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Jackson Hole, WY News

Firefighters vanquish Saddle Butte Fire

After a mostly fireless summer, East Gros Ventre Butte ignites for the second time in a few weeks.

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Saddle Butte Fire

A Type I drops fire retardant Sunday near homes on East Gros Ventre Butte, one of three such drops by the heavy tankers that day in firefighters' efforts to quash the Saddle Butte Fire.

Janine Teske was tidying up her Saddle Butte home, preparing to host the neighborhood’s Labor Day barbecue, when she got the call from a neighbor: East Gros Ventre butte was on fire again.

For the second time in just a few weeks, Teske found herself knocking on neighbors’ doors, spreading the word that the butte was ablaze.

The Saddle Butte fire that ignited Sunday followed an Aug. 4 fire that nearly took out the National Museum of Wildlife Art just over the hill.

Given the evacuation order from authorities, Teske packed a change of clothes, computers and her wedding album. Then she left.

Neighbor Don Alan Hankins grabbed some valuables and financial papers.

For Tyler Meany, the dogs and his computers and camera gear were the top priority.

Saddle Butte Fire

Tyler Meany and his girlfriend, Taylor Weiss, load up personal belongings and retrieve their dogs from their home Sunday on Saddle Butte before evacuating due to the encroaching Saddle Butte Fire.

Below Saddle Butte, evacuated from the Deer Ridge condos, Nick Staffer took his passport and birth certificate.

“You always think you’ll know exactly what to take,” Staffer said. “But I drew a blank on what to take with me. I didn’t take any clothing, now that I think of it. I ended up leaving my valuables and things you’d think are really important, like jewelry.”

Teske wished she hadn’t abandoned her car at the house.

“I have an old Mustang, and I’m really regretful I left it behind,” she said Monday. “Oh my God, if I lost that, I’d be heartbroken.”

On Sunday bystanders stopped to gawk as flames raced along the slopes next to Broadway, charring the grass right down to the sidewalk. Firefighters launched a steady air and ground attack, ultimately saving every home in Jackson Hole’s largest wildland fire of the year. The fire came close enough to singe welcome mats at the evacuated homes.

Deer Ridge condo owners returned to their homes Sunday night while Saddle Butte residents spent two nights crashing at friends’ homes, staying at hotels or sleeping in a camper. They returned to their homes Tuesday evening after fire officials declared the fire 100% contained.

An official investigation pointed to a bundle of balloons colliding with power lines Sunday afternoon as the official cause of the Saddle Butte Fire.

Saddle Butte Fire

Authorities announced Monday that balloons caught in a power line caused the Saddle Butte Fire.

Before the fire started Sunday, Lisa Potzernitz was working at a craft show on the Virginian’s lawn around 1:30 p.m. when she heard a “pop.”

“It sounded like this big, huge great crash into the ground,” she said.

Potzernitz watched a shower of sparks after the balloons tangled in the power line, creating an “electric arc.” As the grass below ignited, she rushed into The Virginian to ask staff to call police.

“The flames,” Potzernitz said, “it went from this little tiny stream of fire coming up, and it just started spreading so quickly.”

Lower Valley Energy Communications Manager Brian Tanabe said “the conductive balloon material started a short circuit.”

“The heat and intensity from the short circuit caused the flash,” he said.

Authorities know the individual the balloons belonged to and how the balloons escaped, but it’s unlikely that that person will see consequences, Jackson Hole Fire/EMS Chief Brady Hansen said.

“This is truly just a fluke accident,” Hansen said. “Typically people are held responsible if there’s some kind of malice or carelessness. … In a true accident case, oftentimes we’re not going after someone.”

Information about the owner of the balloons is not being released due to concerns about backlash, Teton County Public Information Specialist Kristen Waters said.

Saddle Butte Fire

A classic car is pushed out from near the Jackson Hole Computer Clinic as the fire burns.

As the fire spread, aerial crews responded with water drops and retardant spray. Officials called in hotshots and other reinforcements.

Evacuated Saddle Butte neighbors headed across town to Stillwest Brewery, owned by Saddle Butte resident Don Alan Hankins. They gathered at the back of the building, on the porch of Stillwest’s employee housing, and watched the flames engulf the hillside and “trees exploding,” Hankins said.

As the flames inched up the butte toward the subdivision, anxiety mounted.

“It’s surreal,” Hankins said. “It’s almost like you’re watching it in slow motion, because you can pick a spot or pick a grove of trees and you can see the fire inching its way to those trees, then they just go up in these massive, tall flames. It’s kind of sad to see. It’s like a train wreck: You don’t want to watch, but you can’t look away.

“We sat and watched it for several hours,” he said. “A lot of tears were shed, and a whole lot of beer was drank.”

