Bridger-Teton still assessing damage from ‘windstorm for the ages’

JACKSON, Wyo. — More than a week after hurricane-force winds uprooted and toppled trees throughout western Wyoming, the Bridger-Teton National Forest is still trying to assess just how bad it was.

How bad was it?

On September 7 and 8, winds topping 80 mph blasted the city of Green River, Wyoming, prompting Mayor Pete Rust to officially declare a local disaster/state of emergency. The late summer storm left over 6,000 residents without power. Damages are expected to total in the millions of dollars.

The same wind event also hit the Bridger-Teton hard, especially down south in the Pinedale Ranger District. Crews armed with chainsaws spent two full days clearing trail on Pole Creek Trail. They made it a mile.

Bridger-Teton NF spokesperson Mary Cernicek said opening roads is the forest’s priority right now while officials still try to learn the extent of the damage.

“We are not confident yet we have the complete picture of this blowdown event,” Cernicek said. “We know the Pinedale Ranger District was hit harder than any other. There are a lot of trees down in the Granite Creek area in Jackson as well.”

Cernicek added she could not believe the storm did not harm or kill someone.

“With the unprecedented amount of camping we’ve had and people recreating in the backcountry, we feel very fortunate no one was injured,” she said.

Forest Service personnel are already busy at work trying to get to major projects like the New Fork Dam project, among others, before winter hits. Now this…on 3.4 million acres.

“We are still in assessment mode,” Cernicek shared. “How much of this was in Wilderness? Do we mobilize a volunteer workforce? Bigger picture concerns like could there be timber salvage sales? We are considering everything but our primary focus right now is understanding how broad this is, and what can we get done before the snow flies?”

One thing not being entertained at the moment is finding a way around special rules that apply to a wilderness area that prohibits the use of chainsaws or any other mechanized equipment. Cernicek said she has not seen much interest from her colleagues about finding exemptions to wilderness rules. Whatever is downed in those areas will have to stay down.

Cernicek says she has fielded calls about people wanting to help. Some have even speculated a date—September 26, Public Lands Day—when a mass volunteer effort might be organized. Cernicek said it is something the Pinedale Ranger District is considering but much would have to be worked out.

“What if someone gets injured clearing trail?” Cernicek cautioned. “The government would be liable.”

Some experts called the windstorm a 50-to-100-year event. Cernicek admitted she’s never seen such largescale wind damage since she has been with the Forest Service, other than isolated microbursts.

Oldtimers recall one such event in 1987. On July 21 of that year, an extremely rare high-elevation tornado ripped through a wide swath of Teton Wilderness and Yellowstone National Park resulting in some $2.5M in damage. At 8,500 to 10,000 feet, it was the highest altitude violent tornado ever recorded in the United States. At an F4 rating on the Fujita scale, it was the strongest ever in Wyoming.

Some outfitters have reported being unable to access their remote hunt camps due to downed trees. Cernicek said the Bridger-Teton is looking into these claims and would consider assistance to those affected a priority.

Cernicek did say some outfitters have taken it upon themselves to add extra hands and clear trails themselves. One outfitter asked and received permission to temporarily move his camp because of the danger of unstable trees overhead.

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