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Fires force Sublette County residents to evacuate

September 20, 2018

Jeanette Lowseth’s Jim Bridger Estates neighborhood has cleared out.

“My neighbors have all left; they packed up very little,” she said.

As of Tuesday, Lowseth was in her Sublette County cabin, putting up metal on her house and packing explosive items like propane tanks as the Roosevelt Fire drew closer.

The Green River resident drove up when she heard the Sublette County Sheriff’s Office had issued a pre-evacuation notice Sunday for her subdivision and several others in the Bondurant and Daniel areas. The danger posed by the fire is an unwelcome development in an already tough summer.

Lowseth’s husband, Randy, died about a month and half ago, and she faces the prospect of losing the cabin he built.

“The logs came from our property,” she said. “He peeled them and stacked them and chinked them, so it’s very sentimental to us.”

While Lowseth packed, the process of loading valuables — family heirlooms, legal papers, other irreplaceable objects — into vehicles was underway in the Upper Hoback and Rolling Thunder neighborhoods, which also received evacuation notices Monday.

The blaze, reported by hunters Saturday afternoon, started near the Upper Hoback trailhead and Roosevelt Meadows. By Tuesday evening, the fire had grown to 13,000 acres and was 0 percent contained, said Julie Thomas, public information officer for the team taking over management of the fire today.

“There’s no humidity, there’s wind, it’s hot,” Thomas said.

Those conditions over the weekend fanned several fires in the region. Many were contained or monitored as they burned just a few acres.

The Spider Fire in the Bridger Wilderness was reported to be 2 acres, as was the Big Piney Ranger District’s Lead Creek Fire, which was controlled Sunday. A flare-up in Leigh Canyon in Grand Teton National Park on Saturday prompted closures of campsites on Leigh Lake (see Trail Talk on page 6C for information on that small fire).

But the Roosevelt Fire and another in the Wyoming Range, the Marten Creek Fire, grew rapidly, prompting forest closures and neighborhood evacuations.

The Marten Creek Fire, burning south of McDougal Gap, is more remote than the Roosevelt Fire. Reported to be about 300 acres Sunday, the Marten Fire spread rapidly to 5,700 acres by Tuesday evening, according to the Teton Interagency Fire website, TetonFires.com. It started on the east side of the Greys River, north of Corral Creek, but it has jumped the waterway near North Corral Creek, complicating suppression efforts.

“High winds are expected. The fire is pushing to the north and northeast,” said an update on the Bridger-Teton’s Facebook page Tuesday. “No structures have been lost. Point protection is in place for outfitter camps in the area.”

Though the cause of the Roosevelt Fire is unknown, the Marten Creek Fire has been determined to be human-caused, according to Denise Germann, the Teton park public affairs officer, who is assisting the Bridger-Teton.

The speed at which the fires grew has made evacuations more urgent, though systems put in place for emergencies like the Roosevelt Fire have done their jobs.

Jackson Police Chief Todd Smith lives in Hoback Ranches, which was the fourth neighborhood threatened by the blaze, and he was in Jackson when he received the pre-evacuation order from the sheriff’s office. The area has a “ready, set, go” system, and the pre-evacuation notice is the “ready” phase, telling residents to start boxing up belongings.

“I immediately left Jackson to start packing stuff,” Smith said. “We had taken the first notification seriously.”

The next step, “set,” means people must be ready to go at a moment’s notice. If ready means families need to start choosing what to save, set means it must be packed in the car, truck or trailer. It didn’t take long for that second call to come, Smith said, and when it did, his community jumped into action.

A group of friends came down from Jackson to move big items like snowmobiles and trailers, while Smith packed heirlooms and artwork. That story of mobilization played out across the Upper Hoback.

“Every house in my subdivision had several vehicles, with neighbors helping neighbors,” Smith said. “I think it was my first traffic jam in Hoback Ranches.”

Faced with the possibility that one’s home could be gone in a matter of hours, the question is always: What to save? Photographs and artwork are easy choices, as they fit into a vehicle, but some pieces of furniture are generations old and carry great degrees of emotional significance.

David Watson, whose parents own a home in Hoback Ranches, headed down Monday night after work at the Teton Raptor Center. His parents were in Michigan, but their house held a dresser owned by his great-grandmother, tables from his grandmother and his grandfather’s guns, things that could never be replaced.

“Luckily, I was able to take the trailer down there,” he said.

Clearing his parents’ house gave him the chance to see just how close the fire is to the neighborhood.

“During the day the smoke was just billowing over us,” he said. “Then at dusk you could actually see the flames from their porch.”

After all the packing, Hoback Ranches households received the “go” signal Tuesday afternoon. Rather than relying on residents to police themselves, the sheriff’s office toured the neighborhood, taking names and addresses of those leaving and deciding to stay.

“The response from them was great,” said Hoback Ranches resident Sally Ruosch.

Those affected by the evacuations face an uncertain week, not knowing when they might be able to return to their homes. Travis Bingham, a spokesman for the Sublette County Sheriff’s Office, said the Pinedale Bible Church and the LDS church, with help from the American Red Cross, have opened their doors to anyone in need of a place to sleep.

But, as a testament to a strong community, no one had called the impromptu shelters as of 2:30 p.m. Tuesday.

“People have just gone to friends and family,” Bingham said.

From here it’s a waiting game. The fires have grown so quickly that additional resources have been called in, an interagency team for each fire. Both are 0 percent contained, and the dry, windy conditions are expected to last throughout the week, with no precipitation expected this week, and only a slight chance over the weekend, according to the National Weather Service.

The reinforcements should begin attacking the fire as the sun comes up today, though the proliferation of blazes around the West has stretched national fire resources thin.

“It’s not like the cavalry is going to come. It’ll be a trickle in,” Thomas said. “But we did get all the air support we requested.”

Pinedale-area residents will see a barrage of helicopters and planes taking off from Ralph Wenz Field in the effort to slow the Roosevelt Fire in particular. As air support is able to drop more water and the number of firefighters in the area grows, the containment of the Roosevelt and Marten fires will likely increase, but the going will be difficult.

“For the Roosevelt Fire, just because of the topography, the rocky steepness, you can’t get firefighters on every inch,” Thomas said. “80 percent containment will be a success.”

Upper Hoback residents who have already left will surely check every avenue for updates on their neighborhoods and the status of the Roosevelt Fire. And for those like Jeanette Lowseth, who are staying at least until Wednesday morning, a shift in winds or another increase in the fire’s area could be the motivation they need to evacuate.

Until then, they can’t do much but wait.

“We’re just trying to hold it together,” she said. “We need some divine intervention, maybe from Randy, to keep what we have up here.”

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