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Wyoming town 'cowboys up' to deal with landslide threat

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JACKSON, Wyo. — Just a few years after Thomas Ralston moved to town, a chimney fire burned down his home. Last month, he was driving when a 3,000-pound boulder fell from a mountain onto the roof of his brand-new truck.

So when a police officer visited his condo a few weeks ago to tell him he had an hour to evacuate because a landslide was threatening the building, he responded the only way he could.

He sort of laughed.

"What are you going to do?" he said to himself and shrugged.

Like many in this town of 9,500 people near the Wyoming-Idaho border, it was just the latest skirmish with Mother Nature.

The earth had been slowly moving for weeks on a portion of a hilly area known as the East Gros Ventre Butte. Then this month it sped up, splitting a house in two. On April 9 town officials evacuated residents from more than 40 homes and apartment units.

Eight days later, the slide captured national attention after slabs of earth sheared off the 90-foot-high hillside. The images were especially chilling in light of last month's deadly landslide in Oso, Wash.

Still, even as rocks continue to tumble down the butte, some of the business owners and residents say that is the trade-off for living near beautiful, rugged wilderness.

"That's part of the game when you move to a place like this. Things like this happen," Ralston said. "We all accept that. We're at 6,000 feet in the middle of the Rockies. That's why we live here. We don't wallow in self-pity."

Those who live in this community surrounded by streams and mountains have a close relationship with nature and are attuned to its extremes, many residents said. Almost everyone has been involved or knows someone who has been touched by some sort of nature-related mishap — windstorm, avalanche or landslide.

Most respond in the same way.

They "cowboy up," said Smokey Rhea, executive director of the Community Resource Center in town. The nonprofit group is helping people displaced by the slide find housing in this affluent resort town that's lined with art galleries. Every year, millions of tourists descend on the 3-square-mile enclave, which serves as a gateway to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.

"In this community, you handle it yourself with your friends, your neighbors," Rhea said. People have come forward to donate money and even their homes until those affected can get back on their feet.

Most in town said they're grateful nobody has been hurt in an area of the state prone to landslides and lined with faults. They're optimistic after officials announced Thursdaythat they expect to stabilize the butte soon.

Some residents may be able to access their property as soon as this week. A couple of restaurants in the area may be able to open up for business.

Even before hearing the news, Joe Rice, who owns several eateries in town — including two restaurants in a business complex touching the southern end of the slide — said he was hopeful.

"There's definitely optimism in the air," he said. Still, he's more cautious than before the hill started moving.

"I didn't even look at the hill before," Rice said. "Now I look at every hill in town."

After the earth began to shift, crews started to pile dirt and concrete on the toe of the landslide, under the cliff and the split house on top.

So far the strategy has worked, slowing down the slide to about an inch a day for most of last week. On Wednesday it moved half an inch, officials said.

"It is a concern, but it seems measures are being taken now," said Aaron Pruzman, owner of Rendezvous River Sports and Jackson Hole Kayak School. His shop lies in the slide's path.

Pruzman and others here said they're frustrated with the way the landslide has been depicted across the country, pointing out that only a sliver of town is directly threatened.

"It's kind of frustrating when you have a town that primarily relies on visitors for part of its economy and the news distorts the reality," he said.

Tucker Zibilich, who helps work the front desk at a hotel near the butte, rolled his eyes as he read national headlines online about a "small Wyoming town" either "swallowed" or "devoured by a landslide."

"It's blown way out of proportion," Zibilich said.

But those who live or work in the little more than a dozen properties that are directly affected have suffered sleepless nights and stress. Some don't know if their insurance companies will pay for the damage.

Carol Chesney and her husband, Tim Sandlin, own a house in the landslide area. Although their home doesn't seem to have suffered damage, they can't access it because the only road leading in was closed after it buckled.

"As far as day-to-day living? My mind is completely blown here. It is not functioning," Chesney said. "We're not sleeping."

Sandlin called the situation an "extremely big bother."

He then paused thoughtfully and said there are other calamities in the world much worse than what Jackson is experiencing right now.

Richard Ray, who moved to town in 1990, lives in an area under mandatory evacuation. His house isn't damaged, but Ray said he worries that it has lost all its value.

Even if it has, he said, he'll carry on, as people tend to do here.

"While we don't like the idea of losing a house, it's not like we'll jump off a bridge," Ray said. "People who live here live through storm and flood all the time. People here don't panic very easily."

cindy.carcamo@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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