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Evacuees look for answers

September 26, 2018

Bruce Bartley stayed in his Hoback Ranches home as long as he could.

After the Roosevelt Fire ignited Sept. 15, it quickly spread, prompting evacuations of Bartley’s neighborhood and others in Bondurant. People fled to the homes of friends and family, leaving behind treasured items that couldn’t be easily transported.

Knowing that, Bartley sprang into action. Chairman of the Hoback Ranches board of directors and a former wildland firefighter of 25 years, Bartley worked to save his neighbors’ possessions.

“I’ve stayed in the ranches all week. We’ve moved dozens of snowmachines and side-by-sides and quads,” Bartley said. “We’ve retrieved heirlooms and guns, things people couldn’t get, shut off gas. We’ve done everything we could.”

Bartley and a small team moved dozens of trailers from the heavily wooded subdivision out to Highway 189/191, the thoroughfare through Bondurant that connects it to Jackson and Pinedale. They took the collection to a safer area not immediately in the fire’s path.

A blowup in fire activity Sunday derailed their efforts. As has been typical on the Roosevelt Fire, a cold morning gave way to a warmer, windier afternoon, and the fire swept through the subdivision, forcing the few residents that had stuck it out toward the highway.

“Things looked pretty normal today,” Bartley said Sunday. “Engines and crews and people were doing things, then when the inversion lifted one of the firefighters told me it was like somebody put a torch to it.”

Evacuation notices go out

Many residents left their homes early last week, when the first evacuation notices were issued for the Upper Hoback, Rolling Thunder, Jim Bridger Estates and Hoback Ranches (see timeline on 11A). The number of evacuees topped 500 by Monday.Those who stayed behind were on the front lines of a fire that pushed through an area long known to be vulnerable.

“Hoback Ranches has been designated as the most at-risk community in Wyoming for fire for a long time,” resident Linda Cooper said.

In the first few days of the fire the acreage grew slowly, and teams of state and U.S. Forest Service firefighters battled to keep the blaze from spreading. Red-flag weather conditions — warm temperatures, high winds and low humidity — quickly pushed the head of the fire into evacuated neighborhoods.

Reinforcements began pouring in as the burn grew to 29,000 acres Thursday. The Type II interagency team that was called in to take over the fire assembled a community meeting that day, hoping to answer the questions of homeowners fearing the worst.

Fire officials told the crowd that three factors were working against them: fuel, weather and topography. Desiccated trees and brush were ripe for burning after a summer without much rain. Red-flag conditions allowed for rapid growth. Rolling terrain gave the fire the chance to spread uphill quickly and made it difficult for firefighters to create defensible space.

The evacuees understood but demanded answers about how the fire had spun out of control so quickly and, in particular, why more resources weren’t allocated to the fire at its outset. They grilled Sublette County Unified Fire Chief Shad Cooper about why a fire ban wasn’t in place in the days before the fire and why residents who own heavy equipment weren’t able to stay and help in the fire effort.

Cooper and other officials explained that the number of fires made it difficult to order resources until fires had grown to a certain size, that the cause was unknown and a fire ban may not have prevented it. Firefighters asked residents not to help because the complicated operations could put people in harm’s way.

The self-sufficient residents were unsatisfied with the explanations.

“We like to do the work ourselves,” Linda Cooper told the News&Guide. “That’s the kind of community we are.”

In the end, officials didn’t have the answer residents most wanted: Is my house still standing?

Attendees wanted to know which draws, roads and properties had been hit, but the Type II team had not had the time on the ground, or the mapping, to determine that. They spoke of efforts to maintain a line and protect Hoback Ranches as a whole, though some residents were already aware structures had burned.

“There was too much shuck and jive,” Bartley said. “These are people from Wyoming; they want a straight story. Tell me if it burned down.”

Heroic efforts

Though residents have clamored for more information, they have had few complaints about the efforts on the ground.

“I was lookout for the fire last night,” Bartley said Sunday. “I watched some of the most ballsy firefighting I’ve ever seen.”

Last week the fire was in a cycle of blowing up around 6 p.m. and burning actively until midnight or 1 a.m., officials said. That kind of activity and time of day thrust crews into situations they would generally avoid.

“Guys were on top of the ridge saving houses as the fire moved toward them; you don’t work ahead of the fire,” Bartley said.

