For two weeks, local, state, and national firefighters have wrestled to gain control of a fluky, devil-fast wildfire in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains. The Beaver Creek Fire has occupied hundreds of fire engines, dozers, crews, helicopters, and huge air tanker planes. It has been the nation's top-priority wildfire for days. So far, it has consumed 108,004 acres.
The good news is that by last night, fire personnel had it 30% contained.
Closer and closer to high-toned ski resorts
The blaze started slowly in the Beaver Creek/Willow Creek area below Buttercup Mountain and west of Hailey, Idaho, on August 7.
Later on, it ran eight miles in one day. Grass, sagebrush, creekside vegetation, and timber have burned. From August 14-16, the fire doubled in size. It burned farther north to Warm Springs and up to the burn scar from the similarly destructive Castle Rock Fire of 2007 on the east. On the burn scar, only fast-growing native bunch grasses remained to fuel any flames, but everywhere else was an inferno. Mandatory evacuations began, and pre-evacuation notices were posted.
The imprint of the fire on the Blaine County map looked like a partly eaten pie, a clock with hands at 3:15, or a gigantic Pacman. Its jaws have spared the towns of Ketchum and Sun Valley so far, but the lower jaw began closing northward toward the towns with consistent, though gusty, winds out of the southwest. The pie-slice mouth (which roughly corresponds to the burn scar of the Castle Rock Fire) began to narrow to about 3:10.
Very low humidity, winds, and hot temperatures created unstable conditions this past Friday. The fire gained 30,000 acres, the gas company shut off service in some areas, and the town of Hailey came under threat. Friday evening, Idaho Governor Otter declared a disaster and called in the National Guard to police the roads. Local performances by Huey Lewis and Brian Boitano, among others, had to be canceled.
Of greatest concern: keeping Highway 75 open and shielding the towns of Ketchum (pop. 2,689), which runs roughly north-south along the Wood River Valley, and Sun Valley (pop. 1406) to its north and east. A potential $8 billion in property taxes are at stake, as well as enormous tourism revenues.
People who make their homes in Sun Valley and Ketchum enjoy more economic stability than ordinary Americans. Mark Zuckerberg, Barbra Streisand, Tom Hanks, and Arnold Schwarzenegger all own property there. Half the homes for sale in Sun Valley are valued at over a million dollars; the median cost is $750K. Sun Valley public schools spend over $2K per student more than the national average, and the teacher:student ratio is just over 13:1. Per capita income in Ketchum is $58,505 (for adults and children). Ketchum has 10% more residents earning over $150K than the national average.
The mountain recreation areas along Wood River are multimillion-dollar enterprises. West of Ketchum is Bald Mountain ("Baldy"), reputed to be the nation's top single ski mountain, serving 3,500 skiers per day (2008) with 13 lifts. Sixty-four runs go up 3,400 vertical feet to a summit of 9,150. Almost three-quarters of the trails are intermediate level, advanced, and expert.
Treeless and groomed Dollar Mountain, just south of Sun Valley and east of the river, has beginner and intermediate slopes and areas for tubing. The snow is incredibly light and fast, and snowmaking capability at these two mountains is the greatest in the world. Nordic and backcountry skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, heli-skiing, and snowmobiling are also featured.
Raging out of control over the weekend
Evacuations seesawed Saturday and Sunday, with some people allowed to return to their homes but others pulled out, sometimes more than once. Structure protection was a high priority. Fortunately, cloud cover suppressed fire growth a bit.
By Sunday, the fire had covered over 100,000 acres and was burning wickedly in at least three locations. As in a traditional ground war, a wildfire enemy can threaten resources on many vulnerable fronts. Their importance fluctuates with wind, weather, and value of the land at stake. Most concerning was the Beaver Creek Fire's leap over Greenhorn Gulch and East Fork Road Sunday into Timber Gulch and only a few miles directly south of Bald Mountain and Dollar Mountain ski areas.
The fire grew by 6,000 acres Sunday night and Monday, especially south of Bald Mountain and on the far southern perimeter at Wolftone Creek. It then covered 160 square miles. Firefighters gained a bit more containment: from 6% to 9%. About 1,800 personnel had become involved, with $11 million invested in fire suppression and containment. (Note: this figure does not include the greatly higher costs of damages, remediation, or long-term effects.)
