Western Wyoming family builds new life after wildfire that consumed more than 50 homes

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Hoback Ranch Fire

Jen Accurso listens on Oct. 24 as her husband, Matt, talks at a neighbor's home where they are temporarily staying in Hoback Ranches near Bondurant, Wyo. Accurso was six months pregnant with her son, Gannett, when a wildfire destroyed their home and all their possessions last year. After the fire, a neighbor hosted a second baby shower for the couple. The family of three plans to move into a tiny house on their property when construction is complete.

HOBACK RANCHES — A propane company’s truck cruised along a dirt road, its loose rattle unchecked by the leaves missing from a swath of dead and blackened trees. Ice and snow clung to portions of road shaded from the morning sun. In the distance, mountain peaks connected sky with earth.

A second truck, driven by a plumber, turned toward a local landmark easily visible over hills largely stripped bare by flame: the red roof of a home still under construction.

The plumber was there to install a heating system for the home’s floors. But it won’t warm any feet this winter. Maybe next year.

The still partially-constructed building sits in Hoback Ranches, a rural subdivision in western Wyoming, about 30 miles north of Pinedale. The construction was necessitated by a fire that in September 2018 swept through the hills here, charring wide stretches of forest. Fifty-nine homes burned.

No one died and only three people were injured. But as it burned, the fire transformed the land and the people tied to it.

Fourteen months later, the wounds left by the blaze remain fresh.

***

Years ago, Matt Accurso and a friend were planning to meet in California for a ski trip. But snowfall in Tahoe was historically weak. So the two men changed plans and — after the impromptu flight, a quick boat ride and a hotel owners’ recommendation — Matt found himself in Belize.

Jen Boysen was there too, with her sister and a friend. The three women had fled an unseasonably cold winter in the Midwest. Dodging the snow, they wound up with a tightly plotted itinerary and just a bit of unplanned time. Jen found herself on the beach. Matt sat down.

A week after she’d returned to Chicago, Jen called Matt.

“Was all that talk vacation talk?” She asked. “Or was that real?”

It was real.

Hoback Ranch Fire

Nikki Cowley sits on the beginnings of a porch on her neighbor's property in front of a line of burned trees in Hoback Ranches on Oct. 25 near Bondurant, Wyo. Cowley lost her home in the Roosevelt Fire in September 2018. She now helps some of their neighbors clear debris from their property and with their rebuilds.

Jen moved from Chicago to Denver, where Matt then worked as a petroleum engineer. When he moved to his home state of Wyoming, she came with him. The couple bought a house in Hoback Ranches. In October 2017, they married on the porch.

About a week before the fire would break out, a neighbor, Andie Sramek, threw a baby shower for the couple, who were expecting in January.

Close friends pressed their thumbs onto a sheet of paper, marking it with ink in the shape of a tree. People brought gifts of practicality and love: diapers, sweaters and quilts.

A neighbor — Dena Baker, who doesn’t plan to have children — gifted the unborn baby an antique baby cradle. The same cradle had held her as a child.

Sramek refinished the cradle. And the baby had a place reserved in his parents’ home. A world waiting for him, built around careful consideration of his needs.

“You start planning the stuff that you think is gonna happen,” Jen Accurso said. “Why would you assume anything else?”

In mid-September 2018, while a fire smoldered in the distance, the couple packed a tent and sleeping bags for a road trip. They took the slow path to a friends’ wedding in Oregon, camping along the way.

They didn’t expect the blaze to come anywhere near their house.

***

The Roosevelt Fire began as embers of a campfire abandoned in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. It spread mainly into sparsely populated areas. The intensity of the destruction depended on the heat of the fire, which itself depended on weather and fuel available.

A forest service map now available shows how the fire’s intensity changed as it spread. To the west, well within the forest, the map shows green portions. Those portions indicate that, according to official measurements, the severity of the burn was low. But as a reader’s eyes track east — along the path of the blaze — the map’s proportions change. The green fades away, replaced by yellow and red, indicating the fire burned hot.

By firefighters’ count — taken in early October once the fire had been declared fully contained and the national forest had lifted closures related to the blaze — the fire claimed more than 60,000 acres. It pushed against U.S. Highway 191, which stands between the forest and wide swathes of open cattle land. But the line held. The blaze never escaped east into grassland.

South of Rim Road, the primary vehicular artery running through Hoback Ranches, the map turns red.

