Kathy Clay was making the best of her Sunday on-call shift, cooking up blueberry-mint jam in a copper pot from her Hoback home when word came that lighting had struck the face of East Gros Ventre Butte.
Having been up on Teton Pass a week before to investigate another reported fire, the Teton County fire marshal marveled at how green and wet the Jackson Hole landscape looked for the beginning of August. This fire, she thought Sunday, wouldn’t amount to much.
“I left in my tennis shoes, and said to myself, ‘Engine 11 is going to have this out by the time I get here,’” Clay said Tuesday from a museum parking lot that was the scene of a firefight 48 hours earlier.
Bridger-Teton National Forest Fuels Specialist Andy Hall, who shared “incident commander” duties with Clay on the Wildlife Museum Fire, had a similar take. The 80-acre grass fire, they agreed, caught everyone off guard.
“The fire behavior was a surprise to all of us,” Clay said. “It was amplified by the winds coming out of that storm, and it was amplified by the direction. We all think that the winds are going to come from the south and go north, and this son of a gun was going that way.”
She gestured south, toward Jackson, where blackened hillsides rising over the National Museum of Wildlife Art petered out into the brown and green vegetation along the butte.
Other environmental factors figured into the unexpected fire activity. The lightning storm that sparked the wildfire swept over the valley near the peak of afternoon heat, while the relative humidity was at its lowest. Invasive cheatgrass, which is especially fire prone, was awaiting a lightning bolt that struck an east-facing slope that was also dotted by cured sagebrush.
At its peak hazard the Wildlife Museum Fire threw 30-foot-high flames and triggered the evacuation of eight houses along Lucas and Riva Ridge roads. Highway 89 was shut down, and retardant-dropping tanker planes were dispatched from as far away as Missoula, Montana.
When the lightning bolt struck around 3:15 p.m., Nicole Sheehan and four guests, guided by a wrangler, rode horses north on East Gros Ventre Butte above the museum.
“We weren’t sure at first if it had really hit, and then we saw the smoke,” Sheehan said Sunday afternoon as flames were backing down the butte toward the museum. “We decided rightfully to cut the ride short and head west back over the butte to the stables.”
With wisps of smoke snaking toward the skyline, Sheehan’s 15-year-old daughter, Laynie, ducked, holding her head in her hands, to avoid being the tallest object on the butte as the trail riders retreated.
Clay and Hall made the call to evacuate the spread-out hillside neighborhood once the flames crested the butte, burning within 300 yards or so of occupied structures.
“There was a time where we had two houses that were threatened,” Clay said. “That’s why we pushed the evacuation button. Property protection is important, but life safety is more important, and getting those folks out of there was critical.”
VIDEO: Tim Harland snagged this footage of a slurry bomber dropping fire retardant on Riva Ridge during operations to slow the Museum Fire on August 4.
Farther south along the butte, Spring Creek Ranch, Amangani and residents of Saddle Butte and Elk View Terrace were put on an evacuation advisory. The “go” order never came.
Riva Ridge resident Cody Mueller learned of the fire when he saw smoke from his home. He peered out the window and saw 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.
Mueller and his neighbors waited out the temporary evacuation near Spring Gulch Road.
Betsy Glazer, one of those neighbors, 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.
“We got the cars out of the garage and grabbed a few things,” she said, then made her way down the hill with the other residents.
First responders and dispatchers were pushed into overdrive when the flood of phone calls started coming in Sunday afternoon. Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr brought on two extra dispatchers to help handle the calls, even though many were from tourists and residents caught up in traffic and worried about missing flights, or dinner reservations in Jackson.
“We have to answer every call,” Carr said, “because it could be a life- and-death situation.”
Teton Interagency Dispatch took on the communication role for ordering resources to assist in the sudden firefight. Jackson Hole Fire/EMS sent in 31 firefighters and personnel and Grand Teton National Park and Bridger-Teton National Forest pitched in another two dozen or so folks, but many other people and organizations chipped in in one way or another (see sidebar).
Firefighters on Engine 301, the first to respond, saw the lightning bolt fly from where they were staged in Moose. Smoke lifted off the butte right after. Jackson Hole Fire/EMS’s Engine 11 was one of the next crews to respond. It received the dispatch page within three minutes of the strike and arrived at the museum exactly seven minutes after that.
“Considering town traffic, that’s pretty frickin’ good,” Clay said. “I’m sure they went lights and siren.”
The firefight played a critical role in halting the wildfire’s advances toward the museum. A band of green just upslope of the museum parking lot shows where crews hosed down the vegetation to fend off flames. Even on the Wildlife Museum Fire’s more actively burning southern and western flanks the firefighters made a major impact, Hall said.
“We were effective here, on-site at the museum, at getting the fire as it came down the hill,” Hall said.
The aspen bands and firefighters helped stop the advance to the south, as did the calmer early evening winds. To the west, atop East Gros Ventre Butte, the vegetation also played a role in corralling the fire, but this time it was sagebrush and shrubbery that was slightly too green and wet to easily ignite, Hall said.
The aerial assistance also enabled a successful suppression effort.
Teton Interagency Helitack, and a counterpart crew from Swan Valley, dropped water aboard choppers on the blaze, which they bucketed out of a manmade pond in the Riva Ridge area. (The homeowner, at Clay’s direction, first had to remove the floating trampoline.)
Fixed-wing aircraft delivered a series of retardant drops, including the tanker from Missoula and two more smaller, crop dusting-style planes dispatched from Pocatello, Idaho.
Even after crews had the fire under control and lifted evacuation orders, the Forest Service dispatched crews to keep watch.
“The land that was affected is private land, with probably a little bit of Elk Refuge land as well,” Clay said. “The Forest Service sat on this fire for us... they slept on the line to be able to watch our fire. That’s saying quite a bit about our partners working collaboratively.”
Clay said she’ll look back on the Wildlife Museum Fire as a “good fire.” There was one minor injury — a firefighter’s cut finger — but no other true casualties, other than budgets.
“We didn’t lose property, and we got to practice for the real one,” the fire marshal said. “It was big enough, but it wasn’t Horsethief Canyon or the Wilson Canyon Fire.”
Wildfire, Hall pointed out, is part of the natural order, including on the relatively open buttes like where the Wildlife Museum Fire ripped through Sunday. By fall, he said, it’ll be green. Where they spoke, Milk Dud-sized elk droppings littered the charred soil, evidence of wapiti that wintered out on the slopes months earlier. Firefighters also encountered a red-tailed hawk nest, and a mule deer that seemed to be lingering in the area.
There have even been coyotes heard yipping in the immediate vicinity of the burn area, Clay said. Within seconds of making the remark, the characteristic high-pitched chorus of the wild canine sounded off in the Tuesday afternoon heat from up the butte, seemingly coming from an intact aspen stand just outside the burn area.
“That was the coyote right there,” Clay said. “They probably have a den.”
— Billy Arnold, Rebecca Huntington, Allie Gross and Emily Mieure contributed to this story