From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 7, Number 17 - July 19, 2007
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Pole fire sends Pinedale residents packing

by Janet Montgomery

Thursday night in Pinedale sounded like a war battle as helicopters and slurry planes made drops on the Pole Fire just north of the town by Fremont Lake.

“If it hadn’t been for the helicopter and the slurry loads (and the local fire agencies), we would have had a devastated north county for sure,” said Sublette County Sheriff Bardy Bardin Friday. He had recommended evacuations of homes in three subdivisions and between Fremont Lake and the mountain town.

Firefighters’ efforts also got a boost from the weather as the high winds that at first spread the blaze eventually brought in rains around 10 p.m.

“The rain helped a bunch,” Bardin said. “It was a godsend...”

The storm dropped about an inch of rain over the fire that had consumed about 650 acres of sage, mixed juniper and pine since it was first reported Thursday afternoon.

While no structures were lost, a power line was burned along with fences in the area. The downed power line also cut off power to about 1,100 people in the Barger subdivision for most of the day and for some throughout the night.

Fremont Lake Road homeowner Chuck Vitt said he heard people saying that they were lucky or that it was a miracle.

“It wasn’t either one of those things,” he said. “What saved our necks was the good work from the fire department and the other people involved. ... Hard work and sweat and expertise is what got that fire out.”

Fire department personnel from Boulder, Pinedale, Daniel, Bondurant, Big Piney and the Bureau of Land Management joined forces in the ground attack that started early Thursday afternoon on private lands. Fire crews had to access the fire via the east-west Pole Creek Road that turns east off of Highway 191 just south of the town limits.

In the air, a Forest Service helicopter with a bucket was called in to draw water from an area irrigation canal and drop it on the blaze.

By 2:30 p.m., the helicopter had made gains on the Pole Fire. “(It) was doing an excellent job,” Bardin said, adding that most of the fire was under control.

However, the helicopter needed to refuel and the Pole Fire had knocked out power to the airport.

Bardin said the crew had to wait for a fuel truck to arrive before putting the chopper back in the air.

“During that (down) time, the fire started up again,” he said.

Once the fire jumped the road around 5:30 p.m. and started toward Lakeside Lodge, the winds shifted, turning the fire south to the overlook.

“At that point, it was rolling really fast,” Bardin said.

Fire trucks raced up Skyline Drive past the town ball fields and on up to the fire area.

Bardin said that was when he made the call to start recommending evacuations first in the area of Sylvan Bay and the Fremont Lake upper and lower campgrounds. Soon after, the Forest Service asked law enforcement to shut down Fremont Lake at Pine Street.

Bardin said there was so much havoc, fire engines couldn’t get past the vehicle traffic on Fremont Lake Road to get to the fires.

While Bardin went on up to the turnoff of Fremont Lake Road to Half Moon Lake where he stopped traffic going into town, deputies went to the campgrounds to get people out. Boats from Search and Rescue, Wyoming Game and Fish and private citizens hit the water to take people from Sylvan Bay area up to the lodge to run traffic through a two-track road in the CCC Ponds area. Bardin said a small pocket, of fewer than 20 people, were trapped where they were.

By about 7:30 p.m., Bardin said the go- ahead came to let people back down from the Half Moon Lake turnoff into town.

But then the fire jumped the road by the old dump, “and (it) had picked up a lot of speed because of the dry conditions and the dry fuel along with the winds,” Bardin said.

Bardin made another call for recommended evacuations for Favazzo and Carmichael Hills subdivisions as well as the Riverside area along County Roads 101 and 102.

Vitt’s house was among those visited with the recommendation to evacuate.

“We could see all of this big heavy smoke and flames and everything,” Vitt said, adding that he and his wife watched as the airplanes came in from the Green River Lakes area where the Salt Lick Fire was burning.”

Wanting to see what was going on up the hill with the fire, Vitt said he had left his house and walked up to the Fremont Lake overlook.

When he got back to the house, Vitt was met in his front yard by fire personnel telling him to leave.

“I always had the feeling (an) evacuation was voluntary,” Vitt said. But Thursday night, Vitt said he was told “to get out of here and get out of here now.”

“They were very concerned about us,” he said.

Vitt also said he came home to find that his wife, Diane, had already evacuated, taking the horse and “all the cats she could catch.”

The Vitts fled to the home of a family friend.

Vitt said when he got to the house, he looked for his dog and asked Diane, “Where’s Lady?”

“I though if I’ve lost my dog because of that stupid damn trip,” he said, “I’ll never be able to get over it.”

But it would be several hours before he could return home to look for Lady.

Bob Rule, whose house is in the Orcutt Hill subdivision and who also received a recommended evacuation, announced over the KPIN radio station to his wife who was safely out of the area, “Karen, I have your wedding ring and thyroid (medication).”

Grey and white smoke clouds rose high in the north sky above Pinedale as the smoke from the blaze hazed through the town.

Mayor Steve Smith also took to the airwaves with information for evacuees and fire updates throughout the night.

“The radio scared us to death,” Vitt said, as some of the aired fire locations put the blaze where it would have consumed his barn or his home.

Evacuees were directed to the Pinedale High School where support from the Jackson Red Cross came as blankets and cots, and a database was created to track the residents asked to evacuate.

After the rainfall that fell near 10:30 p.m., Bardin said, “Fire crews had a debriefing and felt that the fire had burned down enough and the threat wasn’t there anymore.”

A call over the local radio station near 11 p.m. told residents they could go home.

Vitt said Lady was there for him when they arrived home late that night.

“Things got a little smoke-stinky,” Vitt said as they had left windows open and the ensuing rain brought some of the smoke from the outside in.

“It’s not too bad,” he said.

“What tickled me more than anything,” Vitt said, “All Diane wanted was those pictures.

“After the fact, (it) was kind of funny.”

Vitt also noted that the wind always blows from west to east by his home, but not the fire night, he said; the wind was blowing east to west and all around.

“It was a crazy very frightening experience,” Vitt said.

Campers were also allowed back to their spots at the Fremont Lake Campgrounds Thursday night, although they were told to be ready to pack out Friday morning.

“The evacuation process went as well as could be expected,” Bardin said.

No one was forced to evacuate, he added, but a recommendation was made. Not everyone was happy to comply with the recommendation to leave their homes.

“I had a job to do, and I did it,” Bardin said about the evacuation. He said in that situation you are in a “Catch-22” with the high danger of fire incident and people wanting to get to their homes.

“I’d rather err — if there was any error — on the side of caution,” he said. “I felt all of the judgment calls were proper and in the best interest of all the residents who lived in that area.”

Bardin said the campgrounds had been officially closed Friday, with campers directed to other sites.

Bardin praised the response of the local search and rescue as well as law enforcement.

“I was just tickled to death with our guys’ performance,” he said, also noting that Rule and Darin Hill at the KPIN radio station also helped out a lot in relaying information to the townspeople.

Vitt also praised the local law enforcement efforts.

“I hope they get the credit that they deserve, all of those people,” he said.

While six slurry loads were ordered from the Forest Service, Bardin said four were dropped on the Pole Fire, and he estimated that 75 locals took part in the night fight as part of fire personnel, law enforcement and Tip Top Search and Rescue.

Fire crews are engaged in mop-up operations today, which Bardin said would probably last through the weekend.

The Pole Fire was estimated at 100 acres Thursday afternoon, and the Web site indicated that it reached 1,044 acres with all evacuations lifted by Friday. The fire was declared controlled by 7 p.m. on Sunday, July 15.

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