Fire crews save Hailey and Ketchum, despite many homeowners' failure to follow firewise guidelines

rbarker@idahostatesman.comAugust 23, 2013 

HAILEY - Wooden houses, some as big as small hotels, with cedar-shake roofs and trees hanging over them, line Greenhorn Road north of Hailey.

All but one were saved when the Beaver Creek Fire burned on a 2.5-mile tear the afternoon of Aug. 15. The forest was so dry that nearly all of the downed trees were turned into ash.

The success here and in similar valleys with some of the most exclusive addresses in Idaho did not come because residents made their homes less flammable and easier for firefighters to defend. Many ignored pleas to take preventive action - even though cost is not an issue for many homeowners in the area and even though the Castle Rock Fire had burned to their doorsteps just six years before.

In the midst of firefighting, officials didn't have specific numbers about firewise participation. But the sentiment was widespread.

"We had issues with (some) homeowners who didn't let us on their property," Ketchum Fire Chief Mike Elle said. They were saying "we like it like it is."

Fire-behavior experts have been saying for more than a decade that clearing away brush and other flammables and requiring fireproof roofs will protect houses even in an intense wildfire - without risking firefighters' lives. These so-called firewise actions not only make protection easier, but also cheaper.

Fire managers said it was luck and firefighter skill that saved Greenhorn Gulch homes without killing anyone.

Both wildland and structural firefighters cleared what fuel they could away from the houses when they arrived and watered down the houses before leaving as fire raced into the gulch.

When the fire front passed, firefighters returned, putting out spot fires and even climbing on roofs and putting out fires sparked by flying firebrands. Then they stayed for days to make sure embers didn't ignite the homes or the brush around them.

Beth Lund, the Beaver Creek Fire incident commander, is the regional Forest Service chief for fire and aviation in Ogden, Utah. She has a home in Garden Valley and used to work on the Boise National Forest.

Last year she toured Fall Creek and came to the same conclusion as Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, that the community that lost 38 homes and 43 outbuildings to the Elk Complex of fires earlier this month was "indefensible." Greenhorn Gulch is similar to Fall Creek, although a little wider and forested on just one side.

This was a key difference.

"If both sides were timbered, we couldn't have gotten firefighters in here because it would have been too hot," Lund said.

Federal dollars for local fire departments to help landowners make their homes firewise - the term they use for replacing flammable roofs and clearing away fuels - was bountiful a decade ago.

But both federal and state officials said many homeowners weren't interested.

The Castle Rock Fire burned to the edge of Ketchum in 2007, and the preventive work done then gave firefighters this week an anchor they were able to use as they protected every threatened area with 1,800 firefighters at a cost now more than $14 million. But that 2007 work has a time limit, as will the work that was done this week.

The proof is in the firewise projects that cleared away brush and tree branches from around homes after the 2000 fire season that triggered a bold prevention initiative across the West.

"It's all grown back again," said Sun Valley Mayor DuWayne Briscoe.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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