Scouting a new spot for Fire in the Mountains may be ‘a needle in the haystack’

The festival co-creator discusses the future of Teton heavy metal fest.

Fire in the Mountains, a heavy metal music festival housed in Teton County since 2015, was  scorched until 2025, at the earliest.

Teton County Commissioners voted in July to deny permits to expand the festival’s capacity from 2,000 to 3,500 at Heart Six Ranch, an ecologically delicate dude ranch that borders a federally protected section of the Snake River.

“The first week and a half after our permit denial, I mean, I broke down probably about a dozen times a day crying about it,” said festival co-creator Jeremy Walker. “I was heartbroken.”

Walker said interest in increasing ticket sales on the approximately 180-acre property northeast of Jackson came from a place of necessity. 

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“Financially, it’s not feasible,” he said of limiting Fire in the Mountains to 2,000 attendees. “In the festival world, it’s common knowledge that the breakeven point of festivals tends to be around 2,500 … it’s a numbers game.”

Environmental and safety concerns

Commissioners Mark Newcomb, Natalia Macker and Luther Propst tipped the vote, concerned with ecological and public safety.

In a recent interview with KHOL, Newcomb said he “financially contributed” to the festival’s organizers because he’s “sympathetic to their efforts.” But because Fire in the Mountains “just squeezed in a site that, in my view, couldn’t mitigate the overall impact on the neighbors and on the landscape,” he believed it would cause a “technically legal nuisance.”

While the metal music event was approved for 2,000 people in 2018, 2019 and 2022, increasing the cap by 1,500 would have posed a problem for the human and ecological neighbors of Buffalo Valley, Newcomb said.

Macker and Propst were more focused with the lack of county public safety resources to account for a proposed 75% increase in attendees. In response, Walker said he met with officials at the Teton County Sheriff’s Office, Jackson Hole Fire/EMS and Black Rock National Forest Service to discuss solutions — like contracting private emergency services or paying county safety officers time and a half for their help at the three-day festival. 

Nonetheless, Macker and Propst didn’t waver in their concerns that 1,500 more metalheads would rattle Teton County’s already-scarce services.

‘A needle in a haystack’

Despite “eight years of putting our blood, sweat, tears and soul into this thing,” Walker said of the festival’s organizers, they were “at an inflection point” where he believes the festival would have sold-out with a fanbase that could’ve “made the business viable.” Instead, inflationary pressures from 2022 “were really brutal on our bottom line, he said.”

The festival was originally built to run every year, but its organizers were ready to pivot and run the event every other year. Walker insisted “the amount of added value, in my opinion, that it brings to our community exceeds any kind of nuisance,” especially if held for three days every two years.

Economically, the festival attracts visitors from all over the world who support local businesses when in town, while culturally, the festival promotes diversity in the arts, especially in a town consumed with folk and country music, Walker said.

Environmentally, he added that Fire in the Mountains is a zero-waste event that offers ecological stewardship education and Native American storytelling.

The loss of Heart Six Ranch is a huge blow to the event’s operations, as the organizers “knew exactly every square inch of that property,” which was critical to ensuring the festival operates “really efficiently, really safely, extremely clean,” Walker explained.

The organizers felt Heart Six Ranch had it all, from reasonable proximity to the airport to hotel facilities to even an appropriate egress lane for drivers to safely enter and exit the festival. Finding another venue like Heart Six, Walker said, will be “a needle in the haystack,” and could take years.

Keeping the fire alive

The ideal is to keep the festival in Jackson Hole, because the organizers are local and care to support their own community, but scouting beyond the bounds of Teton County may be necessary to keep the fire alive.

“We always want our flagship event to be in the Rocky Mountains,” Walker explained. “You’re combining this really powerful music with a really powerful, beautiful landscape … It’s about sense of place in the American West.”

While the festival’s indefinite future may have crushed fans across the world, it also bruised local metalheads.

“There’s a music disparity in this kind of community — jam bands, funk, bluegrass — but nothing for me as a local heavy music enthusiast,” said Dan Moncur, a 33-year-old heavy music fan who’s lived in the valley for seven years. “It’s just really sad to know that I have to drive four or five hours just to see any kind of music that I like.”

He’s relying on attending some shows in Salt Lake City to quench his desire for metal. Nonetheless, Moncur regrets losing the festival near his backyard.

“I grew up in Wyoming, so having that in Wyoming is just all the more better,” he said. “Three days, that would have been just huge. I would have been happy for the rest of the year.”

The festival wavers in mid-air as organizers hunt for a new location and eventually embark on the permitting process. Updates can be found on the Fire in the Mountains website, or on Instagram, @FireInTheMountains.

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