After a lightning storm swept over the Tetons and into the valley setting East Gros Ventre Butte on fire, stiff winds started pushing flames south toward Jackson.
Three hours later, 80 acres of the grassy, sagebrush-studded hills stood charred along the butte’s steep east face. Firefighters’ nerves were calmed, thanks in part to another weather system that pushed over, this time one that doused the flames that threw up a smoke column visible from much of town.
“Certainly the precipitation and increase in humidity made a big difference,” Fire Information Officer Lori Iverson said around 6 p.m. “Mother Nature helped us out big time on this one. There was a tanker [plane] that was en route to work the fire, but with fire behavior mitigated, it has been rerouted.”
If the Wildlife Museum Fire’s name isn’t a giveaway, it began near a National Museum of Wildlife Art water tank along a historic road that switchbacks up to the crest of the butte. Winds moved the fire’s leading edge southward, but proved erratic with big gusts fanning the flames.
By 5 p.m., the blaze had climbed as high on the butte as could be seen from the valley floor below the museum. The flames also pressed downhill, dancing above the museum’s parking lot, which provided a buffer to the building.
Jackson Hole photographer Ed Lavino, a retired firefighter, took in the action from the shoulder of U.S. Highway 89 near the entrance road to the museum. A curtain of smoke shrouded the building. Simultaneously, his wife, Jane, scrambled to round up the most valuable pieces in the museum where she works as a curator, in case the art needed to be rushed out of the stone-sided structure.
“Most of the movement in wildfires is usually up the hill,” Lavino said, “and this one is moving rapidly down the hill. I didn’t anticipate it reaching the museum this quickly.”
At the height of its hazard, the Wildlife Museum Fire triggered evacuation orders for the Riva Ridge Road and Lucas Road neighborhoods, and the highway was shut down temporarily.
A half hour after the evacuation alert went out, 15 or so cars from the neighborhoods were parked at the bottom of the road at the base of the butte. A crowd of residents gathered, some sheltering in their cars as welcome rain and hail began to come down.
Betsy Glazer, a 10-year resident, was sitting in her car with her dog, Jackson, and her friend, Terry Wilson. A painting she grabbed from home took up most of the back seat.
“We saw the helicopters going ’round and ’round with the water, and we were fine, but then it got real black and the flames were shooting up,” Glazer said.
Riva Ridge resident Cody Mueller saw smoke from his home and peered out the window. There were helicopters, then he looked out another window and saw firefighters. He ran into a firefighter outside who told him there was a “recommended” evacuation.
“And then a few minutes later, the order came,” Mueller said.
Atop East Gros Ventre Butte at Spring Creek Ranch, residents and guests were put on an evacuation advisory. The Amangani was in the same boat, as were residents of Saddle Butte and Elk View Terrace. The “go” orders in these places never came.
Spring Creek Ranch co-owner Stephen Price told the Jackson Hole Daily that he had to cancel a horseback riding trip Sunday afternoon because of the fire, then threatened to call police on a reporter attempting to interview residents. By 7 p.m., another lightning storm approached the valley, and two helicopters that worked the Wildlife Museum Fire were called to the ground.
As flames abated and the hazard dulled, much work remained for firefighters whose task will be to “mop up” the smoldering sagebrush in the hours and days to come.
“You’ll see people on the hillside tomorrow,” Iverson said, “looking for hot spots.”
An impressive coalition of agencies, firefighters and first responders came together to take on the Wildlife Museum Fire when it suddenly flared up, Iverson said.
Involved parties included the Bridger-Teton National Forest, National Elk Refuge, Grand Teton National Park, Jackson Hole Fire/EMS, Teton County government and the Teton County Sheriff’s Office. Two helicopters, including one that flew up from Swan Valley, Idaho, also chipped in.
“Everyone that could respond, did,” Iverson said. “It was quite an interagency show.”