On opening weekend for the 2018 rifle season for deer, hunters gathered along the Upper Hoback River, scouting, setting up camp, tracking quarry. Amid the bustle, smoke curled from a ridge Sept. 15 in the Roosevelt Meadows area.
Several parties reported it to local fire dispatchers, who sent the information up the chain to the U.S. Forest Service. Just a few hours after initial reports, firefighters traveled to the scene to size up the newly dubbed Roosevelt Fire, burning in thick, isolated timber.
What started as a small blaze — ultimately found to have been caused by an abandoned warming fire — forced evacuations of the Upper Hoback area, then tore through subdivisions near Bondurant. The largest, most destructive wildfire in Wyoming’s history, the Roosevelt Fire torched 55 homes in the Hoback Ranches subdivision and set off a far-reaching investigation into who started it.
A 195-page Forest Service report obtained by the News&Guide through a Freedom of Information Act request includes new details of how investigators’ efforts to find the culprit took them to the heel of the fire as it burned. The report also shows how law enforcement officers traveled across the country to interview witnesses, and how in the fire’s early days a combination of weather and lack of resources contributed to the eventual blowup that consumed Hoback Ranches.
The Upper Hoback encompasses a rugged combination of steep valleys and tightly timbered slopes, making it a great place to hunt deer but a hard place to fight a fire. Getting eyes on the new blaze required aircraft, but by mid-September in the Intermountain West, helicopters and planes were hard to come by.
At 4:30 p.m. that first day a flight from Pocatello, Idaho, was able to make a pass, and the pilot reported the blaze had grown to 30 acres.
“After arriving over the fire,” the report says of the pilot, “he observed group tree torching and spotting activity in strong winds.”
[Names won’t be included in this article because the Forest Service redacted names of all individuals, including its employees, from the report released to the News&Guide.]
When a Teton Helitack helicopter finished its firefighting duties near Grand Teton National Park later that evening, it took a second pass around 6:30 p.m. The pilot observed rapid growth of the fire, putting it at 80 acres, nearly triple the size it was just two hours earlier.
“Due to the remote area, observed fire behavior, lack of firefighter safety zones, and lack of resources,” the report says, “immediate ingress to the area by firefighters was deemed unsafe.”
In a perfect world a helicopter with a water bucket or a tanker of slurry (firefighter slang for fire retardant) might have stopped the blaze in its tracks. But allocating resources to a fire in its early stages is a delicate balance of gauging the potential for growth, the danger to people and structures, and the need to fight other fires in the region.
The day the Roosevelt Fire began, several fires were burning in the area, including one in Grand Teton National Park and one in the southern Wyoming Range. In the days that followed it spread east from the Upper Hoback toward subdivisions like Hoback Ranches and the Jim Bridger Estates, and more personnel and aircraft arrived, though not en masse.
“It’s not like the cavalry is going to come. It’ll be a trickle in,” public information officer Julie Thomas told the News&Guide on Sept. 18, three days after the fire started.
At that time efforts to pull firefighters toward the blaze were already in motion, as shown by radio communications included in the report, but a red-flag warning denoting high winds and low humidity had been issued and would remain in effect until early October. The Roosevelt Fire was roughly 13,000 acres and contained mostly to remote forestland.
Even so, the first evacuations had begun.
Jeanette Lowseth laid metal panels against her Jim Bridger Estates home as the fire grew closer. Most of her neighbors had already left, but she wanted to fireproof the house and pack up explosive items like propane tanks.
Lowseth had come up from Green River to save items from the house she and her husband had built as a vacation and retirement destination. Her husband, Randy, had died a month and half before the Roosevelt Fire began.
“The logs came from our property,” she said. “He peeled them and stacked them and chinked them, so it’s very sentimental to us.”
Lowseth was one of hundreds of residents in Bondurant and Daniel who were forced to evacuate their homes as the fire spread eastward out of the Upper Hoback. Evacuations were done on a “ready, set, go” series of commands. “Ready” meant being aware and packing up some things. “Set” indicated that residents needed to have their stuff in the car.
“Go” was self-explanatory.
