A wildfire near Jackson, Wyo., kicked up with a fury Wednesday afternoon, threatening scores of luxury homes and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents.
Driven by 30 mph winds, the blaze reached within half a mile of a grouping of nearly 170 homes. Teton County sheriff's deputies went door to door, evacuating residents to a Red Cross shelter at Jackson Hole High School.
The ferocity of the fire's late-day burst took firefighters by surprise. Before the arrival of the winds, officials had predicted the fire might be under control by today.
"We were all breathing a sigh of relief; it didn't look like much," said fire information officer Joe Colwell. "Then the wind kicked up and heated it up to the point that it just took off. It began to head north and crossed Mosquito Creek."
But even with its sudden movement, the fire remained several miles south of the town of Jackson. Fire officials stressed that Jackson was not in danger and said they don't foresee the wildfire ever reaching the resort community.
Jackson, a picturesque town near Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, is the home or second home to a host of such well-known figures as Vice President Dick Cheney, World Bank President James Wolfensohn and actors Harrison Ford and Sandra Bullock. Their homes were not in the burn area.
The subdivisions endangered Wednesday, Crescent H and Indian Paintbrush, contain about 100 homes that flank Mosquito Creek. Another area containing about 70 homes was also ordered evacuated. The high-end homes sit near the Bridger-Teton National Forest and the Snake River.
The fire area contains a mixture of permanent residents and second homes. The homes, valued at $500,000 and up, include one owned by renowned trial attorney Gerry Spence.
The blaze, dubbed the Green Knoll fire, began Sunday at a campground. It has burned about 1,400 acres and is now the nation's top priority wildfire.
The Forest Service was battling the blaze with 615 firefighters, 68 engines, nine helicopters and seven air tankers. The tankers were running tag-team shifts, dumping a constant stream of flame retardants on the fire.
Fire officials called it an especially vulnerable area. The surrounding forest includes already dry lodgepole pine and sub-alpine fir, while the forest floor is covered with dead trees felled by a recent insect epidemic. It has been 70 years since the last significant fire in the area, allowing decades of fuel to stockpile.
Residents had been tracking the fire for days and had already packed vehicles with prized possessions in the event of evacuation. Arrangements were being made to take in pets and livestock at area clinics and stables.
The already-full hotels in Jackson, which is in its peak tourist season, were taking in evacuees Wednesday evening. Carolyn Klebesadel, a clerk at the Jackson Hotel Lodge, said she rented a room with a kitchenette to a frazzled family.
"They said it was like a Third World out there, with people just getting out, pulling horse trailers," she said. "They were so tired, I gave them a good price on the room."