WILSON, Wyo. — Cutting down trees used to be a touchy subject among homeowners like Dick Vaughan in the upscale Crescent H subdivision. But that's changed, he says, along with many residents' attitudes toward living in the forests of Jackson Hole after a wildfire two years ago nearly cost them far more than beloved trees.
"It really caught their attention and, subsequently, they've made an effort ... to open space around their homes," said Vaughan, a director of one of the subdivision's homeowners' groups.
An escaped campfire on the neighboring Bridger-Teton National Forest on July 22, 2001, quickly became the Green Knoll fire. Its wind-whipped flames forced many residents from their high-priced homes in places like Crescent H.
Nervous homeowners who gathered at the post office in Wilson for fire updates from the Forest Service and for solace from each other vowed to do more to protect their homes from the next wildfire -- if they were lucky enough to get the chance.
They were. No houses were destroyed in the 4,470-acre fire.
And many residents made good on pledges to install metal roofs, trim hanging trees limbs, clear unruly undergrowth and create room around their homes by removing potential hazards -- even if it meant cutting down some of the trees that helped lure them in the first place.
But as chain saws buzz this summer, biting into live and burnt trees alike, some local residents worry that cleanup work and plans may be going too far in places -- and that others, including the Forest Service, aren't carrying enough of the load.
Vaughan said the forest just above his subdivision hasn't been thinned in a long time and is an "accident waiting to happen."
"We can't force the Forest Service to do what it should be doing," he said.
Forest officials say they are doing what they can with the money available for fuel-reduction projects.
"We're working toward our priorities," said Rod Dykehouse, an acting fire management officer with the Bridger-Teton forest, noting that a handful of projects in other developed areas are underway. "But we can't do it all at one time."
Both the county and National Park Service are doing work too, and educating homeowners about their responsibilities in guarding against wildfire remains a top priority as more vacation and dream homes are built in the woods.
Cooperation is critical, fire management officer Lisa Elenz of nearby Grand Teton National Park said. Even if officials do thin federal lands near property developments, "if people don't treat around their homes there, it's a nightmare for us."
"If people imagine being encompassed in forest, it's sometimes hard to get them to change that perception," she said. "It's not just a landowner issue, and that's the frustrating part for me -- it comes down to firefighter safety."
The concept of providing ample room between the home and potential flammable hazards gained momentum in the area after the Green Knoll fire. But local Fire Marshal Rusty Palmer said that for some, the only thing that changed was their understanding that the threat of wildfire was real.
"People recognize what the issues are, but doing something about them is hard," he said.
Residents of the nearby Indian Paintbrush subdivision, which was also affected by the fire, have since spurned plans by the state and county to remove trees from the area, including places often used for hiking or cross-country skiing.
Homeowners considered both plans unbalanced, a picking-and-choosing of trees that they said might do the forest and residents no real good in the long run. Some, like Paul Lawrence, wanted a greater say, arguing that plans were being forced on them.
"We're trying to make the best judgment on how to protect the forest and preserve the values for why we came here," the longtime resident said as he surveyed the carpeting of trees in the distance from the narrow, steep road near his home.
Palmer said the proposal was aimed at reducing fuel hazards.
Sandy Ostertag believes that defensible space is the best option and that the rest is "anybody's guess."
Ostertag, who says she's always been paranoid about fire, has built a rock garden and removed more trees near her house. It's not drastic enough that it alters her view -- actually, it's opened things up more -- but she says it's enough to help make a difference.
Mike Calabrese credits the lawn that his neighbors in Indian Paintbrush used to tease him about with helping save his house from Green Knoll. The fire stopped around the lawn but came within feet of his house where there was none.
"I live in the woods and know fire is a threat. Just like in Jackson Hole, you know there's usually a flood every 10 to 15 years," he said.
Reynolds Pomeroy, general manager of the Crescent H Ranch, the guest ranch within the subdivision, said residents have tried to learn their options. Largely, he said, they have supported removal of dead stands to help the forest regenerate "more naturally." Though neighbors' complaints about noise grounded a helicopter doing the logging, work continues by hand, he said.
"It was devastating emotionally and aesthetically to see what the fire did," he said. "The place won't look the same as it did in our lifetimes."
But fire managers and even local residents say the Green Knoll served as a wakeup call, a positive lesson. And the test of the work done so far -- by all involved -- will be the next fire.