Evacuees worried, hopeful homes will still be there
WILSON, Wyo. (AP) – They gather at the post office, at the grade school, at Hungry Jack’s General Store and Nora’s Fish Creek Inn, sharing information, stories, rumors, tears.
They are the Green Knoll Fire evacuees, displaced from their mountain homes by a dangerous forest fire, its flames still licking at exclusive neighborhoods in increasingly exclusive Jackson Hole.
They have gone through an emotional roller-coaster since sparks from a campfire grew to a 4,620-acre blaze in the tinder-dry Bridger-Teton National Forest eight days ago.
Michael Olin, an attorney who splits time between Wilson and Miami, Fla., along with his wife, Marlene, were among the first to be evacuated when the fire made a strong run Wednesday. They drove to a good vantage point the next day, and their hearts sank.
”All we could see from east to west was a line of fire within sight of our home,” he said. ”We got here Friday morning and saw the new map of the fire and saw that these guys had no chance. But (Saturday) was an amazing day.”
Nearly every person connected to the fire, from managers to residents to camp volunteers, has used similar terms to describe the way crews, in the face of terrible fire conditions – strong, erratic winds, high temperatures, crackling dry trees and low humidity – have kept all structures from harm.
Juniper Lopez rents a house just north of Indian Paintbrush subdivision. She was more hopeful after an update at the Wilson grade school Sunday.
”It seems like they are a lot more positive,” she said of fire officials. ”I’ve been dealing with acceptance over dealing with denial now, that it is a possibility that I could lose a home up there.”
More good news came later in the day. The roughly 100 evacuees might be able to return home Monday.
The fire that has marched over ridge after ridge was one foresters knew could come. Rainfall in the Jackson Hole valley this year is about 9 inches, down 57 percent. Also, recent winters have been mild with relatively low snowfall, further drying out the trees.
On July 22, the bad news came. A fire had broken out and was moving toward a number of subdivisions about six miles southwest of Jackson and about three miles south of Wilson, an unincorporated hamlet.
The U.S. Forest Service brought in its elite firefighting corps: teams of finely tuned troops from all over the nation. The air attack includes 16 airplanes and 12 helicopters dropping retardant and water while putting on a show over a few square miles of heavily smoking timber.
One-fourth of the nation’s air tankers are on the fire, and veterans say such heavy numbers and constant activity is unprecedented. The resources are available primarily because few large fires have erupted across the West this year.
The planes and helicopters have been bombarding the fire for several days, while 1,000 firefighters have waged a ground battle royale. A few hundred more provide organizational support at a base camp not far from Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, a popular ski area.
The relentless air assault has been augmented by bulldozer and shovel crews gouging out fire breaks, scout-plane pilots pinpointing new outbreaks, and hand and engine crews pouncing on them immediately with dirt and water. Before the flames drew near, local crews coated homes with foam and a gel dubbed ”green slime” as a preventive measure.
For the first eight days, it worked, although the fire continued to bulge here and there, throwing sparks and embers and keeping crews hopping.
The price tag, and counting: $6 million.
Some locals and nonresidents alike have questioned whether that kind of money should be spent on people who could pay for the fire themselves, those who live in homes valued at twice that amount.
They also wonder if the same type of response would have resulted if the fire threatened less expensive homes.
Fire officials have said repeatedly that the response is typical of any fire that threatens human life or property, and that without an aggressive response, many other homes would also be jeopardized.
The average home last year sold for $1.25 million and the median, or midpoint price of all homes sold, was up 21 percent to $625,000.
The region attracts not only movie stars like Harrison Ford and Sandra Bullock but not-so-well-known people who enjoy the scenery and the outdoor recreation.
Valley resident Joan Anzelmo, the chief information officer for Grand Teton National Park and lead fire information official, asked residents during Sunday’s update, broadcast over a radio station, to stem inflammatory comments between the haves and the have-nots.
”At the end of each day, let these terrible times remind us of what really matters: Our families, our friends and our neighbors,” she said.
Wilson School officials have thrown open the doors to the gym, auditorium and classrooms. An art room has been transformed into a tactical planning center. Maps, evacuation plans and fire reports are strewn alongside ”History of Art for Students” and painting supplies.
The daily meetings at the school are therapeutic, bringing many neighbors together for the first time and allowing them to see and hear from fire commanders what is happening on the front lines.
Fire incident commander Joe Carvelho has become something of a cult hero in Wilson, drawing the loudest cheers and heartiest handshakes.
Residents admire and trust Carvelho for the way he looks out for their safety and that of his crew, and his straight-talking approach.
He is obviously pleased that no structures have been lost or that any serious injuries have occurred on his watch, but he’s also experienced and realistic enough to know things can get out of control with one quick wind shift.
So he’ll conclude his talks with, ”We’re still not out of the woods,” and ”We still have to see how Mother Nature plays her hand,” so that residents stay alert and don’t get their hopes too high.
Carvelho and Teton County Fire Chief Ken Sutton, another regular at the updates, look like tough guys, but the response from the community has caught them off-guard.
Carvelho admitted he came close to tears when he found a woman who had been evacuated in a food trailer volunteering to help feed the crews.
Sutton got a bit choked up when he read a card he had received from four boys taking part in the county fair. Inside the card was $92.
”We think you need it more than we do,” he read, holding up the bills. Firefighters, struck by the gift, decided to return the money, he said.
The generosity has been spoken of repeatedly by fire officials and those who had to leave their homes.
Those out of the line of fire have freely offered up their houses, corrals, kennels, lots and garages.
Of the 150 forced from their homes, 14 did not have a place to go. But when the American Red Cross put out a call, residents quickly responded and took them in so they didn’t have to stay at the high school.
Barbara Erb and her husband, George, moved from the Detroit suburbs to the Indian Paintbrush subdivision nine years ago.
He started coming to Jackson Hole as a kid and decided to live in the valley after retiring from the lumber business.
Mrs. Erb said the outpouring from the community has been more than they could have imagined.
”It’s touched us deeply,” she said, struggling with a raspy throat from breathing too much smoke.
Regardless of what happens to her house, they will never leave.
”If we lose our homes, we haven’t lost our home,” she said. ”This makes me want to stay more than ever.”
On the Net:
Fire updates: http://www.tetonfires.com
National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov
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