By Sept. 23, eight days after the fire started, the evacuation map had been expanded to include basically every residence from the Jim Bridger Estates to Hoback Rim, including Hoback Ranches, the subdivision that ultimately saw the worst damage.
Like Lowseth, Hoback Ranches residents had to make split-second decisions about what to leave behind. David Watson, whose family owns a home in the neighborhood, raced from Jackson to Bondurant to grab sentimental items like guns and furniture. With all the homeowners driving to and from their houses, Hoback Ranches was busier perhaps than it has ever been.
“Every house in my subdivision had several vehicles, with neighbors helping neighbors,” Jackson Chief of Police Todd Smith said. “I think it was my first traffic jam in Hoback Ranches.”
As residents scrambled during the fire’s first week to choose what personal items were most important, fire managers worked to enlist crews from regional posts in the effort to keep the fire from blowing up.
All hands on deck
The morning of Sept. 18 a crew of eight from Boise was headed to Bondurant to join the growing force that had taken over a field in town, turning it into a fire camp. One of the crew bosses had come down with the flu, however, and had to wait out the illness before bringing four more people later.
The radio log in the report obtained by the News&Guide shows how fire managers hustled for resources. While firefighters can protect structures and dig fire lines, aircraft cover more ground, especially in the type of rugged terrain where the Roosevelt Fire burned.
With that in mind, the lower-level emergency response teams that worked the fire’s early days harangued their counterparts around the country for whatever air resources they could get.
Over the course of the day Sept. 20 air tankers came from West Yellowstone, Montana, on two occasions, and from California. As crews began structure protection measures and the Roosevelt Fire grew in size and importance, more and more aircraft landed in Pinedale en route to the threatened community of Hoback Ranches.
Radio communications show that even as the fire grew, other emergencies across the West created competition for resources. Calls into dispatch asked to take essential aircraft off the Roosevelt Fire, but the team on the ground objected.
“Can they take tanker 103 after this drop for another fire?” reads an incoming call at 3:16 p.m., Sept. 20.
“Would like to keep all aircraft at this time,” came the response a few minutes later. With the fire at around 30,000 acres, those aircraft were crucial for structure protection efforts, which had begun in earnest once evacuations were in place.
By Sept. 24, six days after the fire forced the first evacuations, 22 aircraft were on scene, including large air tankers, along with 47 fire engines, 20 crews, 18 helicopters, six bulldozers and 12 water tenders. As a Type I team — the highest level of emergency management the federal government has — was called in, the fire was named the No. 1 priority in the country.
Just as the Type I team arrived, headed by Tony Demasters, who worked the Cliff Creek Fire in 2016, the red-flag conditions led to the combustible stretch of time that devastated Hoback Ranches. Strong winds pushed the fire east Sept. 23 and 24, despite what resident and former firefighter Bruce Bartley called “some of the most ballsy firefighting I’ve ever seen.”
In the three days from Sept. 23 to 25 the leading edge of the fire moved miles east, stretching to Highway 191 at the Hoback Rim, where the natural barrier of the road, a decrease in winds and burnout operations finally deprived it of fuel. By Sept. 25 the fire had burned 55 houses in Hoback Ranches and rendered hundreds of residents homeless for a period of time.
After 10 days of dangerous weather conditions that prevented investigators from reaching the fire’s origin zone, a law enforcement agent took a helicopter flight into the Upper Hoback. That drop began the search for whoever started the fire that claimed those 55 homes.
Who’s to blame?
We may never know who started the destructive Roosevelt Fire.
Forest Service officials closed the criminal investigation in August “after all viable investigative leads were pursued to finality.”
When forest officials began their search for the person or party responsible for starting the blaze they were immediately suspicious of a group of men camping near where the fire started. Officers set out to interview them separately, a task that required investigators to travel to Maryland and Washington, D.C.
“The closest known camp to the suspected area of origin was later determined to have been occupied by four men from Maryland who had traveled to the area for rifle deer season,” the investigation noted. “The camp was noted as being visibly messy with trash left strewn across the ground after the occupants left the area.”
