In Idaho’s vacation heaven, a hellish fire

Sun Valley, Ketchum take ‘quite an economic hit’ from a blaze that earns the nickname ‘The Beast’

THE ASSOCIATED PRESSAugust 24, 2013 

SUN VALLEY — For rockers Huey Lewis and the News, smoke from the massive Beaver Creek Fire had band members who famously worried about the heart of rock ’n’ roll worrying about their lungs.

They canceled their show, as did the novelists, poets and journalists who convene in this Central Idaho vacation region each summer for a convention. Meanwhile, squadrons of private aircraft whisked the affluent off to locales with cleaner air.

With its mountain backdrop, Sun Valley is normally a playground for the rich, for the famous, and for super-fit pursuers of outdoor sports or the Big Wood River’s feisty brook trout.

To many, it’s heaven.

But “The Beast,” as this fire came to be called, caused disruptions in the sun-basking, fun-loving lifestyle, and did a number on the economy.

“This is the worst I’ve seen it,” said Brad Wood, who helps run a shop that rents bikes at the posh Sun Valley Lodge. Wood said he’s sent four employees home until business picks up: On Thursday, only five of the 350 bikes they rent were taken out.

The Beaver Creek Fire is among about 50 large blazes burning nationwide. It’s finally nearing containment, as firefighters take advantage of favorable weather to corral it up against an area burned by another large blaze in 2007. But it will smoke for weeks, and it has already torched local business.

Todd Van Bramer, who manages fly fishing guides at Silver Creek Outfitters, said he’s lost 70 percent of his normal business.

“We have a lot of customers who can go anywhere they want to,” he said. “They can go to Montana, Colorado or Wyoming at the drop of a hat.”

The air is now much less smoky than it was during the height of the fire, but it still is casting a shadow.

At the airport in Hailey, just south of here, regional carrier Sky West has been forced to divert many morning flights to Twin Falls, about 100 miles away, because cooler morning temperatures mean smoke often loiters on the valley floor until afternoon breezes push it away.

And those planes are much emptier than an ordinary mid-August, said Rick Baird, manager at Friedman Memorial Airport.

The Sun Valley Lodge, built in 1936 by the Union Pacific Railroad as America’s first destination resort, is bearing the brunt of disruption.

A writer’s conference that was to have featured speakers including journalist Peter Bergen and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Liaquat Ahamed was canceled, emptying rooms by the dozen.

Guests who cancel are getting refunds, said Jack Sibbach, a resort spokesman.

“It’s quite an economic hit on us,” he said.

Businesses such as The Elephant’s Perch sports store in Ketchum have had plenty of time to devote to the local firefighters, who have ordered heavy new boots. But it’s not adding much to the bottom line.

“These guys are getting the boots at our cost,” said Sam Elmes, a sales clerk. “They did a great job protecting us.”

For the first time in 37 years, a charitable golf tournament started by late baseball Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew was scratched.

There are “hundreds of firefighters risking their lives in the woods. We’re not going to be playing golf while they’re doing that,” said Georgie Fenton, its director.

For some locals, however, ditching events didn’t seem an option.

Ketchum resident Spooky Taft had been planning her daughter’s wedding for a year; about 220 guests were coming. Many were in the air even as the flames approached town. The string quartet was evacuated. And with embers aloft, Taft decided the horse-drawn carriage was a no-go, too.

But the wedding went forward.

“We pulled it off, against all odds,” Taft said.

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