Spectacle in the sky

Agencies, residents brace for influx of eclipse visitors

SUBLETTE COUNTY – A total solar eclipse hasn’t occurred in the contiguous U.S. since 1979; however, the last time there was a total solar eclipse visible in Wyoming was all they way back in 1918. It is a rare event that is expected to draw massive crowds to the Cowboy State.

This year’s eclipse will impact nine counties in Wyoming and the Wind River Reservation, according to the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT). The rare event will see a path of totality swing from Oregon to South Carolina. The path of totality is where viewers can witness a total solar eclipse. Pinedale sits just a few miles south of the path of totality, meaning there is the potential for a large influx of visitors to come to Sublette County for the eclipse.

Wyoming makes for an ideal viewing location, as the state typically sees clear mornings. Since the eclipse will be rolling through the area just after 11:35 a.m., this means the chance for clear skies and an unobstructed view of the eclipse is likely.


Preparing for the influx

Nobody truly knows the impact of what is to come with the looming eclipse. Jim Mitchell of Sublette County Emergency Management first got wind of the eclipse last year and planning efforts got underway last October. Planning has involved all local service agencies present in Sublette County. Surrounding counties such as Sweetwater, Lincoln, Uinta and Teton counties have also been working together through information sharing and frequent conversations.

“We’re planning for what’s coming, but nobody has a hard number on what we’re going to see,” Mitchell said. “Sublette County’s population is under 10,000 and we have a limited amount of resources as it is. With the influx of people, we will be strapped to handle everything that’s coming.”

Ambulances will be doubled, volunteer fire stations will be manned, and the Sublette County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO) will be putting as many officers out on the streets as it can to make the potentially busy week a safe and enjoyable experience for visitors and locals.

“Sublette County, as a whole, is treating the eclipse week as a string of very busy days,” Mitchell noted.

Manned information sites will be present up Skyline Drive at Elkhart Park, while a Joint Information Center featuring an interagency effort will be in place just west of the Hampton Inn in Pinedale. The center will have public information personnel from the U.S. Forest Service (FS), Bureau of Land Management and the SCSO.

Additional information sites will be in Kendall Valley, along with an additional site near the Green River Lakes and another on Union Pass Road.

The sites will provide various information regarding bear safety, trail and population density, where to go to get safety supplies and other general information.

In terms of safety in the remote reaches in the northern portion of Sublette County, some main concerns revolve around altitude sickness, cold weather, bear safety and folks wearing proper eye protection. Food storage containers are available for rent from the USFS but are being rented out on a first-come, first-served basis.

According to Wyoming Game and Fish Department Chief Game Warden Brian Nesvik, the department is looking at public safety, protecting commission-owned lands, aquatic invasive species detection and helping other agencies to the best of their ability.

“We’ve been trying to inform folks to be prepared,” Nesvik said. “We have concerns with a lot of people in these areas and conflicts with large carnivores. Carry bear spray and store food (properly). We don’t want an increase in human-bear conflicts.”

With the expectation of a large number of visitors coming into the state, many hauling boats behind them, the spreading of aquatic invasive species is a major concern.

“We are going to be increasing our efforts on lakes across that band (of totality),” he noted.

According to a FS press release, the agency will provide information about opportunities and responsibilities on public lands at nine stations along major access routes, with some being staffed with interagency personnel beginning Aug. 17.

Business hours at the Blackrock, Jackson and Pinedale district offices will also be extended from Aug. 16-22, and will be open during the pre-eclipse weekend.

In addition, camping opportunities at developed campgrounds and at suitable RV sites will be available, and they will be preparing to manage the expected increase in visitor use at undeveloped sites and on trails in day-use areas near town and in the wilderness.

They urge people to cooperate to assure public safety by keeping forest roads open for emergency traffic, preventing human-caused wildfires, keeping food and garbage properly stored and properly disposing of human waste. They also discourage driving across meadows or vegetation.

“Come prepared to be self-sustaining in terms of food and water and please check the current status of fire restrictions on the Teton Interagency Fire website, tetonfires.com, as they are subject to change,” the release states.

With the eclipse coinciding with one of the driest months of the summer, the potential for fires to start is a major concern. With many visitors traveling to remote forested areas in Sublette County to camp out for the event, the potential for a fire ban is being reviewed by local agencies.

According to Sublette County Unified Fire Chief Shad Cooper, agencies will address a potential fire ban next week.

