Fall Creek homes were 'indefensible,' Otter says

Still, the Idaho governor doesn't think government should be able to decide whether homeowners can rebuild.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comAugust 17, 2013 

  • Wildfires update

    • Firefighters battling the Elk Complex conducted burnout operations on the blaze, estimated at 200 square miles along the Pine/Featherville Road. It was 50 percent contained, and the containment date was moved up from Oct. 1 to Aug. 31.

    • The Pony Complex - the largest in Idaho so far this year at around 230 square miles - was 90 percent contained. Crews were able to secure a critical piece of line Friday on Blacks Creek, and the fire was in the mop-up and monitor stage on all flanks except for the northwest flank from Blacks Creek north to the South Fork Boise River.

    • The Elmore County Sheriff's Office will open up the Pine-Featherville and Anderson Dam roads at 5 p.m. Sunday - but only to residents. Proof of residency will be required, according to a notice sent out Friday. Power should be restored along Pine-Featherville Road by noon on Sunday, but authorities warn of possible hazards that could remain, such as falling burned trees.

    • Idaho Power Co.'s efforts to restore electrical service across the areas burned by the Elk Complex and Pony Complex fires has been performed without any injuries to its workers, the utility noted Friday. A press release cited further gains, including re-energizing the power line running north of Pine up to approximately 2 1/2 miles south of Green Creek Road.

    • The Idaho Humane Society announced it will hold impromptu pet adoption specials Saturday and Sunday to help make room at the shelter for pets being evacuated from the Ketchum and Hailey areas. All regular dog and puppy adoption fees will be 50 percent off; cat and kitten adoption fees will be $10 each. The Humane Society will travel to the Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley this weekend to pick up evacuated shelter dogs.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said the 53 homes and other buildings destroyed by the Elk Complex of fires 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 news conference Friday with U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, after an aerial tour of Idaho fires.

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 from jumping the river and running into timber that could have carried it all the way to Redfish Lake, Otter said.

Still, Otter said he wouldn't support 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 Complex and Beaver Creek fires. The Beaver Creek blaze, which is threatening Hailey, Ketchum and Sun Valley, 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 fires that start.

Both Otter and 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; now, it's 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.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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