August 2002 – Wyoming Ghost Towns
Fighting Fort Washakie’s South Fork Fire
Northfork Fire crews load up at Fort Washakie last Saturday for a
Thin white ash drifting like snow during a sweltering early July afternoon last week had many Riverton, Wyoming residents joking about a “Washakie Winter.” Humor aside, such comments were ominous. Around 2 p.m. under hot cloudless skies, which pushed digital bank thermometers past 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the ash began floating earthward after a dry, windblown journey of 40 miles or more.
West of Riverton where the cloud originated, the worst happened. Summer wildfires had reached the Rocky Mountain’s Wind River Range, after devastating much of America’s Southwestern states. Naturally, Riverton residents hoped to avoid such blazes. But as grinding summer heat gradually moved north to augment Fremont County’s four-year drought, a well-placed lightning strike near Fort Washakie on the Wind River Indian Reservation quickly made other plans.
Now, the smoke flowed east to Riverton. And as city streets acquired an eerie orange midday glow I thought, “So, this is what the last T-Rex saw before keeling over in a boiling Cretaceous tide pool. Scary stuff this is. Global warming at last? Or, have I seen Blade Runner and Soylent Green too many times?”
Oh, well. Whatever. Now’s not the time to ponder deeply, I suppose. After all, global warming or not, news was happening at Fort Washakie. So, time to head there and see this flame-breathing dragon live and in color.
Police checkpoint on Dickinson Park Road.
Located about 35 miles west of Riverton on county road 138, Fort Washakie is the Wind River Reservation’s de facto capitol. Normally it contains about 300 people. But with a 14,000-acre flame-breathing monster roaring through nearby canyons, a firefighter army doubled the community’s size overnight.
To accommodate them, a local rodeo ground’s environs suddenly sprouted tent cities, electronic command posts, dining areas and a helicopter port that makes this alpine foothill hamlet seem an armed camp. Add midday haze, blocked mountain access roads; plus stern-faced police checkpoints along these routes, and you have a July like no other for Wind River Range hikers.
If this month were normal I’d probably head through Washakie to Dickinson Park Road, which accesses a favorite trailhead near the Wind River Mountain’s 13,000 foot crest. From there – on a clear day – the view reaches 100 or more miles in any direction. But now the fires have come, and with them a new, restricted view.
For fun though, blocked or not, I tried Dickinson Road. However, after five miles its winding path met a checkpoint featuring friendly but firm reservation game and fish officers. Only firefighters got through here, as side-armed policemen politely mentioned while pointing to a bright yellow warning ribbon.
Fire fighter helicopter hovers over drought drained Washakie
Disappointing but understandable, I guess – although an urge to pit personal hiking skills against the dragon’s still pounded. Nevertheless, right is right. If I must see the flames, let’s be legal, shall we? Fortunately my hosts accommodated. Even though Dickinson was shut, the officers kindly outlined a nearby route traversing less ferocious flames. What’s more, it straddled Washakie Reservoir, where five blaze-battling helicopters buzzed back and forth filling 600 gallon orange spheres that dangled from each flying machine on 50-foot tethers.
This sight healed my lost back-country weekend. Naturally or unnaturally, there was more to ogle here than a lonely trail. Climbing adjacent 100-foot glacier-formed hills bore this out.
Reaching these ancient boulder-strewn tops, I saw why. Every 10 minutes, like clockwork, one chopper after another swashed within 75 feet of the ridge crest to glide on a hover-and-fill point above distant water. My camera could not do justice. The canyon backdrop was so large and the rotor-whipped waves so vast that mere photography did nothing more than harmlessly insult raw power.
To put it bluntly, I was a flea under the cloud and carbon monoxide-fumed mountain’s shadow. And as wild geography swallowed the choppers on their tiny fire-dousing journeys I wondered, “how in hell can twits like us kill fire-breathing gorgons like this?” Nevertheless, technology does kill them. However, year after year the monster returns with seemingly increased ferocity. Humor here? Is Nature indeed sending a global-warming dragon? If so, who’s T-Rex, us or the gorgon?”
Oh, well. Whatever. Nevertheless, I can tell you Fort Washakie’s canyons gave one kick-butt early-fire-season show. Yup, but the flames probably aren’t done.
Even now worried hikers look 90 miles north toward Yellowstone National Park, where nine fires roamed free as of July 10. Among these is the 1,700-acre Broad Creek blaze, eight miles northeast of Canyon Village. It’s currently blowing thick smoke at Cooke City, Montana, 30 miles away.
Summer, 2000 Wind River Canyon fires near Riverton. No reported fires there now.
Meanwhile, peeking through the park’s northwest, Divide Lake fire is equally portentous. This blaze is brand-spanking new and has only consumed 10 acres (at last check). Nevertheless crews from other flames scurry there because it threatens nearby U.S. route 191.
Add these to the cauldron, and one wonders how Yellowstone might look after peak fire season hits in early August. Will we repeat 1988, when dragons consumed much of the park, while nearly torching its historic Old Faithful Inn? Dunno. In any event, it’s all worth watching. To do so, I suggest the following Web sites at:
These provide a summer flame primer and also point to other helpful sites. As for Fort Washakie, if you wish to visit there call up:
Of course, should fire-watching parch you I’d suggest a fine microbrew just south in Lander, Wyoming. Riverton has similar offerings and accesses equally beautiful scenery.
In fact, both cities are pretty good adventure gateways. Lander’s a nice Wind River Mountains portal while Riverton opens Wind River Canyon, which features striking 1000-foot cliffs. For the latter, a paved highway runs through it if hiking isn’t your style.
To find these cities click:
Good luck and happy dragon-hunting. No license required – just fortitude (or stupidity) – dunno which.