On April 15, Notre Dame cathedral in Paris caught fire. On Sunday, sagebrush and cheatgrass surrounding the National Museum of Wildlife Art was burning after lightning struck a telephone pole just north of the museum.
But when the fire threatened, Chief Curator of Art Adam Harris and his team were ready.
The day after the Notre Dame blaze, Harris had called his team together.
“I said, ‘We really need to come up with a firmer plan,’” he recalled. “‘If something like that were to happen, what are we going to do?’”
They put together lists of pieces of art they would need to evacuate — works that included the “most valuable” pieces in the museum, as well as pieces on loan from other museums.
“People began to look up and make lists of where, say, the most valuable pieces were or where the most interesting pieces were,” Harris said, “or different categories that we wanted to save.”
But when the lightning struck nearby a little after 3 p.m. Sunday — “you could feel the pulse,” said Michael Hofhiens, the museum’s director of operations — there was a partial power outage in the building and Emily Winters, the first member of the curatorial team to arrive, had difficulty accessing the lists they’d built from the museum’s database.
Thankfully, she’d saved a copy on her desktop and was able to look at it, make a handwritten list, and started to carry out the policy. When Harris arrived, between 3:30 and 4 p.m., the curatorial team began putting that plan into action, removing 10 pieces from the walls and putting them in the museum’s vault.
“That felt like a good step to be ready in case we had to move them out,” Harris said.
The pieces included works by Carl Rungius, Charles M. Russell and Georgia O’Keeffe, plus paintings by Thomas Moran on-loan from the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“Decisions were made based on importance to the collection, as well as loans from other places,” Harris said. “Ten was the starting number, and we would have moved on from there if we had [the] time and need.”
Ultimately they didn’t have to move the pieces. Based on the reports they were getting every 15 or 20 minutes from the firefighters who were battling the blaze, they determined that it would have been more unsafe to load the paintings into the personal or museum vehicles they had on site, rather than having them “safe in the vault in the building.”
“We had everything basically ready to go and we were just waiting to see if there was a call for [us] to get out of the building,” Harris said.
That call was never made.
The National Museum of Wildlife Art is what Teton County Fire Marshal Kathy Clay called “bombproof.” The building’s exterior is stone, with a fire-resistant roof, an irrigation system that was turned on when the fire started and a wide, natural firebreak — the parking lot.
Harris and Hofhiens were among eight people allowed to stay in the building on what Clay called an “accountability report,” a document that let first responders know who was inside, in case evacuation became necessary. The first responders outside continued to tell them there was “minimal risk” to the structure itself, Hofhiens said.
Had those conditions not been met — the team being inside a fire- resistant building and closely monitored for safety — Clay said they would have had to evacuate.
“Life is not worth risking for a wildland fire,” she said.
Ready, set, go
The eight-member team that stayed behind in the museum did so because it was a special case.
The building had defenses that virtually every home in Teton County does not possess.
“There’s only one home in Teton County that’s as safe” as the museum, Clay said.
As opposed to the residents in the Lucas Road and Riva Ridge Road neighborhoods, who were put on “Go” alert, the eight people in the museum never received that order. If they had, they would have left.
“We were not staying after we had been told to leave,” Harris said. “We had been communicating the whole time and we had that plan to leave if we were asked to.”
Wildland firefighting teams ask people to leave when the emergency management alert reaches “Go” stage for a reason. In the Camp Fire, which tore through Northern California, leaving upwards of 80 people dead, Clay said firefighters were hamstrung evacuating people. They weren’t able to fight the fire.
When people receive the “Go” alert, she said, they should leave. That frees resources to protect the wildland fire team’s second most important priority after people’s lives: property.
But to evacuate when you’re told requires being both “Ready” and “Set.” According to Clay, and the Teton County website, a “ready” household is one that has a plan, like the one the wildlife museum developed after the Notre Dame fire. A “set” household is “situationally aware” — if fire danger is high, or a fire is reported nearby, Clay said residents should begin getting ready to evacuate if necessary, packing emergency items and staying alert.
If the “Go” alert comes, she said you should do exactly that: Go.
Failing to do so forces firefighters to divert resources from firefighting to evacuating people.
“Our role is life safety,” Clay said.
The eight museum staffers ultimately were able to stand down as wildland fire teams and rain quelled parts of the blaze.
Afterwards, Harris and Hofhiens said they had some refining to do on their fire management plans.
“Nobody else outside my department knew what our plan was because hadn’t gotten to that stage yet,” Harris said.
His next steps? Develop a concrete plan that tells where important pieces of art are — and how to remove them from the walls — so staff besides the curatorial team could act, if needed.
Hofhiens said he would focus on communicating that plan to the staff and Clay recommended that the staff practice the plan, so people know how to act, when required.
And, at the end of the day, Clay said there are two types of fires: good fires and bad fires.
“This was a good fire,” she said. “We made it through, we learned a lot, we’ve done a lot of education and we’ve done so with minimal loss.”