Thousands of people in south central Idaho are seeing something that every resident of the wildfire-prone Rocky Mountains dreads this time of year:
CURRENT MANDATORY EVACUATION AREAS: Take your essentials, belongings, and pets and GO NOW.... You will not be allowed to re-enter the area until the danger has passed. You will be notified by Alert and this website when it is safe to return....
Lightning started the Beaver Creek Fire in the Sawtooth National Forest northwest of Hailey, Idaho, on August 7. The Spokane Spokesman-Review quoted U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell as saying that the accelerating blaze has now been designated as the top priority wildfire in the country. He also admitted its potential to spread to nearby ski resorts. Its immediate proximity to populated areas and $8 billion of taxable property are major concerns.
Parched but still sappy pine trees and exquisitely dry sagebrush, 90-degree heat, humidity below 10%, complex topography, and winds gusting to 30 mph have generated fire behavior that the U.S. Forest Service can only describe as "extreme." Flames have run at high speeds along the ground and are even spreading through the tree canopies and jumping from ridgetop to ridgetop.
As well as affluent resorts with scenic recreational trails, campgrounds, and ski slopes highly regarded since the 1930s, resources at risk from the Beaver Creek Fire include 10,000 homes (25% already evacuated), their propane tanks, gas pipelines, and power transmission lines, the now-congested Highway 75 evacuation route.
Most of the fire has consumed public lands managed by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and state of Idaho. However, over 5% of the area burned belongs to private owners, the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, and Mark Zuckerberg, who make their second homes in the pristine valleys and mountains.
From the latest situation report: "An extensive array of local and national resources are deployed. Air resources including DC10s, Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) and heavy, medium and light helicopters. Equipment includes bulldozers, skidder-engines (Skidjuns), water tenders, and wildland and structure (urban) fire engines. Personnel include Hot Shot crews, 20-person hand crews, engine crews, equipment operators, and fire managers."
Last night, over a thousand fire personnel had been deployed. More were on their way, and the National Guard has been called out to handle road closures today. The situation is so extreme that private insurers have dispatched crews to protect multimillion-dollar properties, and the famous Sun Valley Ski Resort is activating its snowmaking water cannons.
Dense smoke obscured vision yesterday to the extent that people could not see the mountains from the valley half a mile below. It also grounded air support that would ordinarily release fire retardants and water. Soot and ash now coat much of the area.
In the past five days, the Beaver Creek Fire has more than tripled in size. Its course has been erratic, unpredictable, "not normal," as one Sun Valley spokesperson declared. Officials described Thursday as an extremely active day for burning. On Friday, even overnight when fires usually calm a bit, and yesterday, the fire displayed "explosive growth."
Five crews were awakened at 2:30 a.m. Saturday to fight hotspots. They are working 12/12 shifts. More areas were evacuated, including North Ketchum on both sides of Highway 75. Officials dispatched 50 fire engines just to protect threatened structures. By Saturday afternoon, 144 square miles had burned. Last night's 6 p.m. fire update warned of "a high probability of a mandatory evacuation in West Ketchum." Ten more fire engines are expected today.
Residents and visitors to Sun Valley, Ketchum, and nearby areas have these pre-evacuation orders: "Begin preparations now so that you can leave immediately should conditions deteriorate. Maintain situational awareness. If you are in danger, DO NOT WAIT for a Evacuation Order. LEAVE IMMEDIATELY."
Southwest winds are blowing the conflagration directly parallel to valleys and ridgetops and into the resort area. The fire is only 6% contained as of the last Forest Service update. (Containment is not the same as total suppression. Responders contain a fire when they successfully encircle the burning area, control any hot spots, and expect the fire not to spread outside the perimeter they have established.)
Fortunately, wind gusts are expected to slow to 20 mph today. The five-day forecast calls for temps in the mid-80s, a 30% chance of rain from isolated thunderstorms on Tuesday and Wednesday, and winds continuing to diminish slightly. Officials have cautioned those remaining in the area to check online for the latest evacuation and road closure updates, "as the situation is changing fast."
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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