After a lightning storm swept over the Tetons and into the valley setting East Gros Ventre Butte on fire, stiff winds started pushing flames south toward Jackson.
Three hours later, 80 acres of the grassy, sagebrush-studded hills stood charred along the butte’s steep east face. Firefighters’ nerves were calmed, thanks in part to another weather system that pushed over, this time one that doused the flames that threw up a smoke column visible from much of town.
“Certainly the precipitation and increase in humidity made a big difference,” Fire Information Officer Lori Iverson said around 6 p.m. “Mother Nature helped us out big time on this one. There was a tanker [plane] that was en route to work the fire, but with fire behavior mitigated, it has been rerouted.”
If the Wildlife Museum Fire’s name isn’t a giveaway, it began near a National Museum of Wildlife Art water tank along a historic road that switchbacks up to the crest of the butte. Winds moved the fire’s leading edge southward, but proved erratic with big gusts fanning the flames.
By 5 p.m., the blaze had climbed as high on the butte as could be seen from the valley floor below the museum. The flames also pressed downhill, dancing above the museum’s parking lot, which provided a buffer to the building.
Jackson Hole photographer Ed Lavino, a retired firefighter, took in the action from the shoulder of U.S. Highway 89 near the entrance road to the museum. A curtain of smoke shrouded the building. Simultaneously, his wife, Jane, scrambled to round up the most valuable pieces in the museum where she works as a curator, in case the art needed to be rushed out of the stone-sided structure.
“Most of the movement in wildfires is usually up the hill,” Lavino said, “and this one is moving rapidly down the hill. I didn’t anticipate it reaching the museum this quickly.”
At the height of its hazard, the Wildlife Museum Fire triggered evacuation orders for the Riva…