Letters From the West

Local officials say fire-wise efforts fell short in Wood River Valley (Video)

Beth Lund, incident commander of the Beaver Creek Fire checks out a house that survived the firestorm that burned into the tight-canyoned Greenhorn Road area northwest of Hailey Aug 15.(Rocky Barker/Idaho Statesman)

Beth Lund, incident commander of the Beaver Creek Fire checks out a house that survived the firestorm that burned into the tight-canyoned Greenhorn Road area northwest of Hailey Aug 15.(Rocky Barker/Idaho Statesman)

HAILEY — Wooden houses, some as big as small hotels, with cedar shake roofs and trees hanging over them line Greenhorn Road north of Hailey.

All but one were saved when the Beaver Creek Fire burned on a two and half mile tear Aug. 15 in the afternoon. The forest was so dry that nearly all of the logs laying on the ground were turned into ash.

Every firefighter I have talked to says it is a miracle more of these homes, which had not be cleared and treated to make them fire-wise, even though it lies on the edge of the Castle Rock Fire that burned in 2007. They didn’t have enough firefighters to have one on every house.

They drove up and down the road fighting a running battle to save as many houses as they could. That meant sometimes climbing on roofs and putting out fires started by flying firebrands.

It included hosing down the side of houses when the fire burned through the timber right to their edge. You saw fences burned and entries but many people were saved simply by their wide green lawns now surrounded by black.

Beth Lund, the Beaver Creek incident commander also held that post for the Trinity Ridge Fire last year around Featherville, Pine and Fall Creek. The Regional Forest Service chief for fire and aviation in Ogden, has a home in Garden Valley and used to work on the Boise National Forest.

She toured Fall Creek last year and came to the same conclusion Idaho Gov. Butch Otter made of the community that lost 38 homes and 43 outbuildings earlier this month. Greenhorn also runs through a tight canyon but only one side was forested while the other was grass and sagebrush.

“If both sides were timbered we couldn’t have gotten firefighters in here because it would have been too hot,” Lund said.

Greenhorn is not an anomaly. Federal funding for local fire departments to help landowners make their homes fire-wise was bountiful a decade ago.

But the program had limited success said Ketchum Fire Chief Mike Elle.

“We had issues with homeowners who didn’t let us on their property,” Elle said. They were saying “we like it like it is.”

The eastern side of Ketchum, Sun Valley and Hailey is mostly range land where fires move fast but rarely move west. When they do it often comes at night when the winds tend to blow downhill.

Firefighters in Sun Valley had some success getting people to participate in fire-wise programs, said Sun Valley Mayor DuWayne Briscoe.

But today, “it’s all grown back now,” he said.

Republican Sen. Jim Risch and Republican Rep. Mike Simpson met with the local officials during a special briefing Wednesday.

Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall told them that clearing around communities is important but the federal government has to go a better job of reducing fuels on the surrounding lands. With the second major fire in six years he worries that it would have permanent economic effects.

“The second homeowners (that are important to our economy) are getting tired of this,” said.

Wood River Fire District Chief Bart Lassman, from left, talks about fighting the Beaver Creek Fire with Rep. Mike Simpson, Vicki Risch and Sen. Jim Risch at the Incidet Command Post north of Hailey Wednesday. (Rocky Barker/Idaho Statesman)

Wood River Fire District Chief Bart Lassman, from left, talks about fighting the Beaver Creek Fire with Rep. Mike Simpson, Vicki Risch and Sen. Jim Risch at the Incident Command Post north of Hailey Wednesday. (Rocky Barker/Idaho Statesman)

“Mike and I preach that all the time,” Risch said of increased fuel reduction. And Simpson said we shouldn’t blame the Forest Service when Congress doesn’t provide enough money for firefighting, forcing the agency to take money from fire prevention and other programs.

“You’ve got to quit stealing money from other accounts,” he said.

Hailey Mayor Fritz Haemmerle  told the two that he glad the federal government put out the huge effort to save his town and the rest of the valley. So far $14 million was spent and 1,800 firefighters were called.

He asked Risch and Simpson to tell the Idaho Legislature to quit advocating state takeover of federal lands.

“That talk’s got to stop unless they want to pay for this,” Haemmerle  said.Watch Incident Commander Beth Lund tell how firefighters saved Greenhorn homes:

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.

Posted in Letters from the West