Reade Dornan didn’t have time to move the firewood from in front of her house, but she did drag in the wooden deck furniture.
“We discovered one of the big dangers is having flammable furniture on your deck,” Dornan said. “That’s something I would never have thought about until we had just a few moments extra, after we stripped our walls of all our favorite pictures and things like that. I looked around for something that could invite fire, and flammable furniture on the deck is one of them.”
Dornan’s was one of about 30 homes in her neighborhood evacuated Sept. 1 when a rogue foil balloon collided with a power line, igniting the Saddle Butte Fire that ravaged 255 acres on the edge of town. Her home — and all of the other evacuated structures — is still standing, thanks to a prompt and effective response from 13 coordinated firefighting agencies.
But a blackened scar 300 feet uphill from her home shows how close the blaze came. For others it came even closer. Flames even lapped up against one Saddle Butte home, Fire Marshal Kathy Clay said.
“There’s a tiny little crack in the window,” Clay said. “This thing is untouched, unscathed. Black in front of it, black behind it.”
Clay also pointed to two construction sites that didn’t burn as “somewhat of a miracle.”
“We came real close,” she said, looking up at the butte.
It’s not all luck. Clay attributes much of the success in saving structures to homeowners’ care in creating a “defensible space” — or a buffer between a structure and surrounding wild areas.
While some individual Saddle Butte homeowners granted fire officials and the News&Guide access to learn about defensible space on their properties, the Saddle Butte Homeowners Association denied a request for general access.
At the base of East Gros Ventre Butte, along Broadway, the Deer Ridge condos sit mere feet from the blackened fire line. Eyewitnesses said flames as high as 30 feet came shockingly close to the units’ back porches.
Yet a stark line separates the scar from the bright green backyard grass. And while trees leaning against the building are burnt from the radiant heat, they resisted catching fire — highlighting the value of an irrigated lawn.
“It hit the green grass that’s watered,” Clay said. “Because that lawn is watered, all those trees are benefiting from their fuel moisture.”
The type of vegetation surrounding a house can also make a difference. Aspens and willows don’t burn as quickly as conifers, Clay said. Outdoor plants should be selected for their resistance to fire.
Roofs are important. Clay said Deer Ridge’s noncombustible metal roof helped protect the condos, as the roof is the most vulnerable part of the home. Homeowners should trace where rain drips off their roof, Clay said, and imagine that’s where embers will go.
“That’s the area you want to make sure doesn’t have a lot of combustible stuff on it,” Clay said.
So she stressed clearing an area immediately around a home.
“Keeping your house and 5 feet out clear from combustible items is super important,” Clay said. “If there would have been a pile of firewood that could’ve been really bad.”
Defensible space surrounding a home also creates safe places for firefighters to work.
Teton is the only county in the state to participate in the Wildland Urban Interface program, which requires buildings in higher hazard fire areas to follow stricter construction codes. While Saddle Butte is in the interface, Deer Ridge condos fall outside that boundary.
“This is not what we would normally call a wildland urban interface,” Clay said of Deer Ridge. “There’s conifers, there’s grasslands, but this is in the middle of town. Who would expect it, right?
“This is why we need to, as a community, embrace this fire and learn from the fact that, yes, we’re all in the wildland urban interface, even when we’re right across from Flat Creek in downtown.”
Much of fire resistance comes when a house is going up, such as where it’s located on the lot in relation to other structures and natural vegetation. But homeowners have control over installing a fireproof roof, cleaning up around the house to minimize fuels and using irrigation.
Even those who are anti-watering can find “fire resilient landscaping,” Clay said.
Homeowners need to get comfortable with living in a place where wildfires are all but guaranteed. Lightning strikes and freak balloon accidents can’t be anticipated or prevented.
“We need to be prepared for it,” Clay said. “Nobody thinks a fire can happen to them, and 10 minutes later it’s in your backyard.”
Find information about fire prevention from Jackson Hole Fire/EMS, Teton Conservation District and the National Fire Protection Association’s website at NFPA.org.