T.K. Stoudt bought his Fox Park home in April. Though most of the structures that comprise the forested hamlet in the Medicine Bow mountains are summer cabins, Stoudt, who teaches at the University of Wyoming, lives there full time.
But now he is in Laramie, evacuated by the Albany County Sheriff’s Department and anxiously scouring for information about the fate of his house.
In a year marked by fear, uncertainty and loss, the Mullen Fire — which has quickly grown since Sept. 17 to consume nearly 130,000 acres — is bringing a new level of distress to Stoudt and his neighbors in remote southeastern Wyoming.
“You’re just constantly making phone calls, looking at websites, giving it your best guess,” Stoudt said.
The threat to his home is nearly “the last straw,” he said. “There’s ambiguity and uncertainty with the pandemic going on. There’s civil unrest and racial tension going on. Now there’s ambiguity and uncertainty about my home.”
The latest fire map posted on Oct. 2 shows the fire line has moved to just north of Fox Park. Officials have said protecting that community and the other clusters of habitation that dot the huge swath of burning or threatened Medicine Bow National Forest is a priority. Even with a force of 1,000 people and growing, firefighters have their hands full.
By Oct. 2, firefighters had spent five days protecting structures and otherwise preparing for the fire to reach Fox Park, officials said.
Since it ignited in the Savage Run Wilderness Area on Sept. 17, the Mullen Fire has grown into a monster blaze that has prompted evacuations in two states. On Oct. 2 it was 127,503 acres in size and had burned south into Colorado, 16 miles or more from where it began.
The fire area is an outdoor recreation destination that encompasses two wilderness areas, a long stretch of the North Platte River, canyons, creeks and large open meadows. The fire has jumped both Highway 230 and the North Platte and threatens the Rob Roy Reservoir, Cheyenne’s principal water supply.
Despite its alarming growth, some people in threatened communities have ignored evacuation orders and chosen to ride out the fire.
For days, predicted wind speeds and direction made it more likely firefighters and sheriff’s deputies would evacuate Albany or Centennial than Woods Landing, a hamlet on the banks of the Laramie River.
Woods Landing was more than 10 miles from the Mullen Fire’s southern edge as late as Friday, Sept. 25. High winds and hot, dry weather were predicted for the weekend, though officials appeared more worried about a potential run northeast, through eight miles of timber to the Centennial Valley.
Instead, the wind shifted. On Sept. 25, the Mullen Fire grew 16,284 acres, mostly east and south towards Woods Landing and the cabin communities of Foxborough and Fox Park.
Woods Landing resident Abbey Nunn went to bed that night feeling secure in the knowledge that the fire was still seven miles away, she said. “There might be a pre-evacuation notice but we were fine for the evening,” she said.
Nunn runs an artisanal salsa business — Need More Salsa — from her home, and had plans to travel to a farmers market in Steamboat Springs, Colorado on Saturday morning.
Instead, she awoke to the ping from her phone around 11 p.m. It was a county alert: Her house was under a new mandatory evacuation notice.
Not the first, but still a rodeo
This is the area’s third fire evacuation of recent years. Nunn grabbed her passport, a bag of her grandparents’ jewelry, her computer and dog. “I take more to the Denver airport for a two week vacation,” Nunn said.
She retreated initially to a friend’s nearby ranch. She left the area entirely the next morning, when a sheriff’s deputy came by the ranch and told her she had 20 minutes to get out before they closed Highway 230, the main route to Laramie.
On Saturday, Sept. 26, the fire went on a remarkable run. Winds gusted to around 50 mph, U.S. Forest Service spokesperson John Peterson said, and firefighters on the front line clocked at least one gust at 70 mph. Those winds drove the fire eight miles to the south and east, growing a jaw dropping 33,000 acres.
It came within less than half a mile of Sue Spencer and Bill Sheehan’s home, they said. The couple own the Woods Landing Resort, a combination bar, cafe and dancehall with guest cabins. The resort is located where Highway 10 meets Highway 230, and the couple lives next to the business. They did not evacuate — in part to avoid the uncertainty of being far away and not knowing what was happening to their property.
“The sheriff [deputy] came to our door and said ‘mandatory evacuation,’ and we said ‘we’re not leaving,’” Spencer, a hydrogeologist who has lived in Woods Landing with her husband for 25 years, said on Sept. 30. “He just wrote our names down.”
The most recent map shows a narrow strip of fire area leading toward Woods Landing, like a finger reaching out to touch the dot on the map. The fire followed the fuel along a roughly half-mile wide strip of timber between two old fire zones, Peterson said.
Because officials cut power to evacuated areas for firefighter safety, Spencer and her husband — a volunteer firefighter himself — were left without electric lighting, refrigeration or hot water. They’ve been heating their house with a wood-stove.
They’ve also been watching fire crews, Spencer said on Wednesday. The firefighters were clearing trees and cutting brush around the neighborhoods earlier in the week, moving at a rapid clip from house to house, Sheehan said.
“It’s pretty impressive,” he said. “Their dedication is really appreciated.”
Firefighters also cut a fire line right behind the couple’s property.
There are a few other local firefighters who stayed behind despite the evacuation, Sheehan said. He has access to a fire engine if the flames get close, he said. Another Woods Landing resident, who asked not to be named because he was concerned law enforcement may not let him into his home, told WyoFile there were around six homes he knew of still occupied in that town.
“Death would have to be pretty imminent,” for him to leave, Sheehan said. “If you have the capability, you want to utilize it to provide protection for your neighborhood. I think we would do all we can do, and then retreat is always an option.”
It is not all confidence and preparation, however. Spencer described anxious moments. “It’s when you’re laying in bed and the winds are howling outside,” she said, “you’re like ‘I need to go look out the window and see if there’re flames coming.’”
By Oct. 2, fire officials were increasingly confident in the measures taken to protect Woods Landing, where the old burn areas meant reduced fuel, Peterson said.
For Leslie Allen and Ken Jones, who own the ranch Nunn visited before her evacuation, not knowing how long they’ll be out of their home is difficult.
“We’re not getting back until the snow flies,” Allen guessed, “for a long, long period of time.”
The fire’s rapid evolution means no one is truly informed, not even firefighters. Still, Allen said while she understands the difficulty, she is frustrated by the lack of direction from officials.
She also noted that she and her husband are lucky. They have the money to rent a house elsewhere and settle in for an extended period of time.
“My concern is for the folks that don’t have options,” she said.
For Spencer and Sheehan, one lasting impact will be the loss of cabin renters and cafe customers during hunting season, normally one of their busiest times. That will fall on the heels of the two-month COVID-19 closure, but it won’t come with the relief of federal stimulus programs, they said.
“I’d like a giant snow storm, please,” Sheehan said.
“And some hot water,” Spencer added.
Stoudt said his neighbors in Fox Park have been put up in a motel by the Red Cross. He rents a room in a house in Laramie for winter days when bad weather keeps him from traveling between campus and his home.
Stoudt’s valuables are in his truck or in his room, he said. He had 20 minutes to evacuate, he said. Stoudt, a veteran, grabbed guns and ammunition and his “shadow box” — a box with his military medals and decorations.
Two days ago, a firefighter he knew texted him that firefighters “had eyes” on his home and it was unburned. It’s the last on-the-ground word Stoudt’s received, he said.
The mental strain of wondering whether the place he settled into at age 56 is ablaze or safe is grating, Stoudt said. He cannot focus on his thesis writing, and the passionate professor said he escapes from worry only when teaching his classes.
“For that 75 minutes, I don’t think about what’s going on in Fox Park,” he said.