Letters From the West

Otter says Fall Creek homes were indefensible

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter (right) speaks with Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell (center) and Idaho lawmakers (from left) Sen. Michelle Stennett and Rep. Donna Pence at the Beaver Creek Fire command center in Hailey.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter (right) speaks with Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell (center) and Idaho lawmakers (from left) Sen. Michelle Stennett and Rep. Donna Pence at the Beaver Creek Fire command center in Hailey.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said the 53 homes and buildings destroyed in the Fall Creek area by wild fire a week ago couldn’t have been saved by the “firewise” prevention measures he promotes for landowners.

The Fall Creek drainage that runs into the Anderson Ranch Reservoir is a narrow canyon that turns into a chimney when south winds push fire in.

“That was almost an indefensible area,” Otter said during a press conference Friday at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, following an aerial tour of Idaho fires with U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.

Clearing brush and thinning trees around homes and cabins by residents and firefighters along the South Fork of the Boise River  kept the Elk Complex Fire from jumping the river and running into timber that could have carried it all the way to Redfish Lake, Otter said.

Despite the fire hazard, Otter said he would not support local or state regulations that would prevent Fall Creek homeowners from building in the same place. He values their private property rights, he said.

“We have the responsibility to warn them,” he said. The state also can inform insurance companies that it considers the area indefensible, Otter said.

“As far as these people rebuilding on their property, that’s going to be on them, not Butch Otter,” he said.

Tidwell said he can’t put firefighters in front of a fire that displays the kind of erratic behavior of the Elk Complex, Pony and Beaver Creek fires. The Beaver Creek Fire, which is threatening Hailey, Ketchum and Sun Valley, is the one that continues to burn hot and create its own weather.

“I can’t stress enough the type of fire behavior our folks face,” Tidwell said.

Despite the large fires and extreme conditions, Tidwell said, firefighters are still putting out 97 percent of all of the fires that start.

Both Otter and U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, spoke of the need to increase logging and thinning on federal lands to reduce the buildup of forest fuels. Such programs could provide timber and jobs for rural communities that have seen their resource economies shrivel.

When he went to the Idaho Legislature in 1975, Risch said, there were 75 lumber mills south of the Salmon River in Idaho. Today there are three.

Otter chimed in that there were 62 mills in the 1st Congressional District in 1990 and now just 34.

“The chief himself has said he has 14 million dead trees” on national forests, Otter said, and Otter said he thought that estimate was low. He pointed out that four fires burning in the Mountain Home area destroyed 27,000 acres of sage grouse habitat.

“We’re going to have forest fires, but to the extent we can minimize them, we should,” he said.

Learn about the Idaho Statesman live chat on fire with National Park Service expert Dick Bahr on the anniversary of Black Saturday, 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.

Posted in Letters from the West