A wildfire surged past a natural firebreak and toward an expensive subdivision outside the resort community of Jackson on Thursday, but strong winds driving the flames calmed before the fire reached any homes.
Fire spokesman Ron Steffens said the wind had died down by 7 p.m. and no homes had been lost. He said fire crews would stay near the homes through the night to monitor the situation.
And he warned that weather conditions are not expected to improve today, meaning the fire would likely begin another run once afternoon winds picked up again.
Earlier in the afternoon, firefighters pulled back as the wind pushed the blaze past a natural firebreak and made forward positions too dangerous.
“My gut feeling is that we are probably in a very serious situation at this time,” fire incident commander Joe Carvelho said at a mid-afternoon news conference held in a pasture dwarfed by a towering column of gray smoke.
Strong winds pushed embers up to half a mile ahead of the fire and closer to the homes that had been evacuated a day earlier.
Hopes that a nameless ridge--with its fewer trees between the fire and the homes--would slow the fire’s advance were dashed as flames climbed to its top. The peak of the ridge is only half a mile from the homes, most of which are valued at half-a-million dollars and up.
Freshly bulldozed fire lines near the edges of the northward-marching fire’s front were abandoned as the flames jumped ahead. Fire managers, who had hoped to eventually connect the lines and halt the fire, scrambled to plot new strategy. Air tankers dropping retardant were all that was attacking the fire’s leading edge.
“This fire is as hazardous and burning as aggressively as any other large fire that I have been on,” said Carvelho, who has fought fires from Alaska to Florida.
One firefighter was airlifted off the mountain after his asthma was aggravated, but no other injuries were reported.
About 400 people were either evacuated or barred from reaching their homes when the blaze made a big advance Wednesday. Many were allowed to return once Fall Creek Road, the key access route, was reopened later that night.
Smoke was thicker Thursday in Jackson Hole, a 40-mile-long valley surrounded by three mountain ranges and a gateway to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. The Tetons, which lie north of the blaze, were hazy.
Investigators arrived to find the cause of the fire, which began Sunday in a camping area. The probe was being treated as a criminal investigation because of speculation that the fire was started by people, Bridger-Teton National Forest spokesman Dave Cunningham said, but no evidence has been studied because of the fire danger.
The resort town of Jackson, with the Snake River between it and the fire, was not threatened, authorities said, but hundreds of homes on the west side of the Jackson Hole valley were in the fire’s path.
Authorities went door to door Wednesday afternoon, barking orders to leave.
Some residents were given just a few minutes to grab valuables.