The investigative report continued: “Multiple items of value were inexplicably abandoned in a disheveled fashion, including a green Frog Toggs brand rain jacket, an unopened Mountain House meal, almost full bottle of scent concealer, camo pillow, a game bag and an airline blanket. Several food wrappers and Ziploc-style bags were abandoned within the site and fire ring, along with a roll of toilet paper. These items were piled and left in the fire ring in violation of multiple regulations related to sanitation. A pair of socks and another single sock were hanging in trees. Two spent shell casings were found in the camp area as well.”
Suspicion about the Maryland men grew when eyewitnesses told investigators the group left its camp a day early and appeared to be in a hurry.
“During the evening reconnaissance flight, Fire Management Officer noted four hunters walking quickly down the trail from the general direction of the origin,” the report stated. “Given their stated hunt area that morning, sudden departure from the area, trash and personal items of value left behind at the camp and social media postings of the early stages of the fire, their association with the overall event raised questions as to their knowledge of the cause.”
But interviews with the Maryland hunters led investigators to believe a different, unknown man likely started the fire.
In November 2018 a Forest Service agent went to Hagerstown, Maryland, where a hunter who was interviewed said his group encountered a solo hunter Sept. 14 along the Upper Hoback Trail who was “staring up toward a steeply timbered north facing slope, on the south side of the trail.” The Maryland hunter asked the man if he was all right and he said he was fine, reports stated. The hunter found the man’s behavior odd, he told investigators.
“He described the man as a white male adult, possibly in his mid-thirties, 6’1”, 175 lbs, with short dark facial hair, dressed in camouflage clothing. The individual was wearing a mid sized backpack and carrying both a compound bow as well as a scoped rifle,” the report states.
The Maryland hunter said his group did have a campfire in their fire ring that night but “fully extinguished the heat prior to going to sleep.” They didn’t have a fire the next morning, Sept. 15, and built no fires while hunting in the field that day, he said. Later on he noticed “the sudden appearance of a smoke column” in the same area he had seen the solo hunter the day before.
As the fire grew larger the men became scared and left their camp in a hurry, which was his explanation for leaving behind a messy campsite.
Investigators interviewed the three other Maryland hunters in person, who corroborated the first man’s story. They all had slightly different descriptions of the mystery solo hunter. The others guessed he was shorter than previously described and older, maybe in his 50s. They all agreed he was carrying both a gun and a bow. They all said that his mannerisms were odd and that his backpack was small for any overnight camping. One of the men said he thought the solo hunter was deaf based on his nasal tone, but no one else picked up on that.
One of the Maryland hunters had a conversation with the solo hunter.
“The two discussed bugling elk, as well as a necessary creek crossing on the trail,” the report states. “[Maryland hunter] learned from the conversation the solo hunter was archery elk hunting on that particular day and would be switching to rifle deer hunting the following day, 9/15/18.”
The trip east helped investigators eliminate the Maryland men from their suspect list.
“Their statements lacked obvious signs of deception or appearance of rehearsal,” the report said. “Pointed questioning of the men revealed they hadn’t been present in the general origin area, aside from passing by on the main trail along the river bottom with the rest of the general public.”
‘Leads have been exhausted’
Between November 2018 and March 2019 no new information surfaced and no further tips from the public were received, the report states.
Officials sent a press release to Wyoming and Idaho news organizations March 13 asking for public assistance in identifying the fire starter. That resulted in “several calls from individuals wishing to share their observations.”
“Many of the calls failed to produce viable leads on the cause or actionable information for further inquiry,” the report said. But officers did follow up on some of them, none of which ended up being the smoking gun they were looking for.
Forest Service law enforcement officers and fire investigators also identified hunters camped within a few miles of where the fire started, near the Maryland hunters. Those groups, from Green River and Boulder, were also hunting, but none started warming fires, officers concluded.
A final press release issued May 14 included the best possible description of the mystery solo hunter. It asked the public to call with any information as to sightings or knowledge of the man’s identity. That notice produced no calls, the report said, but investigators would still take tips from the public.
“U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement and Investigations stand ready to pursue any new, credible leads received in the future and welcome assistance from the public,” Bridger-Teton National Forest spokeswoman Mary Cernicek said, attributing the information to the law enforcement investigations team.
In all, the investigation generated 10 credible leads. But for now it would take the culprit turning himself in or the right tip from the public to reopen the investigation.
Otherwise, it will remain closed.