Scores flee Squirrel Creek Fire southwest of Laramie

Hundreds of structures threatened
2012-07-03T07:30:00Z 2012-07-03T09:25:51Z Scores flee Squirrel Creek Fire southwest of LaramieBy CHRISTINE PETERSON Star-Tribune staff writer Casper Star-Tribune Online

LARAMIE -- They told each other they wouldn't leave their dream home until they saw flames.

About 8 p.m. Sunday night, Mike and Sandy Sontag watched as orange and red burst over the top of Sheep Mountain, igniting trees into fiery balls.

Then officials from the Albany County Sheriff's Office came and told them it was official: The Sontags, along with all other Woods Landing residents, should evacuate.

"It was an eerie feeling driving into town and watching blowing smoke and ash and embers come across the road," Mike Sontag said from his camper trailer Monday in the Albany County Fairgrounds parking lot in Laramie.

"All it would take is for one of those to hit the house, and it would all be over."

The Sontags were two of about 80 people evacuated from their homes southwest of Laramie after the unpredictable Squirrel Creek Fire raged through a mixture of dead trees killed by mountain pine beetles, live conifers, grass, brush and aspens.

Officials reported the fire late Monday morning to be about 7,000 acres. Reports Monday morning said it was 0 percent contained as firefighters worked to protect homes and other structures, said Aaron Voos, public affairs specialist for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. Officials evacuated the Fox Park area Monday afternoon as a precaution because the fire had started moving in that direction.

The Squirrel Creek Fire is smaller than some of Wyoming's other wildfires, but it threatens hundreds of homes and is visible from Laramie, Voos said. It started Saturday afternoon and the cause is still being investigated.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Monday that it had approved the use of federal funds to help cover the costs of fighting the Squirrel Creek Fire.

Firefighters worked throughout Sunday night to save homes in Woods Landing after the fire moved east, crossing Fox Creek Road and at points jumping across Highway 230.

Sontag thinks his house still stands. He and his wife, Sandy Sontag, are waiting for more information about when they can go back. A buddy left a trailer on his property for the summer, and that burned.

He worries about looters in his house. He's heard of problems with looters in evacuated houses in Colorado.

The couple snagged everything they could – photo albums, computers, jewelry -- anything that would be hard to replace.

"We packed at the last minute, and it was hard to know what to bring," Mike Sontag said. "You ponder it, but until it happens, you don't know what to grab."

Fred Hirsch brought pictures of his mother and his wife's silverware set, among other things. He and his wife have lived in Woods Landing for 20 years. They'd never been evacuated.

"When we left, we could see the fire crest the top of Sheep Mountain," Hirsch said.

He and his wife are staying in a motor home at their daughter's house in Laramie. He came to the Red Cross evacuation center at the Albany County Fairgrounds to find out when they could return.

He put two sprinklers on his roof to help keep the fire away. They're still running.

Shaymus Wyman lives in Woods Landing and has cattle in the area. He stayed after the evacuation orders, at one point watching as the fire burned about 200 yards from his house.

He and friends gathered at a local Laramie bar Monday evening.

"We watched as flames shot 100 feet in the air," Wyman's friend Thomas Baker said.

"Willows were exploding like they had gasoline on them."

The hot and dry weather meant even green vegetation burned, said Wyman, a former wild land firefighter.

When he finally left Monday morning, he grabbed important papers, pictures in frames and a couple of bags of clothes. He had to leave a drift boat that he hopes didn't burn.

His got his horses and dogs out, but doesn't know what will happen to his cows.

J.T. Nunn doesn't know, either. He runs cattle on two sections of national forest northwest and southwest of Woods Landing. Monday afternoon he tried to drive to his allotment to open a fence for the cows, but the Albany County Sheriff's Office had already closed Highway 230.

"They have the whole area under evacuation, we can't do anything to get the cows out of there," he said.

"We are just hoping they stay out of the way of it, and we will see how things turn out later this summer when we can get back in there."

This is the first time in 10 years he's seen fire like this on his allotments.

Amid all the flames and burning, Wyman only knows of one house that was destroyed as of Monday afternoon.

Firefighters saved the historic Woods Landing Bar & Café. The dance floor is made of boxcar springs and bounces a little during Saturday night dances.

Flames came close, but the building survived, Wyman said.

The fire has not reached Jelm Mountain and has not yet threatened the University of Wyoming's Wyoming Infrared Observatory, said Chad Bladwin, director of institutional communications at the university.

Reach Open Spaces reporter Christine Peterson at (307) 266-0524 or christine.peterson@trib.com.

Copyright 2015 Casper Star-Tribune Online. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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