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Firefighters Entrenched in Fierce Wyoming Blaze

Wildfire: Battle wages to save multimillion-dollar homes deep in dense woods. Many owners are resigned to losing.

July 28, 2001|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JACKSON, Wyo. — Earlier in the week they feared this hour would come, and by late Friday firefighters near here were defending individual homes so deep in the woods that moose nuzzle up to the kitchen doors.

A fierce forest fire marched through 120-foot-tall lodgepole pines southwest of this popular western town, and the whiskered, veteran firefighter in charge of the battle said matter-of-factly that the fire is sure to reach at least some homes, which were being slimed with fire retardant.

And homeowners, who were evacuated Wednesday because there seemed little hope of stopping the fire's campaign, just as matter-of-factly acknowledged the risks of living in mountain woods so dense that many can't see their neighbors' homes.

"It's a calculated risk, living up there," Carson Stanwood said Friday afternoon, not knowing whether chaotic, wind-whipped flames had already destroyed his home or were capriciously skirting it. "I chose to live there, and now I'm paying the price."

But this remains a tourist town, and even as air tankers rumbled overhead and smoke sometimes shrouded the Grand Teton and its smaller sister peaks, the Bruss family of Dayton, Ohio, vowed to keep to their vacation agenda.

Sure, when Regan and Jenny Bruss and their two children attended the monster truck show at the rodeo arena Thursday night, they couldn't help but notice that the distant smoke had turned the sunset a little too red.

"We don't see anything like this in Ohio," Bruss said.

As of late Friday, the blaze had consumed more than 3,250 acres of grass, sage, sub-alpine fir and lodgepole pine within the Bridger-Teton National Forest. More than 100 homes, including about 20 that are part of a tract with multimillion-dollar, 8,000-square-foot log houses, had been evacuated.

Flames closed in on the Crescent H Ranch subdivision, where home values average about $5 million.

Nearly 1,000 firefighters from throughout the country, 10 retardant-dropping air tankers--one-fourth of the nation's available pool--and a dozen water-dropping helicopters were assigned to the battle. It is not an especially large fire, but, because of the homes at risk, officials consider it the nation's highest-priority wildfire at the moment.

The fire was 50% encircled by ground crews--as compared to just 10% containment the day before. Bulldozers and crews with shovels and picks were marching along both flanks of the fire, trying to pincer it off at its front as it moved into two enclaves of homes. And on Friday, an additional 35 homes a mile from the approaching fire were also ordered evacuated.

The fire's direct front was too dangerous to post firefighters. But crews were stationed among the homes, spraying a fire-retardant gel directly on the structures to reduce their vulnerability. The sticky material is known as a fire barricade, but firefighters simply call it green slime.

Even as the fire was expected to quiet overnight, firefighters braced for the possibility of weekend thunderstorms--with little rain forecast but gusty winds likely.

But there was little self-pity among homeowners, who first saw the smoke Sunday afternoon and have watched it advance almost four miles to their doorsteps.

"The whole thing is a little surreal," said Lori Crabtree, who got married two weeks ago and moved into her husband's home, which they since have been forced to abandon.

"I've never had to decide before what to take and what's OK to be destroyed," she said. "It's been a topic among neighbors--that forests live through fire. But we never thought it would happen to us. And now I don't know what to think. I don't want to envision that our house has burned down, but that's the reality we could face."

Her boss, Stanwood, was also forced to leave his home. He grabbed photographs, mementos and his James Brown CD box set. He admitted to guilt that firefighters might be risking their lives protecting "my dumb house."

"I grumble about paying taxes, but now, with a thousand firefighters up there, I know why I pay them. And the house, it's insured," Stanwood said.

William Wallace, a retired music professor, said he evacuated his home after grabbing paperwork proving this year's tax deductions, some Navajo rugs and, finally realizing he had enough time, even hauling his leather couches and chair to a waiting truck.

He also remembered to download his current symphonic compositions from his computer onto a disk. "We still have some hope the home will survive," he said. "A little healthy denial doesn't hurt. But living there, we knew what the danger was."

U.S. Forest Service officials made it clear Friday that, try as they might to save homes, they would not risk lives to do so.

"No acre, no tree, no home is worth the safety of a firefighter," said Jack Blackwell, the region's federal forester (title for the head boss) based in Denver.

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