But the Accursos were already on the road by the time fire began threatening the ranches. So they kept the radio on as they drove to Oregon, listening for updates. None were good.

On the day of the wedding, Sept. 22, Jen and Matt agreed to keep the fire and the uncertainty and fear to themselves. They showed up to support their friends.

An official statement issued the same day was reserved. It noted that the fire expanded southeast and firefighters ripped up earth with dozers, creating gaps in the fire’s fuel. Airplanes dropped fire retardant in the path of the advancing blaze.

The next day, authorities closed the 50 mile stretch of highway that connects the subdivision and surrounding area to the rest of the world.

So on that day, a Sunday, the Accursos couldn’t have gotten home if they had wanted to. Instead, the visiting couple stayed in the newlyweds’ Portland home. A friend fighting the conflagration called from Wyoming. He said it didn’t look good. The fire was in the ranches. But there was still hope.

If everything went just right, if the weather cooperated and the firefighters worked their jobs perfectly, then the home and the diapers, sweaters and quilts might make it.

But the wind turned.

The next day, the couple walked through a Portland neighborhood and Matt’s cell phone rang. He answered and the sheriff said what the former homeowner already knew to be true.

“Anything left?” Matt asked.

No.

It didn’t seem right. It definitely wasn’t easy. The baby’s new home — and, inside it, a carefully considered nursery — was gone, turned to smoke and ash. The life a pair of careful parents had planned was gone, too.

“This isn’t supposed to happen now,” Jen Accurso thought. “No. We’re having a baby.”

***

The Accursos were not alone in their plight. A few people were exceptionally lucky, their property untouched by the blaze. Other folks lost only forest, grass and peace of mind.

But a third of homeowners were dealt the same tough hand as the Accurso family: 59 houses burned, according to Sublette County government figures. Some lost houses belonging to vacationers, who used them for only a small portion of the year. But more than 20 of the destroyed homes belonged to full-time residents.

When the structures burned, so did markers of memories. The Accurso family lost a baby crib. Neighbors lost photos of beloved ancestors, family heirlooms and walls, roofs and floors hammered together by their parents.

That Monday, Jen and Matt knew without a shadow of a doubt they had lost their house. What hope they had left when the sheriff called.

The sheriff made a second call that week. The evacuation order would lift Friday. If you had a home in Hoback Ranches, you could go see what was left.

So Matt got behind the wheel and the expecting couple drove, taking turns. The phone mapping provided a path: 800 miles, 12 hours. But, beyond that, with no home and a baby on a way, they had decisions to make.

They started with a simple one.

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By the time they’d arrived in Pendleton, Oregon, the couple decided they would let the house and the crib and the rest go. It wasn’t coming back.

It’s done, we can’t change this, they determined. Time to start over.

When the fire reached the couple’s house, it took everything. The blaze incinerated a wood burning stove. It cooked the foundation into uselessness. It took the crib without a trace.

And so Matt took on all the stress he could. The baby, they say, shouldn’t be under stress. And so the baby’s mom should be insulated from it, even when it’s time to find a new home.

The couple bounced from place to place. Jen tried to relax. Tried to be calm. And Matt harangued insurance agents.

The agents changed rapidly. There were too many lost homes. Insurers were spread thin.

The baby was born in January. His parents joked about naming him after the fire. But they settled on something more solid: Gannett. Like the giant peak visible due east of Hoback Ranches.

Neighbors have had difficulty finding construction help. But the Accursos aren’t yet rebuilding. They ordered a prefabricated tiny house and expected it to arrive last month. It’s been delayed twice.

So last month, Matt and Jen sat in the living room of a neighbor’s home. The neighbor was staying elsewhere. He let them borrow the space. It’s just one of the many gifts granted the new parents.

Sramek, the friend who had refinished the cradle lost to the fire, sought help putting together a new baby shower. She needed two truckloads to carry the gifts.

Toys, books and a quilt now line the borrowed living room.

A baby monitor crackled. Gannett, the nearly 10-month-old baby, was waking up.

He’s healthy, big for his age and likes to crawl. The home isn’t permanent, but Gannett’s parents have become adept at constructing a new nursery in a temporary home.

There are the essentials: A bed, changing table and diapers.

And on the wall above the child’s crib are two mementos. The first came from the folks who made it to the baby shower. The tree made of thumbprints was created on the spot that day, prints in ink.

