Some of the threatened cabins photographed in 1975. (Photo Courtesy Dewey Vanderhoff)

Frontier cabins threatened by Hardluck fire

— August 24, 2013

A cluster of old cabins on the Shoshone National Forest will likely burn if the Hardluck fire reaches them. Defending the cabins, located near Needle Creek, is not a priority for the Forest Service, said spokeswoman Kristie Salzmann.

Kelsey Dayton

The fire, which as of Friday morning was 24,648 acres and zero-percent contained, was first detected July 20. It was sparked by lightning. As of Thursday the fire was still a few miles away from the Needle Creek cabins, Salzmann said. The Forest Service was unable to fly reconnaissance on Friday for an update on how the fire spread, she said.

If the cabins burn, Wyoming will lose important buildings that help tell the state’s history, said Cody resident Dewey Vanderhoff. It is in these cabins that miners scraped by in the early 1900s.

“It’s the echo and the shadow and it’s all that’s really left of that mining world in this whole area,” he said.

Vanderhoff feels the Forest Service should have planned on protecting the cabins a month ago and has a duty to defend the cabins now if the fire reaches the area. If the fire reaches the cabins, the agency says it will determine an action plan and assess the situation, which will depend on the fire’s characteristics and resources to fight it, Salzmann said. The fire likely will be allowed to burn the cabins and the forest service is not currently trying to save the buildings, she said.

The Forest Service has said it hopes the cabins make it through the fire, but it’s not cost-effective or practical to allocate resources to their defense.

Dewey Vanderhoff claims the cabins near Needle Creek could possibly be defended from fire. (Photo Courtesy Dewey Vanderhoff)

Vanderhoff doesn’t buy the argument that there aren’t resources, or the notion that it would endanger firefighters. He said he suspects the Forest Service wants to get rid of the cabins, and the fire is a convenient solution. He makes the same accusation regarding the Sweetwater Lodge which burned in 2008. Forest Service officials said they tried to protect the Sweetwater Lodge structure, but had to prioritize occupied buildings.

Vanderhoff said he understands the Forest Service has limited resources with fires burning across the western United States, but he contends protecting the cabins is possible. There is a creek on one side and only a few trees that would need to be cut.

“It would be really easy to defend these and give these cabins a fighting chance to make it through,” he said.

The Forest Service’s focus is on public and firefighter safety, and due to the terrain defending the abandoned buildings would put firefighters at risk, Salzmann said. A firefighter on the Lost Lake Fire was injured Wednesday while clearing brush and dead trees when he cut his leg with his chainsaw. He was doing everything properly and still got hurt. It’s important to minimize the firefighters’ exposure to risk whenever possible, Salzmann said.

The cabins do not meet criteria for historic preservation that would require the agency to try to save the buildings, according to forest officials. The Forest Service is, by law, required to evaluate all structures 50 years old or older on its property to determine whether they are historically significant, said Mary Humstone, research scientist in the University of Wyoming’s American Science Program.

Places can be deemed significant due to a role they played in history, or if they are associated with an important person or due to the architecture and engineering of the building, said Humstone. The decision is reviewed by the state historic preservation office. The Needle Creek buildings were evaluated in 1999 and deemed ineligible because of changes to the structures, including a replaced roof on one building and a collapsed roof on another.

The cabins might not meet the technical historical significance standard of the agency, but they represent an era and way of life long gone, Vanderhoff said. “Needle Creek is the rarest of the rare,” he said. Miners like Jess and Micky Wight eked out a living on the land panning for gold. “Now today, all that is left (are) these cabins,” he said.

Along with three cabins that make up the Needle Creek cabins there are a few outlier cabins nearby that were separate from the historic mining claims. “It’s so wild and so wonderful,” said Vanderhoff. “And it’s all about to burn.”

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com. Follower her on twitter @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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