brought under control. The same was true for Thermopolis, Wyo., where a series of fires rolled through the Owl Creek Mountains and threatened to burn down the town. Firefighters controlled the flames before that could occur.

The drought and fire had a direct impact on western ranchers. In some cases, the dry conditions resulted in sparse forage that forced ranchers to feed their winter's supply of hay early. As a result, hay is in high demand and expensive in the West, and some ranchers are being forced to reduce herd size.

Suffering directly from a combination of fire and drought was the Arapaho tribe, which runs a large herd of cattle on the Wind River Indian Reservation. A wildfire roared through much of the tribe's rangeland, burning forage and forcing the sale of all of the replacement heifers that had been placed in the breeding herd.

Wild horses in the West suffered indirectly from the fires, but definitely were im-pacted by the drought. Many of Wyoming's wild horses range free in a desert-like area between Jeffrey City and Rock Springs. The area, known as the Red Desert, has sparse vegetation at best. This year it was even more sparse, and the horses had to range far and wide to find forage.

In one area, a spring that provides water for a band of wild horses dried up. Em-ployees of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) used a tanker truck to haul water to them.

Saddle horses in the West had slimmer pickings in summer pastures. However, the high cost of hay and the lack of winter range might result in more horses than normal being sold this fall and winter.

Two snowfalls early in the season dumped tons of snow in the mountains and brought much-needed moisture to lower elevations, erasing the fire danger for this year. It also started a buildup of snowpack in the high country that will provide irrigation water for next summer.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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