Firefighters turn the corner on Beaver Creek

Residents pitch in ahead of another wildfire, near Atlanta

rbarker@idahostatesman.com, kterhune@idahostatesman.comAugust 20, 2013 

KETCHUM — At first look, the gusty winds and hot, dry conditions appeared like firefighters’ worst nightmare on the edge of one of the nation’s most exclusive resort communities.

But the combination of a massive aerial assault and several thousand firefighters working in tandem cooled down what hot spots remained on the Beaver Creek Fire on Monday. Fire authorities lifted the pre-evacuation orders for parts of Ketchum and Sun Valley, mostly to the east of Idaho 75 and further away from the fire.

“We made some hay today,” said John Kennedy, an operations branch chief on the fire around Hailey and south Ketchum.

Evacuation orders were still in place across much of the region Monday, and authorities warned that more work — and a threat from the fire — still remained.

But the success Sunday and Monday gives firefighters confidence that thunderstorms expected Tuesday should help, not hinder their efforts. National Interagency Fire Center meteorologists predicted the storms will bring lightning but also moisture Tuesday.

“I think by Wednesday we see some wetter thunderstorms head into Central Idaho,” said Ed Delgado, chief of NIFC predictive services.

The fire has cost $9.3 million to date, according to the Twin Falls Times-News. About 1,150 local and national fire personnel have been called in to suppress the flames, which started on Aug. 7.

The fire is shaped like the arcade game character Pac-Man, fire spokesman Rudy Evenson told the Times-News. The top of the mouth is extending and growing north of Ketchum with the jaw reaching just below it. The only barrier protecting Ketchum and Sun Valley is the old burn area from the 2007 Castle Rock Fire.

Charlie Pomeroy, a contractor who lives near the North Fork Store north of Ketchum, had a front-row seat for retardant and water drops by two of the seven helitankers assigned to the fires from the nation’s 22 total. He spent the afternoon with friends and neighbors enjoying drinks and watching the aircraft at work.

The fire in the Oregon Gulch area, which had started as a wisp, began burning with thick, black smoke in the midafternoon, Pomeroy said. “It looked bad.”

Then two helitankers began dropping water after earlier retardant drops. Pomeroy said the smoke turned white as the fire settled down.

Pomeroy was one of many people who decided not to evacuate. He signed a waiver, and officials allowed him to come and go as he needed, which allowed him to continue working.

“They were really nice,” he said.

A STAND IN ATLANTA

To the west, a 7,000-acre wildfire required the evacuation of the small town of Atlanta, in northern Elmore County, though a number of residents were organizing to defend their homes.

“The fire chief wants all the able-bodied citizens to stay and help him run the hoses to protect the main street,” Atlanta resident Amy O’Brien said. The objective was to push flames of the Little Queens Fire back from Pine Street, the town of 30-40 year-round residents’ front line.

A mandatory evacuation spurred by the Little Queens Fire was pushed back from noon to 4:30 p.m. Monday. The fire is five miles northwest of Atlanta. It calmed some Monday after doubling in size Sunday, said Boise National Forest spokesman Dave Olson.

Type 1 helicopters spent Monday dropping water to stop the fire’s southward trek. Two 20-person fire crews cleaned up brush in its path, Olson said; that work will continue Tuesday. A Type 2 incident management team was slated to arrive Tuesday.

Residents were worried before Monday that firefighting resources were working on other fires and no one would come to Atlanta’s aid.

Despite the Atlanta fire chief’s plea for help from citizens, many people had already packed up and left, O’Brien said. About 20 people stayed to help, including O’Brien.

The fire moved aggressively to the north and south Sunday night, Olson said.

“The southerly movement is what prompted the concern and the implementation of the evacuation of Atlanta,” he said.

Olson said the Boise National Forest, which took over the fire from the Sawtooth National Forest on Monday, is committed to keeping the tiny town safe.

“We’re making every attempt to get those (resources),” he said. “The focus on this fire is going to be that south end and the protection of Atlanta, so we’ll be focusing on that very strongly.”

Citizens dug some fire line on private property in an attempt to stave off the flames, O’Brien said.

Although the town has a fire chief, the department was staffed solely by volunteers, many of whom are not in town. When there is a fire at someone’s home, O’Brien said, the townspeople pitched in, handling hoses and water to make sure it was extinguished.

This was no different, she said.

“None of us want to take any chances, but we also don’t want to leave the town without something,” she said. “It would be a lot for (the chief) to do it all by himself.”

Anna Webb contributed to this report.

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