BONDURANT – Emily Haigler stood with a small crowd of evacuees at the entrance to Hoback Ranches watching smoke plumes rise above her neighborhood on Thursday. The vacation home she and her husband planned to convert into their permanent home on Chippewaugh Lane stood right in the path of the roaring fire. This was where Haigler and her husband got married, and the home nestled in the pine- and aspen-forested hills conjures a lot of life memories.
Her house was safe for now. Haigler was up most of the night checking footage from video cameras she and her husband set up on their property, unable to sleep as the flames closed in.
“Our house and the other properties around it looked safe. The firefighters are pulling water out of the neighbor’s pond and dumping water on the flames.”
But the fire was moving fast, roaring up and down ridges, swallowing trees and sagebrush. Haigler didn’t know how long her luck would last.
“This is devastating,” she said, “Everything is so up and down. The wind keeps changing. You don’t know what’s going to happen next – it’s really sad.”
Roice and Jim McCollum huddled together in the chilly wind next to Haigler.
They lived in a house that was a half-mile from the fire line.
“I sat up on Aspen Drive on Tuesday and watched the fire jump three ridges and cover one mile of sagebrush in one hour before we evacuated,” Roice McCullom said. She and Jim were lucky – they managed to get most of their possessions out of the house in six frantic runs in and out of the neighborhood with their trailer before authorities cordoned the area off. But they had no idea if their house was going to survive.
“I’m very stressed out,” Jim McCullom said. “My anxiety level is up to here,” he added, lifting his hand above his head, “We all worked hard to make our places fire-wise – keeping the property clear and the grass really short. But I’ve spent all day second guessing myself like crazy.”
Another member of the group, Terri Sellers, moved to Hoback Ranches from Jackson.
“There’s a better sense of community here,” she said. Like her neighbors, she had to flee her home on Tuesday.
“You grab the important stuff – pets, pills, papers,” she said, “Heirlooms and all that other stuff can be replaced.”
A few hours later, and a few miles above South Rim and Hoback Ranches, ranchers and cowhands silently watched flames rise above Merna North Beaver Road. Trucks hitched to horse trailers idled beside them. Saddled horses stood patiently in the trailers. The group was ready at a moments notice to round up the cattle herds in the pastures below if the flames came any closer.
“We’re just waiting here,” said a woman in a cowboy hat and duster who wished to remain anonymous, “If those flames jump the ridge, we’re in trouble. There’s not much else to say.”
That night, the cattle were still safe. But the animals bellowed back and forth in the darkness as flames licked the top of the ridge.
The initial concern was evacuating hunters from the Middle Beaver Creek drainage. Campers and trailers with quads and four wheelers gathered at the U.S. Forest Service checkpoint. Forest Service trucks sped up and down the road to check on the last remaining hunting camps. Two young forest service workers at the checkpoint did their best to answer questions and direct traffic.
For many of the hunters, the season was over.
“It’s a shame,” said Richard Trekell, “The fire basically destroyed my deer hunting plans.”
When he left camp Sunday, the fire was still on the other side of the Hoback River. “The flames were over 200-feet high. I knew this one was really bad. I told my friends and other hunters camped up there to get out,” he said.
Haigler, the McCollums and Sellers attended a public meeting Thursday night at Bondurant Elementary where local, state and federal authorities attempted to allay people’s fears and provide information to the public. Well over a hundred displaced people from the community packed themselves into the room expressing anger and frustration.
Operations Chief Brian Cresto said, “My number-one goal is: don’t get anyone killed,” he said, “We’re working in tough terrain with the wind blowing. The fire picks up and burns from 6 a.m. until midnight. I have to make sure that the needs of my workers are met, that they get to sleep and eat.”
Cresto explained that initially the incident management team was struggling to get the resources they needed.
“We didn’t have the bullets we needed,” he said, explaining that with all of the forest fire activity across the western United States, resources were stretched thin and agencies had to compete to get them.
People in the audience vented their frustration with agencies over delays in getting resources on the ground and in the air and enacting a fire ban.
Most people, however, simply wanted to know if their homes were still safe and what areas still stood in the line of fire.
Sublette County Unified Fire Chief Shad Cooper explained that the unexpected hot and dry weather this late in the season caught his agency off guard. The constantly changing weather and fire patterns meant that areas of high risk changed daily, sometimes hourly. He also told the assembly that he fully trusted the incident management team, and urged people to “work together as a community.”
Cooper also gave credit to the men and women who volunteered their time to respond to the forest fire. He stated that around 100 local people were battling the flames and that they were well prepared with “thousands of hours of training.”
“Our volunteer firefighters are from our community. They’re taking time off work to serve. They’re frustrated like the rest of you, but their frustration is directed at the weather and topography, not at each other.”
Hunters remain at University of Utah
Hunters Steve Knezovich and Dakota Knezovich remain at the University of Utah burn center after being caught in the initial fire on Sunday. Steve Knezovich was scheduled for surgery Monday morning on his right hand, which suffered third degree burns, according to his wife Debi Thomas Knezovich. He has less intense third-degree and second-degree burns on face, back of his head, back, arm and ears.
She posted on Facebook that Dakota has been accepted into an experimental research program for skin removal in an attempt to avoid surgery. Most of the burns suffered by Dakota are second-degree with the exception of third-degree burns on his hand.