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EDITORIAL: Firefighters’ hard work to combat Whit Fire truly appreciated

As large wildfires raged across the West this summer, those of us in Park County only saw smoky skies as evidence of their devastation.

Until last week, that is.

In a few terrible minutes, a fire ignited on the North Fork of the Shoshone River and quickly blazed its way to the South Fork, scorching 12,240 acres as of Monday.

The wildfire burning beloved land west of Cody is something many residents fear every summer, especially in dry conditions.

Over the past several years, the North and South Forks had been spared from major wildfires. The last time a blaze of this scale burned the area was the Gunbarrel Fire in 2008. Lightning sparked the North Fork fire in late July 2008, and it consumed 22,000 acres by early August.

When the Gunbarrel was finally extinguished that fall, it had torched more than 68,000 acres and cost over $11 million.

Given the area’s dry, windy conditions, wary residents have closely tracked the Whit Fire’s progress during the past week, worrying about destruction wrought by the fire and how far it could reach. Dozens of residences and ranches were evacuated as the flames spread. While the blaze destroyed one home and seven other structures, it could have been much worse, as Cody Fire Marshal Sam Wilde noted.

Thanks to firefighters’ exceptional work and some cooperative weather, many homes and other structures in the fire’s path were spared. The Whit Fire was 65 percent contained as of Monday, and evacuation orders were lifted over the weekend.

We join with thousands of area residents and businesses in thanking firefighters for their long hours of hard work as well as their expertise and willingness to fight a dangerous wildfire.

Residents have shown their gratitude with notes of thanks, donations of food, water and other supplies, and even a lemonade stand. When firefighters have worked so hard and risked so much, words just don’t seem to be enough to show our sincere appreciation.

From the moment the call first came in last Tuesday afternoon, local firemen rushed to the scene and led the initial attack in a cooperative effort among multiple agencies. A Type 3 firefighting crew was able to reach the scene and take over the operations only about 20 hours after the Whit Fire started. By Friday morning, a Type 1 management team — the most experienced kind of crew there is — was on scene, with a team that exceeded 700 members and multiple engines, helicopters and airplanes.

While crews have been able to scale back their attack as they’ve gained more control, we know they’ll continue to closely monitor the Whit Fire and work to extinguish it in the days to come.

The human-caused wildfire appears to be an unfortunate accident, but it stands as a reminder of why fire managers urge caution in dry conditions. The Whit Fire shows what can happen if “you get a spark at the wrong time in the wrong place with the wrong weather conditions,” as Shoshone National Forest Supervisor Joe Alexander said Thursday.

With warm and dry conditions likely to continue, it’s as important as ever to be fire wise.

Of course, we also realize accidents happen — which is why we are so grateful for firefighters who are standing by, ready to respond.

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