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