Saddle Butte homeowner Joanne Zorkendorfer was out on Leigh Lake with her family when she received a Nixle alert to evacuate. Checking their home’s security footage on their phones, she and her husband saw flames around their house and rushed back into town.

“We were just so devastated,” Zorkendorfer said. “It was really traumatic. The kids were really upset.

“You don’t often have those moments in life where you just ... have zero control, and you just have to completely trust the people who are there.”

As fire crews swarmed the inferno, Jackson Hole Security’s Hap Johnson received a page from the fire department. Johnson halted mowing his lawn to captain the Rehab Bus, a converted school bus that’s outfitted with heat, a bathroom and supplies to feed upwards of 100 firefighting personnel.

Saddle Butte Fire

Smoke billows from the fire on East Gros Ventre Butte. When residents returned to their homes they found a charred scene that one described as a “lunar landscape.”

The bus’s first stop en route to the scene? Smith’s, where he bought out the grocer’s fried chicken.

“We wiped ’em out,” Johnson said. “Fried and baked chicken. Everything that they had.”

The Rehab Bus, along with a cadre of trained Community Emergency Response Team volunteers, offered firefighters support throughout the incident. On Tuesday morning they fried eggs and 15 pounds of bacon for the crews. Coordinator Brenda Sherwin said others in the community pitched in, too: McDonald’s donated coffee, Moo’s dropped off ice cream on Sunday at the peak of the fire, and a good Samaritan delivered cases of water. Smith’s packed 100 lunches Tuesday.

Henry Sollitt was among the firefighters partaking in the CERT group’s feast Tuesday morning before another day of firefighting. This is Sollitt’s first season on engine 441 with the Bridger-Teton National Forest. His crew arrived early to the scene, working on controlling the fire’s western flank.

“I’m from Jackson,” Sollitt said, “and being that close to home, it was very exciting to be able to be fighting fire with the intent of saving structures in my hometown.”

As winds died down Sunday evening and the fire calmed, Sollitt, along with the rest of the fire crews, focused on “mopping up.” That often means crawling around on hands and knees, feeling the fire scar for signs of heat, he said.

“It’s just really important, particularly given the hot, dry conditions we have and are going to have, that we take out as much heat as deep as possible as we can,” he said.

“The mop-up process is tedious, but it’s equally as serious and needs to get done. It kind of protects all the work we’ve done so far.

VIDEO: A Type I drops fire retardant Sunday near homes on East Gros Ventre Butte, one of three such drops by the heavy tankers that day in firefighters' efforts to quash the Saddle Butte Fire. 

“There’s still some smiles out here despite all the hiking and digging,” Sollitt said. “It seems like morale’s still high.”

All the hard work paid off Tuesday evening when Incident Command announced the fire was 100% contained. Chief Hansen said that means the perimeter is secure.

“The outer edge of the fire, all the way around, is out to the point that we’re confident that if there’s a fire deep inside it’s not going to be able to escape that perimeter,” Hansen said.

“There could still be hot spots, in fact we know there are hot spots. We just know the whole outside edge is out.”

With total containment, officials lifted the Saddle Butte evacuation order at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Saddle Butte Fire

Smoke billows from the Saddle Butte Fire.

Lower Valley Energy’s Tanabe said that three distribution poles and a transmission pole will need to be replaced, but the power grid is still functioning and no customers lost power during the incident.

The number of firefighters assigned to the fire will be reduced starting Wednesday, but firefighters will continue watching the fire closely and patrolling the site, Hansen said.

Homeowners were grateful to firefighters for controlling the blaze and protecting people and property.

When Zorkendorfer saw the burned area around her home, she said there was a kind of beauty to everything left “completely black.”

“Charred,” she said. “I think we’re going to lose a lot of trees, unfortunately.

“It’s just like a lunar landscape; it’s pretty sobering.”

Nick Staffer returned to his Deer Ridge condo to find the fire scar stopped just feet from his back door.

“It takes a couple days for your nerves to recover,” Staffer said. “I just appreciate so much that I still have a home.

“I can’t believe I still do. I’m still kind of pinching myself to say, ‘I’m so lucky.’

“I see these fires in California with all these people losing their homes,” Staffer said. “Just to have a taste of what they go through is terrifying.”

Saddle Butte Fire

A helicopter dumps water on East Gros Ventre Butte, where a fire started Sunday afternoon.

As the Saddle Butte Fire burned on East Gros Ventre Butte Sunday, what has since been called an aerial ballet took place in the sky.

Contact Allie Gross at 732-7063 or county@jhnewsandguide.com.

Allie Gross covers Teton County government. Originally from the Chicago area, she joined the News&Guide in 2017 after studying politics and Spanish at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

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