IMPROVED forecast could give firefighters a break as they work to save homes

Sunday, July 29th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) _ Firefighters got a break from the weather on Sunday as they labored to maintain their advantage against a forest fire that had burned to within feet of expensive mountain homes.

The blaze, estimated at 4,620 acres, was considered 50 percent contained Sunday and its plume of smoke was thinning over Jackson Hole, the 40-mile-long valley surrounded by three mountain ranges and gateway to the Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.

``Mother Nature has thrown all she could possibly throw at us now and we're holding our own,'' incident commander Joe Carvelho said.

However, he added, ``We're not out of the woods.''

Lower temperatures were forecast Sunday and into the next several days, with wind speeds of only 15 to 20 mph on upper slopes, a change from warnings given to residents Saturday that had said stiff wind, temperatures in the 80s and low humidity were possible. The improvement will ``certainly contribute to the efforts of fire crews,'' fire information officer Terry Roper said.

No homes had been burned even though wind gusts topping 35 mph had been whipping the flames, carrying embers and causing many small new fires.

``The fact that the house is still there ... is better than we expected,'' Peter Kline, one of those who had been evacuated from two subdivisions last week, said on Sunday. He and his wife, Kathy, had just moved into a home in the area two weeks ago.

The break in the weather could help firefighters pinch off the northern end of the blaze that had threatened homes, said fire spokesman Bobby Kitchens.

On Saturday, fire officials had warned residents of the community of Wilson to brace for the possibility of evacuations. The fire crept to within two miles of their community, about five miles west of Jackson, which was not threatened, officials said. A thunderstorm late Saturday dropped little rain and fanned the flames with fresh, gusty wind.

Residents of six more homes in the area about three miles south of Wilson were told to leave Saturday, joining the more than 100 residents of two subdivisions who had been evacuated earlier in the week.

Flames crept up to the lawn of one house in one of the subdivisions, where homes average about $1 million. In another area about five miles southwest of Jackson, the fire got to within 200 feet of homes valued at $5 million that are nearly hidden in the bone-dry forest.

Nearly all the homes in the area have flammable, wood-shingle roofs and can be reached only by narrow, winding roads.