Firefighters try to save forest homes

JACKSON, Wyoming, Los Angeles Times

Firefighters scrambled Saturday to extinguish spot fires around more than 100 forest homes, as dry, gusty winds pushed a lumbering wildfire along the Snake River Mountains.

Joe Carvelho, a U.S. Forest Service commander, said he did not know if the legion of 1,000 firefighters and overhead aircraft dropping fire retardant would be able to keep the week-old blaze from destroying homes.

The fire, which has grown to about 4,000 acres, was acting like a heavyweight boxer, throwing erratic jabs along different fronts and threatening a knockout blow against the scattered homes, many of them valued in the millions of dollars.

The blaze is burning about seven miles southwest of this outdoors recreation mecca, which remains flooded with summer vacationers.

Carvelho delivered a good-news, bad-news report to homeowners who met at a community center Saturday morning.

While disaster was averted on Friday as the most threatening front changed direction and moved away from the homes, Saturday’s weather conditions “spell disaster,” he told homeowners.

“We still feel very, very uncomfortable,” he said. “Mother Nature has tried everything in her power to beat us.”

As the fire continued to march toward the homes, firefighters Saturday prepared the structures for an anticipated fiery assault.

Sprinklers were placed atop roofs, spraying out water pumped from 1,200-gallon, pumpkin-orange bladder placed in front of the homes. The area’s three water tanks had been unwittingly drained dry by homeowners setting up their own sprinklers before evacuating their homes Wednesday, forcing firefighters to haul water in tender trucks to fill individual bladders, appearing as deep, industrial-strength wading pools.

“If we had had an emergency up there earlier, we wouldn’t have had a lick of water,” said firefighter David Ronsen.

Sticky fire-retardant gel was sprayed on the more vulnerable homes closer to the blaze or shrouded with trees.

A few homes were sufficiently clear of vegetation to survive the fire probably, but many others were nestled below towering pines with branches hanging over wood shingle roofs.

The fire is easily feeding off dead trees and diseased branches, and grass that was crackle dry for lack of rain, firefighters said.

Bryan Connelley , a Montana firefighter called to duty here, was positioned at a two-story wood-and-glass home high on the mountain slope, where he watched the fire approach from the nearest ridge a half-mile away.

He chose his words carefully in describing the challenge facing firefighters because of people building homes in the woods.

“This is still America, and people should be able to do what they choose,” he said, “but they should know that they are putting people in peril who are trying to now protect their homes.”

Making the stand against the fire all the more difficult are narrow roads limiting the movement of fire equipment and posing the peril of gridlock should firefighters need to flee.

The fire, which is burning mostly in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, probably was caused through human activity, perhaps a campfire, officials said.