Community comes together as Roosevelt Fire devastates neighborhood

BONDURANT – The Roosevelt Fire destroyed 46 homes as flames ravaged the Hoback Ranches subdivision between Pinedale and Bondurant and has claimed three injuries, according to updates Thursday.

Sublette County Sheriff K.C. Lehr has made announcements at public meetings through the week.

Lehr and his team began work on damage assessment in Hoback Ranches early this week, and are contacting affected homeowners as they work through the neighborhood to determine what properties were destroyed.

Dangerous conditions in parts of Hoback Ranches prevented the sheriff’s team from going into parts of the neighborhood, and only a portion of the 153 homes were assessed by Thursday. Lehr urged homeowners to be patient, but said he understood the agony of waiting and the devastation of those who lost their homes.

“We’ve seen the highest of highs and the lowest of lows,” he said at a meeting on Tuesday.

“This process has been very difficult. One of the most difficult things that I tell my new guys is how to deliver a message that a loved one has died. Thankfully, we don’t have to do that now. But telling someone that their home of 30 years is gone is right up there, number two, to telling someone they lost a loved one.”

The process of confirming the status of each property is painstaking, Lehr said, and added that the department was treading carefully to ensure that all the information they gathered was accurate.

The team “geomark” each property they are able to visit and take photographs of the damage. The information is then sent back to the sheriff’s headquarters at the Incident Command base camp in Bondurant where another team overlays the geomark and photographs onto a GIS map. The GIS grid is designed by the county assessor’s office to map land ownership in the county, and the sheriff’s office is working with the agency to get contact information for each resident in Hoback Ranches.

Once the Sheriff’s Department has confirmed the status of a property, the owners are promptly contacted. Lehr and his deputies either talk with property owners by phone or visit with them in person.

Travis Bingham, public information officer at the sheriff’s department, emphasized that residents should wait to get official information on the status of their home from the sheriff’s office, not from other sources like social media. The sheriff’s office has also urged people to abstain from posting any photographs of Hoback Ranches until the department has notified all residents.

Dozens of Hoback Ranch residents have already received the heartbreaking news that the fire destroyed their homes.

Phil Smith, a police officer in Jackson, lives with his wife Makayla and his brother Joe Smith on Vista Ridge Lane. Joe Smith is a volunteer firefighter for Sublette County Unified Fire and is currently battling the flames not far from his home. Makayla is attending veterinary school. They found out earlier this week that they lost their home.

“I had to call my parents and tell them, ‘Hey, we lost everything,’” Phil Smith said, “I’ve felt every emotion a person has bottled inside them over the past days – despair, frustration, anger, but also hope and love. Nobody got killed, that’s the good thing.”

He waited as long as possible to inform his brother who was busy fighting the fire.

Smith and his family did what they could to make their property fire proof. They surrounded the home with gravel and kept trees away from the building. But the erratic flames still consumed their property, Phil Smith said, while sparing a nearby property surrounded by trees.

The Smiths fled with their neighbors on Sunday afternoon as the flames closed in. They grabbed what they could, but still had to leave a lot behind.

“How do you pack your whole life in a car?” Smith said.

Other residents of Hoback Ranches are still waiting to find out whether or not their home survived.

Todd Smith, Chief of Police in Jackson, also fled his residence on Chippewaugh Lane Sunday afternoon.

“We got the essentials out of the house – a box of clothes, pictures, firearms, the basic things that we need,” he said. Todd Smith and his family stayed with their son in the Hoback River area, but then had to evacuate a second time as flames threatened that area.

Todd Smith is still waiting for confirmation from the sheriff’s office that his home is safe. He and his family were fortunate to find a vacant apartment in Jackson that they can rent for the short term. He believes it will be awhile before they can return their lives to normalcy, no matter if their house is still standing or not.

“I don’t know what’s worse, not knowing or finding out your home is gone,” he said, “It’s been touch and go every day. We had two scares. Someone posted pictures of damaged houses in Hoback Ranches on Facebook. For a minute, we thought one of the homes pictured was ours.”

Stephanie Housley lives on Rim Road and is also waiting for confirmation from the sheriff’s office. Housley is currently staying at a home in Bondurant with Phil Smith, his family, and other refugees from the fire. A part-time resident offered her home up to the evacuees. Housley said that the woman’s actions reflected the strong sense of community support in the area.

“This is how our small community works,” she said, “So many people have opened up their doors.”

Phil Smith said that staying with friends and neighbors in the house in Bondurant is a source of solace and support. The group is already discussing the logistics of recovery, from fundraising to dealing with utility outages.

“I’ve never done this before,” Phil Smith said, “So we’re figuring out how to go about this step by step.”

Housley said that the informal group of temporary housemates has grown into a larger group that meets at the Branding Iron Cafe in Bondurant. They have launched a GoFundMe page and are reaching out to local organizations like the Red Cross and the Lions Club.

“We’re taking it on ourselves to start the process of recovery,” she said, “We are really coming together as a community.”

In addition to two hunters burned another person was treated for chest pains.

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