Boulder’s Marshall Fire was reported at 11 a.m. on Dec. 30. Firefighters were on the scene in 4 minutes; it took them 9 minutes to locate the blaze. Despite their rapid response the fire had already spread beyond control. Tens of thousands were evacuated, and Boulder County lost nearly 1,100 homes within a few hours. Property damage has been estimated at $500 million. Amazingly, there seems to have been only one death.

Can something like this happen here? Certainly. We live in fire country.

Colorado’s Front Range gets chinooks, downslope winds unique to the east slope of the Continental Divide. They come roaring off those peaks in the winter. During the Marshall Fire, winds reached speeds of 115 mph.

Teton County isn’t likely to see winds like that. In Boulder County the wind meets no resistance from other mountain ranges, and the High Plains run downhill for hundreds of miles to the east. There’s a similar altitude change between the Tetons and the flats of Jackson Hole, but our winds generally come from the southwest, and the Gros Ventre and Absaroka Ranges disrupt wind patterns.

Then again, not all the differences between Teton and Boulder Counties play to our advantage. The Marshall Fire began as a grass fire; there’s a lot more fuel around here. We’re surrounded by forest that abuts the town of Jackson on the south and east sides. Wilson and Hoback are similar.

But from a wider perspective our situation is essentially the same as Boulder’s. Both locations are in the arid West. Both average 20 inches of rain a year. Both are heating up and drying out because of climate change. Fire is a natural part of both environments: we live in the wildland-urban interface, where houses intermingle with wild vegetation. In short, it’s inevitable that our forests will burn, sometimes in a smaller area, like the 5,000-acre 2001 Green Knoll fire near Mosquito Creek, at other times widely and catastrophically.

During the 1988 Yellowstone fires a third of the park — 800,000 acres — burned, 150,000 acres in one day! Conditions were primed: The lodgepole stands were old, and the mountain pine beetle had left lots of dead trees. Then came the worst drought on record. Nine thousand firefighters and dozens of aircraft could not stop the fires, although they did manage to save structures like Old Faithful Inn. The fires burned until cool weather stopped them in the fall.

Teton County has 15,000 structures. Our forests will eventually burn, but with planning we may be able to save our homes.

Fortunately, we have an impressive collection of resources here for fire suppression. A dozen agencies have joined together to form the Teton Area Wildfire Protection Coalition. It is dedicated to public education about fire dangers. But the coalition can’t do it alone. It needs our help to save our homes. Homeowners need to take ownership of their situation, by cleaning gutters and roofs, trimming trees, and knowing evacuation routes. Neighborhoods also need to work together: Even if you do everything right your neighbor’s burning house can burn yours down.

The good news includes the fact that the U.S. Forest Service has been removing combustibles from our forests through its Tetons to Snake Fuels Reduction Project. And Teton Area Wildfire Protection Coalition is planning on revising its Community Wildfire Protection Plan to make it more user-friendly, with better interfaces and in formats that are easier to use. The coalition also plans additional community outreach.

The new plan, though, is a couple years out. What can we do to prepare now?

First, we can improve local fire services. We need to pay our firefighters better, and hire more of them to respond to the increasing call volume. Teton County has seven fire stations, but only two are staffed on a 24/7 basis, one in downtown Jackson and one on the Village Road. There is no staffing at the Hoback station — a long way from Jackson — nor at the station in Alta. And the city of Driggs, Idaho, which covers these responsibilities, is increasing what it charges Teton County to protect Alta.

Second, we need to build fire education into our daily life. Homeowners need information on how to modify their surroundings to lessen their fire danger, and to check that they have enough home insurance. Our schools are also a powerful asset. Teach kids about fire dangers and they’ll bring the message home to their parents. When I was a kid we planted trees on Arbor Day; today Arbor Day should also be Wildlife-Urban Interface Day to we teach students about our fire landscape.

Last summer was dry and hot. California and Oregon burned, filling our skies with smoke. Our snow is just below average for the date. Let’s pray for snow, but also prepare for the inevitable.

Hoback resident Robert Frodeman is working on a book on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. He can be reached at robert.frodeman@gmail.com. Guest Shots are solely the opinion of their authors.

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