Brothers Joe and Phil Smith speak with Sen. John Barrasso on Monday afternoon on their Hoback Ranches property. Joe Smith, who has been working the fire with Sublette County Unified Fire since it began, and his brother, who works as a Jackson Police officer, lost the home they shared since 2013. Photo by Ryan Dorgan / News&Guide
A few days after the 61,511-acre fire was put out, what was left of a scorched lantern still hung on the chimney that used to be in the center of Phil Smith’s log cabin.
After the Roosevelt Fire ripped through Hoback Ranches, a rural subdivision in Bondurant, the chimney was the only part of Smith’s house that still stood upright.
“If you lean on the wall you can see it buckling in,” Smith said.
Some loose tin at the top of the chimney swung around in the wind Monday, and Smith anticipated it falling into the rubble below, joining the rest of his belongings that are now a pile of ashes.
“We are going to try and demolish this on our own because insurance is only giving us so much,” Smith said. “We don’t have a lot of money. We took some of the big stuff out by hand, but we want to save as much as we can.”
Smith, 29, is a K9 officer with the Jackson Police Department. He lived at the Hoback Ranches cabin with his wife, Makayla, his brother, Joe, the couple’s dog, Moose, and his K9 partner, Cigy.
Joe is a firefighter and was working hard alongside other fire crews to help contain the wildfire. Makayla is away at veterinary school. So when the flames grew closer to their house, Phil grabbed as much as he could.
“My wife was gone, and Joe was on the fire, and then they said to evacuate,” Smith said. “The first thing I packed were guns and ammo and survival stuff just to live out of the car like winter clothes and camp gear. I grabbed my wife’s wedding dress. That was her request and her grandma’s watch and a few other valuables like that.”
There was only so much Smith could fit into his truck, but when he evacuated he was pretty confident his house would be OK.
When he returned, only the chimney and some fragments of the house’s frame remained.
“I left my original police badge,” Smith said. “I didn’t grab that for some reason. But I found it when we were sifting through some rubble.”
Smith’s parents bought the cabin and the surrounding 10 acres in 2013, and he and his brother have lived there since.
Their property has a wide view of the Gros Ventre Range.
“Every year we’d have elk come through and moose, and now it’s all gone,” Smith said.
The Smiths secured a rental for the winter in Hoback but hope to rebuild here in the spring.
“I’m just ready to get rid of it and move on,” Smith said.
A friend of a friend with an excavator is going to help them get rid of some bigger scrap pieces this weekend, Smith said.
“We’re going to haul all the metal away,” he said.
During initial cleanup Smith is staying with his neighbors Chris Lacinak and Stephanie Housley.
“Everyone pitches in to help each other,” Housley said.
The families who live year-round in Hoback Ranches are a self-reliant bunch. They plow their own roads in the winter, trim their own trees and maintain their shared fences. Some of them can reach their houses in the winter only by snow machine. Neighbors rely on each other.
“Everyone kind of does everything,” Smith said. “This in my mind is true America. We’re going to rebuild, and we’ll be better for it. We’ll be fine.”
But the Roosevelt Fire devastated the subdivision, burning down 55 structures.
And not everyone will rebuild.
“I’m too old,” said Jim Lubing, a Jackson lawyer and Hoback Ranches resident. “Our whole house collapsed into a 4-foot-deep crawl space.”
Lubing, 62, and his wife, Jill, built their cabin in 2001.
“It was a 1,600-square-foot log cabin with the most beautiful front porch to sit on and have coffee,” Lubing said. “We aren’t going to have those beautiful aspen trees anymore.”
Lubing said he and his wife plan to keep the property for their grown children.
On evacuation day they escaped their cabin with some clothes, artwork, paperwork, guns, instruments and his fat bike, Lubing said.
“If I had taken the evacuation more seriously maybe we would have taken more things, but we didn’t,” Lubing said.
He and Jill will likely build or buy somewhere else, he said.
“If you value different experiences in life,” Lubing said, “having everything you own burn up really affects the way you look at other properties.”
PHOTO GALLERY: Hoback Ranches, before and after the Roosevelt Fire
Scenes of Hoback Ranches near Bondurant, before and after the Roosevelt Fire destroyed several homes in the subdivision in September 2018. A GoFundMe page has been established to help residents rebuild their homes and infrastructure within the subdivision.