Sunday’s blowup that pushed out Bartley and the others hanging on in Hoback Ranches began another rapid round of growth, a roughly 20,000-acre increase from Sunday to Tuesday, pushing the fire’s size to almost 50,000 acres with about 25 percent containment.

The rapid growth and destruction of homes were catalysts for a new team to take over the fire. A Type I team (see sidebar at the end of this story) led by Tony DeMasters, the same incident commander who oversaw the battle against 2016’s Cliff Creek Fire north of Bondurant in the Granite Creek drainage, assumed management of the blaze at 6 a.m. Monday.

“I told him, ‘Welcome back,’” Bartley said.

With that Type I team came an armada of public information officers and a push to provide residents with more information, as well as hundreds of new firefighters, structure protection teams and aircraft.

“We have a new information strategy,” fire information officer Larisa Bogardus said. “It is our intention to move faster.”

The team’s approach was twofold: build more containment lines and help residents feel a little less in the dark. Because a Type I team is the highest level of federal fire management, it means personnel with the top level of skills and experience have descended on Bondurant, with a price tag of about $1 million a day on a fire that had already cost about $9.9 million by Sunday, according to lead information officer Louis Haynes.

“The biggest thing a Type I team brings is more resources, more people,” said information officer Don Jaques. “The other thing is a little more experience. To be a Type I [incident commander] or operations section chief requires additional training and experience. That’s the reason they handle the more complex fires.”

The team wasted no time in redoubling efforts. Aerial support flew until nearly dark Monday, dousing the areas around homes southeast of Hoback Rim with fire retardant as flames crept within a quarter mile of the highway.

With a break in gusty winds on Tuesday, fire crews conducted burnout operations near the Rim Station to keep the fire from jumping Highway 191.

“Right now the fire isn’t imminent,” Jaques said. “But there’s high likelihood the fire is going to get here. We have a wind event that’s coming that could potentially spot fire across the road. If we burn this vegetation now here in a calm manner, then if we get really strong winds from the west it will just spot back into the burned area.”

Late Tuesday afternoon the Eldorado Hotshots, out of Pollock Pines, California, worked just north of the Rim Station to burn vegetation along the highway in hopes of pushing the Roosevelt Fire back towards itself.

Tuesday’s weather wasn’t ideal for burnout operations, but it’s been the best weather day since the fire was detected Sept. 15.

“This is so the fire has nothing else to burn,” public information officer Lauren McKeever said. “The winds and weather are favorable, and there is no red-flag warning.”

The current plan is to keep the blaze from jumping the highway, containing it between the area already burned and the road, and then keeping it out of the Jim Bridger Estates to the south. Structure protection teams are working in the Sargent Lane area to protect homes near the highway.

Air tankers worked all day Tuesday near the Rim Station, dropping retardant to protect the highway and structures northeast of the fire’s head, and in its likely path.

Residents are happy to see the Type I team expanding control lines, but some feel a slow response to the fire doomed Hoback Ranches.

At this past Thursday’s community meeting, several interrupted to ask why a helicopter or plane didn’t simply drop retardant on the Roosevelt Fire when it was 40 or 80 acres, similar to the quick, full-suppression response to the Irish Fire that started near Boulter Lake on Saturday.

VIDEO: Aircraft drops fire retardant Tuesday near the Rim Station, a convenience store and RV park between Bondurant and Daniel, during efforts to keep the Roosevelt Fire at bay. The area was evacuated Sunday as the fire approached. EMILY MIEURE / NEWS&GUIDE

“They were there right away, but they didn’t have the resources to do anything,” Linda Cooper said. “They were slow to recognize the potential.”

It may be easy in hindsight to point out how a bigger team would have changed the situation, but it can be difficult at a fire’s outset to anticipate how complex it may become, Jaques said. With only so many Type I teams in the country, less complex fires, even those that threaten structures, may first be given to Type II or III teams.

“Whether they are a Type I, II or III team, they are all very experienced,” Jaques said. “Sometimes they’ll call in a Type III hoping it won’t grow. It’s kind of a balancing act with cost and resources on other fires.”

That knowledge may be cold comfort to residents, many who still face the uncertainty of not knowing whether they have a home to return to. At a meeting Monday for Hoback Ranches residents, officials from the fire team steeled themselves to deliver bad news.

