Letters From the West

Firefighters poised to protect Hailey and Ketchum as humidity rises

(left to right) Charlie Pomeroy, Stacey Ward, Rusty Hollinger, and Suzy Hayes watch a type 1 sky crane fill up on fire retardant at a heii-well mobile retardant base near Pomeroy's home. Monday. (Kyle Green/Idaho Statesman)

(left to right) Charlie Pomeroy, Stacey Ward, Rusty Hollinger, and Suzy Hayes watch a type 1 sky crane fill up on fire retardant at a heii-well mobile retardant base near Pomeroy’s home. Monday. (Kyle Green/Idaho Statesman)

I haven’t seen the concentration of fire trucks, crews and aerial retardant bombers in one place that I saw Monday at the Beaver Creek Fire burning on the edge of Hailey and Ketchum since Sept. 10, 1988.

That day I was at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone and it was the finale of a two-month fire campaign through one of America’s most sacred natural shines. Fire trucks were lined up bumper to bumper around the headquarters, museum, historic hotel and employee homes waiting for the fire to arrive.

The blaze had burned from Roosevelt Lodge across the northern range of the park all night, unusual behavior even for a year of unprecedented burning. But when it arrived that morning, city firefighters from North Carolina to Vermont who had come on the scene were disappointed.

The humidity rose and in some areas of the park it snowed. That was all it took to bring the siege to an end.

The humidity was up slightly Monday in Ketchum and Hailey, and firefighters used all the resources at their disposal to knock down what was left of a beast that had nearly broken through. Wood River residents aren’t in the clear yet, though the smoke was down dramatically Monday and businesses were reopening.

Residents were trading war stories about their evacuations in the coffee shops and brew pubs of the valley. Meanwhile, crews were standing on alert up every drainage in every forest-side subdivision in case the fire flared up again.

Nicola Potts, owner of the Coffee Grinder in downtown Ketchum, had reopened and welcomed back her regulars looking for a cup of cappuccino and a tasty pastry. She recalled the 3:30 a.m. Friday evacuation of her 94-year-old mother Haleen at a subdivision near Carbonate Mountain in Hailey.

“Rocky, when I turned around as I drove away there were embers flying in the air, and flames, it was like I was in ‘Gone with the Wind’ in Atlanta,” Potts said.

Susan Hayes, who lives just south of the St. Lukes Hospital south of Ketchum, was riding her bike south on the greenbelt path along the Wood River on Friday. When she encountered a line of fire coming down the mountain to Idaho 75 in the Greenhorn area, she quickly exited and returned home in time to get an evacuation order.

She left there and moved in with her friend Charlie Pomeroy, who lives just a few roads past Chocolate Gulch to the north of Ketchum. When I arrived she was cooking dinner for a group of friends who had been sitting in the lawn watching helitanks make retardant and water drops nearby.

Pomeroy had gotten an evacuation order, too, but he signed a waiver and hunkered down.

“There’s a lot more people staying home than in Castle Rock because it is no longer new,” Hayes said. “People felt like they’re seasoned.”

Since the Castle Rock fire in 2007, the Wood River Valley has had a love affair with the firefighting community. Signs line Idaho 75 thanking the firefighters for saving the towns, and community meetings are friendly.

John Beehler, who Pomeroy called Juan Grande, said I shouldn’t be surprised.

“They are getting the resources,” Beehler said. “We’re the number one priority in the nation.”

Only 30 miles away in the backwoods hamlet of Atlanta, residents are not as happy with the firefighting effort. They don’t have hot shots crews upgrading their sprinkler systems and thinning the fuels around their homes.

They are manning the hoses themselves in the event the Little Queens Fire suddenly turns. Like Ketchum, they have been here before. The Trail Creek Fire threatened Atlanta in 2000, the Hot Creek Fire threatened it again in 2003. The Trinity Creek Fire only cut them off last year.

Each time firefighters did the thinning and clearing out around homes that Ketchum and Hailey residents got. But something else is different.

Folks in Atlanta remain disgruntled that the Forest Service isn’t doing more logging and thinning to reduce the threat of fire. Residents of the Wood River Valley are more inclined to recognize the role of fire in the woods.

But is it also simply a decision about money?

Press reports place the value of Wood River businesses and real estate at $8 billion. When I did a story in 2000 about Atlanta and the costs, the total assessed valuation of Atlanta’s improvements — homes and other structures — was $3.1 million.

Where would you put firefighting resources?

“It’s not fair,” Beehler said.

But we spent tens of millions of dollars last year to protect Featherville and Pine and we are back spending tens of millions more again.

Learn about the Idaho Statesman’s live chat about fire with National Park Service expert Dick Bahr on the anniversary of Black Saturday, Today, Aug. 20 at 10:30 a.m.


Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

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