CASPER, Wyo. — Owen Jones didn't want to miss a winter of the Dead Poet's Society. The retired elementary school principal and seven other gentlemen — all between the ages of 55 and 87 — have met weekly for the past three decades to read poetry, play darts and drink hot toddies.
There was a glitch in the festivities, though, when late this summer, the society's clubhouse burned to the ground.
Jones' Casper Mountain cabin was one of the 37 residential casualties of the Sheep Herder Hill fire. The fire destroyed the structure, including a stove, a refrigerator and five snowmobiles. Despite his mitigation efforts, the cabin didn't stand a chance. For metal to warp the way it did, he was told, the heat must have reached 1,450 degrees.
"It went up in a heartbeat," he said recently.
Officials received the first call just after 4 p.m. on Sept. 9. Smoke was visible from Casper shortly thereafter. About 400 residents from 150 structures were hastily ordered to evacuate as the flames tore through the southeast side of the mountain. Planes' and helicopters' efforts seemed futile while dumping retardant over the growing blaze.
By Monday morning, Casper Fire-EMS reported that the fire had burned 5,000 acres, bringing down six structures. Both numbers steadily grew as the week progressed. Help was called in from all over the country, highlighted by a Type II Incident Management team. At its peak, more than 325 personnel manned the flames.
At 5:15 on Sept. 16, officials announced the fire was 100 percent contained. The final count: 15,556 acres, 37 residences and 23 outbuildings, according to InciWeb. Other estimates mark the fire at 15,887 acres.
Since then, some of the debris has been removed, phone poles installed and blueprints drawn for new cabins.
Still, Natrona County Emergency Management Coordinator Stewart Anderson is worried. The mountain is missing a whole lot of snow for this time of year.
"We need to get more moisture up there," he said in a recent interview. "Or else it's going to be extremely dry, and fire danger will be high again."
Conversely, if the mountain gets too much moisture in the spring there's a chance of mud slides on the steep slopes since there's no longer vegetation to catch the eroding soil.
To date, the fire's cause remains unknown. Natrona County Fire Inspector Dave Baker said once the team was able to rule out electrical fences, lightning and other natural causes, human involvement was the only logical conclusion. ATV use, discarded smoking material and an intentional lighting are the three most probable causes.
Baker said citizens have been eager to help determine the perpetrator, but no solid leads have emerged.
"I can't even tell you how many phone calls come into the office," he said. "But some people were clear on the other side of the mountain, some reports were third hand. ... You have to chase a lot of loose ends. It's just part of the job."
The investigation remains open indefinitely.
Natrona County Wildfire Mitigation Coordinator Sam Weaver works with landowners to create defensible space around their structures. He helps coordinate newsletters and seminar classes for Casper Mountain cabin owners, and said grants, funds and cost-sharing programs will help to rebuild the homes.
There's still a lot of cleanup left to do, and most people will probably wait at least until the spring to get going, he said.
"We haven't had much feedback yet; I think it's a little early," he said. "We do know of one who did rebuild."
Jones was ready to start building in October. It was his winter home, he said. Winter is his favorite time on the mountain. When the snow gets deeper, snowmobiles are the only mode of transportation to the cabin — it's more than a mile off a main road.
So far, he's hauled away 10,000 pounds of metal and built the frame. Heating has been installed along with a bay window. And the dartboard has been hung. The poetry readers no longer need to meet in the donated tepee outside.
The new structure is situated several feet up from the original cabin, but it still offers the same majestic view as its predecessor.
Jones' wife and son are in charge of the interior design of the new cabin, but at least one piece of decor has already been decided. He plans to use the melted snowmobiles as abstract art in his next home. He's not concerned about another fire.
"We can't burn down now," he said, indicating the charred, naked remains of trees surrounding his property. "That's already been taken care of."