Fire season, pandemic travel contribute to fuel shortage


SHERIDAN — For 18 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted global supply chains, affecting everything from toilet paper to gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel.

Demand for fuel has increased as many Americans are taking road trips this summer. In addition, an early fire season has resulted in increased fire suppression efforts, which have also impacted demand for various fuels across the western United States, according to Gov. Mark Gordon’s office.

And if the state sees a fire the size of the 2020 Mullen Fire in southeastern Wyoming — about 176,877 acres and the largest fire in known Wyoming history — fire suppression efforts will take a significant amount of fuel.

“The fuel shortage is coming from several factors,” said Robert Godby, a University of Wyoming associate professor in the Department of Economics. “It’s a case of supply-chain issues. There is a driver shortage, and so trucks are not getting to airports to deliver fuel, especially those at a distance from pipelines. This, coupled with above average demand this summer from travel, has led to a problem.”

The real issue, he said, is not so much a shortage of fuel itself, but a shortage of capacity to meet demand for fuel delivery to airports.

“Ironically, in many places in the country, we have a surplus of jet fuel, as increased refining of gasoline to meet demand has led to jet fuel produced as a byproduct at a rate that exceeds demand for air travel, which is still depressed in places,” he said. “Out west, though, the demand has been increased by summer travel.”

Wildfire season has also exacerbated the need for jet fuel in the summertime, as it’s necessary for fire suppression efforts, he said.

Proactive measures in Wyoming have kept the interagency fire community in operation during the heat of summer, other officials say. In mid-July, Gordon’s office signed a temporary executive order to help alleviate fuel shortages, putting in place temporary emergency rules for the Wyoming Department of Transportation allowing drivers to make extra fuel deliveries until Aug. 20.

Brian Olsen, administrator for the WYDOT Aeronautics Divisions, said that he began hearing rumblings about fuel shortages in the Rocky Mountain region a month ago.

“For the past two to three weeks, we have been monitoring the situation, checking in with publicly-owned, publicly-used airports to monitor their fuel supply,” he said. “I will say that the supply of fuel in Wyoming the past two to three weeks has been quite tight.”

There were a few airports in Wyoming that ran out of fuel for an intermittent amount of time in July, he said.

“Currently, as far as I’m aware, all of the airports do have fuel. That’s the good news,” Olsen said.

It would be speculative to draw a direct line from the governor’s order, which allows for flexibility for fuel to be delivered, to an improvement, but there has been one nonetheless over the last several days, Olsen said.

“There are no airports that don’t have fuel, and we had several that were out. We’ve seen fuel get delivered to the airports, which is very helpful,” he said.

The emergency rule suspends regulations on driving hours to allow drivers to meet the increased demand for fuel, but still indicates drivers cannot be on the road when they are fatigued. Fuel delivery companies are specifically asked to take extra precautions to ensure the safety of both the public and the drivers.

The order applies specifically to drivers bringing gasoline, diesel or aviation fuel to Wyoming or doing in-state deliveries. The order also aligns Wyoming with other surrounding states, which have implemented similar executive orders.

Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser said this kind of a fuel shortage during fire season is abnormal.

“This is the first time that I know of that we have ever had a fuel shortage,” Crapser said. “Like everything else in the last 18 months, it is a supply chain issue. And it’s not just Wyoming that is having the issue. ... California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, all those states have been having issues and are watching this very closely.”

Wyoming State Fire Marshal Mike Reed said his office greatly appreciates the governor’s “timely work on this issue.” Because his organization investigates fire within municipalities, a shortage would have to be very severe to affect local fire departments, but he recognizes the need for wildfire suppression.

“Other states are having difficulty with fuel supplies and it is of the utmost importance for those fuel supplies to be available in Wyoming,” Reed said. “It really is more critical for the air services involved and the distances to travel for forestry. It was the appropriate move that Gov. Gordon took to ensure those services are out there.”

Crapser said his office has been working closely with the interagency fire community and the state’s aviation contractors to monitor the situation. The Wyoming State Forestry Division has a helicopter and two single engineer tankers under contract.

“Both of those contractors have fuel trucks, so they have some of their own fuel, but they still have to buy it from the airports when they need it,” he said.

As far as the larger interagency fire community, Crapser said many agencies have been making sure the airports they fly in and out of have fuel for their heavy helicopters and the big air tankers.

“It is a joint effort for everyone, with the governor’s executive order and all that WYDOT is doing, to make sure there is fuel,” he said. “I think it is going to even out. Where it would be a problem would be if there was a lot of activity at a very small airport, and you could stretch that fuel supply very tight pretty quick.”