Rocky Barker: Different fires draw different responses, questions

rbarker@idahostatesman.comAugust 21, 2013 

At the Beaver Creek Fire on Monday, I hadn’t seen such a concentration of firetrucks, crews and aerial retardant bombers in one place since Sept. 10, 1988.

That day, I was at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone, and it was the finale of a two-month fire campaign through one of America’s most sacred natural shrines. Firetrucks were lined up bumper-to-bumper around the headquarters, museum, historic hotel and employee homes, waiting for the fire to arrive.

The blaze had burned from Roosevelt Lodge across the northern range of the park all night, unusual behavior even for a year of unprecedented burning. But when the fire arrived that morning, city firefighters at the scene from North Carolina to Vermont were disappointed.

The humidity rose, and in some areas of the park it snowed. That was all it took to bring the siege to an end.

The humidity was up slightly Monday in Ketchum and Hailey, and firefighters used all the resources at their disposal to knock down what was left of a beast that had nearly broken through. The active burning Tuesday near Baker Creek reminded Wood River Valley residents they aren’t in the clear yet.

In the coffee shops and brewpubs of the valley, residents were trading war stories about their evacuations. Meanwhile, crews were standing on alert up every drainage in every forest-side subdivision in case the fire flared again.

Nicola Potts, owner of the Coffee Grinder in downtown Ketchum, had reopened and welcomed back her regulars looking for a cup of cappuccino and a tasty pastry. She recalled the 3:30 a.m. Friday evacuation of her 94-year-old mother, Haleen, at a subdivision near Carbonate Mountain in Hailey.

“Rocky, when I turned around as I drove away there were embers flying in the air, and flames, it was like I was in ‘Gone with the Wind’ in Atlanta,” Potts said.

Susan Hayes, who lives just south of St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center below Ketchum, was riding her bike on the greenbelt path along the Wood River on Friday. When she encountered a line of fire coming down the mountain to Idaho 75 in the Greenhorn area, she quickly returned home, in time to get an evacuation order.

She left there and moved in with her friend Charlie Pomeroy, who lives just a few roads past Chocolate Gulch, to the north of Ketchum. When I arrived, she was cooking dinner for a group of friends who had been sitting on the lawn watching helitanks make retardant and water drops nearby.

Pomeroy had gotten an evacuation order, too, but he signed a waiver and hunkered down.

“There’s a lot more people staying home than in (the Castle Rock Fire) because it is no longer new,” Hayes said. “People felt like they’re seasoned.”

Since the Castle Rock Fire in 2007, the Wood River Valley has had a love affair with the firefighting community. Signs line Idaho 75, thanking the firefighters for saving the towns, and community meetings are friendly.

John Beehler said I shouldn’t be surprised.

“They are getting the resources,” Beehler said. “We’re the number one priority in the nation.”

Only 30 miles away in the backwoods hamlet of Atlanta, residents are not as happy with the firefighting effort. They don’t have Hotshot crews upgrading their sprinkler systems and thinning the fuels around their homes.

They are working the hoses themselves in the event the Little Queens Fire suddenly turns. Like Ketchum, they have been here before. The Trail Creek Fire threatened Atlanta in 2000. The Hot Creek Fire threatened it again in 2003. The Trinity Ridge Fire cut them off only last year.

Each time, firefighters did the thinning and clearing out around homes that Ketchum and Hailey residents got. But something else is different.

Folks in Atlanta remain disgruntled that the Forest Service isn’t doing more logging and thinning to reduce the threat of fire. Residents of the Wood River Valley are more inclined to recognize the role of fire in the woods.

But is it also simply a decision about money?

Press reports place the value of Wood River businesses and real estate at $8 billion. When I did a story in 2000 about Atlanta and the costs, the total assessed valuation of Atlanta’s improvements — homes and other structures — was $3.1 million.

Where would you put firefighting resources?

“It’s not fair,” Beehler said.

But we spent tens of millions of dollars last year to protect Featherville and Pine, and we are back spending tens of millions of dollars again this year.

Where does the federal responsibility end and the communities’ responsibility begin?

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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