“We haven’t done so yet, but the current fuel conditions are progressing to get hotter and drier,” Cooper said. “We are considering the potential for fire restrictions. We’re all looking closely at the key factors, but nothing has been set in stone. We are trending toward the need to implement fire restrictions.”

He said once a decision is made, the information will disseminated.


Population overload?

Aside from safety for area visitors, local agencies are also concerned with the great unknown: How many people are coming? Early estimates predict that any flat piece of ground in the Upper Green is going to be occupied by campers.

“The roads in and out of Sublette County are few,” Mitchell said. “We worry about medical, fire and getting search-and-rescue resources (to the Upper Green) or any other type of emergency because roads could be blocked with people double parked. Our (road) system will only handle so much. When we reach that point, we will adjust our response. We can only be reactionary; we have no way to tell what’s coming.”

A few weeks out from the event, Mitchell has already noticed a rise in campers, but was unsure if they were hanging around for the eclipse or not.

“I’ve seen an increase in campers already,” he said. “I don’t know if they are reserving a spot or spending a week in the woods.”

Other concerns about cell and Internet reliability and availability during the influx come to light, as reports of cell service struggling to handle a rise in population of 2,000 to 3,000 individuals during the recent Green River Rendezvous were experienced this summer.

“Expect voice conversations to not work,” Mitchell said. “You would have better luck with texting. We had days during Rendezvous that couldn’t handle cell (phone) requests.”

Message boards will be placed along south U.S. Highway 191, south U.S. Highway 189 and in Pinedale. Boards will direct visitors to tune their radios to AM radio stations that will give information loops and will have the ability to go live if the need arises.

“We want to make sure the public is prepared for longer drive times,” Cooper said.

WYDOT has also made a few changes to make travel throughout the state runs as smooth as possible during this influx of visitors. According to a press release, WYDOT will use overhead message signs to provide helpful information to travelers, stop some construction projects, temporarily stop oversize and overweight loads from driving through the state and have extra personnel on hand to handle the increase in travelers and ensure rest areas are well maintained.

To help with the increase in traffic, WYDOT will temporarily stop road construction in the path of totality and along some main highways people will use to access the eclipse’s path from Aug. 17-23.

“With Wyoming expecting increased traffic and tourism, WYDOT officials decided it would be best to temporarily stop construction projects,” WYDOT director Bill Panos said. “We want to ensure traffic flows smoothly during the eclipse. We always strive to provide a safe, high quality and efficient transportation system, and the measures we are putting in place will do just that.”

In addition, Wyoming Highway Patrol (WHP) won’t be issuing any oversize or overweight permits on Aug. 20-22. WHP will also have troopers working 12-hour shifts to handle any law enforcement issues statewide.


Stocking up

Over at Ridley’s Family Market – the only supermarket in Pinedale – stocking efforts have focused primarily around water, beer, paper goods, general camping items, ice, and things needed for RVs, according to assistant store director Stanton Meats. Meats estimated approximately a 20 to 30-percent increase in stocking to handle the rise in population during the eclipse.

“We’ve identified key items for the eclipse and have been putting in commitments to make sure we have them,” he said. “The only thing I’m concerned about is our bread situation.”

Bread delivered to Ridley’s comes from a third-party vendor out of Eastern Idaho, and bakeries that supply the vendor will be impacted in a big way from the eclipse. As for the rest of the freight coming in for the store, deliveries come in on I-80 and up U.S. Highway 191. Due to this, Meats doesn’t anticipate trucks bringing in supplies for restocking to see much of an impact.

“I don’t foresee that being a high traffic area,” he said. “I think the majority will come from Jackson and the Hoback.”

He says a large influx of people hasn’t been experienced as of Wednesday of this week, but noted a higher customer count than at this time last year.

In terms of when to buy supplies prior to the potentially busy eclipse week, Meats suggests coming in on Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday.

“Personally, I would do my shopping for the week of the eclipse this weekend or early next week,” he said. “We expect people to start coming to town on Aug. 17.”

Mitchell says now is the time to stock up on food, fuel, extra water and medications. He also noted to plan accordingly for appointments outside of Sublette County, stating those could be troublesome to get to during the week of the eclipse and to adjust schedules accordingly.

“Think of it as a snow event; don’t expect to move the Sunday before or Tuesday,” he said. “Prepare now.”

Estimates of the statewide influx have been between 350,000 and 1,200,000 visitors.

“We don’t know, so we’re going with ‘X,’” Mitchell said. “We just don’t know what’s coming.”

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