This week begins with cautious optimism
Monday was the first day the fire failed to grow very much. Jennifer Liebrum of the Idaho Mountain Express quoted Incident Commander Beth Lund as saying that evening in a meeting near Hailey, “If we get a couple of these areas locked down, I think we’ll be OK.”
She was right.
In the recently ignited spots above Greenhorn and into Timber Gulch, hotshots constructed handlines to halt fire spread over Bald Mountain and toward Ketchum, Sun Valley Resort, and nearby Elkhorn. Aerial attacks continue there, and managers have moved Croy Canyon resources north to the area.
“They’ll have all the water and retardant they want,” said Operations Section Chief Jeff Surber. According to Wood River Fire & Rescue Chief Bart Lassman, plenty of local departments remain in Croy Canyon to protect homes there. Mop-up activity is already under way in the subdivisions west of Highway 75 between Deer Creek and Greenhorn Gulch.
The emergency room at nearby St. Luke's Wood River hospital remained in operation yesterday, but Tanya Keim, director of community relations, advised people with non-emergency problems go to St. Luke's Clinic on Aviation Drive in south Hailey as the fire neared.
Fire officials said that in case the fire escaped from Timber Gulch, firefighters would strengthen a bulldozer line to the south of Baldy and prepare a contingency line from the top of Baldy down to the hospital.
The 2007 fire did not burn on the eastern side of Baldy, and thus that area, facing the river and Route 75, has more highly burnable fuel at risk. Officials estimated that it would take 2-3 days to complete fire lines and burnouts for contingencies there. Aerial resources are hitting the burn pockets with water and retardant.
North of the ski areas, in Ketchum and the south side of Sun Valley Resort, crews and engines have worked on protecting structures by felling and bunching potential fuels and preparing contingency lines. To slow the fire's progression toward Highway 75, helicopters have been making drops and hotshots have burned out forest roads and other features in Norton and Baker Creeks. This work may occupy them for another five days.
As firefighters continue to secure the fire perimeter, resources are being moved further north of the 2007 burn scar. The northern area up to Highway 75, including the Sawtooth Visitor Center and nearby campgrounds, is second priority to the south side because the fire has not reached that far north yet.
On the west side of the fire, fighters will maintain the existing containment and advance it north of Dollarhide Mountain. A second management team under John Kidd is now at work there. On the southern edge, interagency hotshot crews, bulldozers, and engines are constructing fire line and burning out to keep the fire north of the populated area of Croy Canyon. Unburned fire fuel in nearby Wolftone is a hazard, and numerous retardant drops have been made there since yesterday.
In last night's informational meeting, said reporter Eric Avissar of the Idaho Mountain Express, "Incident Commander Beth Lund drew a heavy round of applause from the audience when she stated, “I’m happy to say we’ve gone from 9% containment to 30[%]..... There could have been a lot more bumps if we didn’t have such great support from the community.”
Using automated geographic information systems, fire officials have calculated that about 31 miles of fire line still need to be secured. Warm Springs (central) and Wolftone (south) are particularly large and hot areas of the fire today.
Red flag warnings remain up from now (40% chance of precipitation) until midnight Thursday night (50%) for scattered thunderstorms and gusty winds. Although lightning could complicate containment and suppression activities, some rainfall would be helpful. The humidity has risen to 14%. Meanwhile, crews and resources have started demobilizing and moving to other fire emergencies elsewhere in the West.
It's likely that the Beaver Creek Fire is well on its way to containment and suppression, although it may not be completely out before the winter. Yet again, a catastrophic event has raised questions about the wisdom of residential development in the wilderness and the increased wildfire risk in all the nation's forests due to climate change. Next for central Idaho--the threat of more violent floods and the tedious work of remediation.
Award-winning science writer Sandy Dechert covers environmental, health, and energy policy and issues. She has reported extensively on climate change, extreme weather disasters, including superstorm Sandy, the 2012-2013 drought, and the massive summer wildfires of the past decade. She also detailed events and policy at last fall's 18th UN climate change summit meeting in Doha, Qatar.
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