“This is my second least favorite thing I have to do, tell people their homes are gone,” Haynes said. “My least favorite is telling someone their loved one isn’t coming home.”

Delivering bad news

Haynes has already had to go through this process once this summer, during the Dollar Ridge Fire on the Ashley National Forest in Utah. The forest, which is his home forest, saw the blaze rip through nearly 69,000 acres and destroy 128 homes.

“We had one family lose a cabin built by a grandfather 80 years ago, so that was the cornerstone of the family foundation,” he said.

Haynes was spared delivering the worst news to people because the Sublette County Sheriff’s Office had not completed assessments of properties in the subdivision, depriving residents of the piece of information they most desired.

Homeowners had hoped the assessment would be complete by the time of Monday’s meeting, but Sublette County sheriff’s Sgt. Travis Bingham said much of the neighborhood remains too dangerous to evaluate. Active fires, torching trees, smoldering roots and standing dead trees, or snags, present risks to firefighters and deputies, as do burning toxic building materials and propane tanks.

“We sent some people in to get damage assessments today,” Bingham said Tuesday.

As of press time, the sheriff’s office had visited about a third of the 153 homes in Hoback Ranches and confirmed 22 homes had been lost. Bingham took some solace in the fact that firefighters’ efforts had saved many homes.

“We didn’t deliver all bad news today,” he said. “We told plenty of people their stuff was still standing.”

With the status of more than 100 homes still unknown, Bartley was displeased with the lack of information. Having spent much of the last week inside the subdivision alongside several other residents and knowing that firefighters had been on scene when the houses had been destroyed, he felt that homeowners should have been notified sooner, or that he and his crew should have been allowed to assess and notify.

“If they had let us go and look and tell people, I’d much rather hear my house was gone from someone I know and love and trust than a faceless federal bureaucrat,” he said.

Cooper agreed that residents still hoped for more information and said they were taking things into their own hands.

“There are a ton of people who go to the top of Raspberry Ridge with binoculars just to watch what’s going on,” she said.

For a neighborhood used to taking care of itself, not knowing can be worse than the news of a lost house. Bingham knows that, but the sheriff’s office wants to avoid spreading misinformation.

“We want to go make sure we have the right lot. We want to make 100 percent sure and confirm with GPS and maps,” he said.

That methodical process can avoid devastating mistakes.

“It would terrible to tell someone their house is still standing and have them get in there and it’s not,” Jaques said.

The other information residents are asking about is when they can return, either to see their homes or assess the damage for themselves. For the same reasons crews can’t reach some parts of Hoback Ranches, the sheriff’s office has no timetable for allowing residents back in.

In addition to crews determining whether the neighborhood is safe, utilities, including Lower Valley Energy and Rocky Mountain Power, will need to assess electrical boxes and transformers before the power can be turned back on, prolonging the evacuation.

“We want to get people in as fast as we can, but it’s hard to say when that will be,” Bingham said.

Before Monday’s meeting, Haynes told residents not to expect a quick turnaround.

“When we say evacuate, it’s a week, minimum,” he told a group of homeowners.

Looking ahead

Bartley, after 25 years on fires and a week in the burning neighborhood, had no illusions about how devastating the Roosevelt Fire would be. But no one is truly prepared for the news he received Monday.

“I had a friend who’s a deputy, and he was in there. He told me my house is gone,” Bartley said. “He’s drank whiskey on my porch; he knows it was my place.”

He and his wife have lived in Hoback Ranches for four years, but had their eyes on the place much longer. They bought their land in the late 1990s, with the intent of living out their retirement in Bondurant.

They built a two-car garage with an apartment and lived in it while they built their house, which they had been in for just two years. That story, of building a dream home in the idyllic timber, was echoed in Facebook comments and voices at the public meetings.

With the fire not even out, the future seems a long way off, but those whose homes are destroyed will face the choice to move or replay that process, to build another dream home.

“This is not the time to make that kind of decision, to rebuild,” Bartley said. “My first instinct is to say yes, but my wife will have a lot to say about that.”

Cooper said others in the community have already decided to remain. With winter around the corner and temperatures dipping well below freezing at night already, they may not be able to tough out this winter, but she believes many will return.

“There are people already talking about those of us who are going to rebuild,” she said. “People want a focus. They want to be active and want to know and go forward.”

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