The second was taken from the house before it burned. A printed photo of Matt’s mother, who died when he was in college. The image hadn’t been digitized and could have been lost forever. But it survived.

So Gannett’s grandmother watches while he rests in a temporary nursery.

***

The Accurso family wasn’t the only one with decisions to make after the fire. Some folks moved on. If an insurance check came, they took it and left. Rebuilding on a pile of ashes didn’t make sense. For some, the pain was too much to face.

Other challenges have tangled people up. An ongoing court case has kept Nikki Cowley from rebuilding, she said. Dave Nemetz, who brought the case, said the road she’s trying to use cuts across his property. The issue has not yet been resolved.

Cowley lives in her RV and spends much of her free time clearing a burned property that belongs to an elderly friend. The 74-year-old woman might be able to move back in next year. She has medical challenges to resolve first.

A few minutes’ drive from Gannett’s nursery, you can find one of those families. It is on a dirt road, next to the red-roofed house, that Jim McCollum, 52 and his daughter, Roice, 20, are working on, a project of their own.

The McCollums lost their home — which Jim’s father handed down to him — in the fire. Because they were underinsured, McCollum’s insurance company didn’t pay out enough to replace the home as it was, McCollum said. So they’re rebuilding a bit smaller. The garage will have room for one less car.

But the home is coming together. The walls are up and the windows should go in soon.

At the edge of the job site sat the McCollums’ current home: a white trailer. They use electric heat to keep it warm, and on the coldest nights the patriarch will turn on the propane. The trailer was a gift facilitated by Sramek, who helped find its donor, a woman in Big Piney.

The gift came with only a single string attached.

“All they asked was: pay it forward,” McCollum said.

Hoback Ranch Fire

Jim McCollum, 52, talks with his daughter, Roice McCollum, about the reconstruction of their home while standing in front of the temporary mobile home on Oct. 25 in Hoback Ranches near Bondurant. Jim’s father had bought the property in 1994 and they lost the original house in the September 2018 Roosevelt Fire. Roice had been working construction at her father’s business when the fire broke out. Now, she is continuing to work at his business on Mondays through Thursdays in Jackson and rebuilding their home Fridays through Sundays. Last winter, the two stayed in a wall tent with a wood burning stove before someone donated the RV for them to use.

As the morning warmed, Roice worked a forklift. The family dog, Skank, took a break from begging belly rubs and lay down to chew a stick.

It would be the family’s second winter in the camper, rather than the home McCollum’s father had given him. But, he said, a life in the sometimes rugged country had taught him to adapt.

“Just grab a hold and get going,” McCollum said. “Do what you do.”

McCollum‘s next-door neighbors, Andy Taylor and Baker, whose childhood crib was destroyed before Gannett could use it, are hoping to be in their own home this winter. The house wasn’t destroyed, but it was damaged. So, for now, they sleep in an RV.

The basement will be done soon. They’ll be able to stay there, down a set of stairs from a living room that still collects thin sheets of ash. Cracked logs support the ceiling.

Taylor looked out a plate-glass window in the wall of that room.

“We feel pretty fortunate,” he said, gesturing to the landscape beyond. The trees aren’t back, but the ground has turned from black to mostly green.

On Friday morning, Jen and Gannett sat in a hospital waiting room. Matt was asleep while surgeons corrected damage to his back that has been bugging him for years. He’s been walking with a bit of a jaunty limp, favoring the tender spot in his back. He went in to the surgery optimistically. And doctors said it went well.

But while she waited, Jen talked on the phone. Gannett laughed, interrupting her conversation.

His mother chuckled with him: “A laughing baby is better than a crying baby.”

***

A few weeks ago at Hoback Ranches, saws buzzed near the red-roofed house still under construction. Many of the trees on the hills are still charred black. The missing foliage makes the Accursos’ temporary home easily visible across a shallow valley.

In the center of that valley a piece of broken white plastic pipe lay forgotten in lumpy dirt marked by treads of heavy vehicles. A thin stream ran from somewhere near the construction site above and joined the machines’ tracks. They ended, but the water did not. It trickled into new surroundings: purple, green and red grasses that grew in the foreground of distant mountains.

The water’s surface met the grass and it froze. The currents — babbling, chattering and swirling — turned invisible and silent, hidden by a thin sheet of ice. As the sky stretched upward, its blues darkened.

Grasses sprouted from soil surrounding a stump’s burnt roots.

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