Fall Creek takes stock after destructive fire

Residents who lost homes are frustrated that more wasn’t done. But firefighters said it would take a lot of work to make their area safe.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comSeptember 1, 2013 

  • ROCKY BARKER

    Rocky, the energy and environment reporter for the Statesman, is the author of “Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America.”

FALL CREEK — Todd Crist was sweeping the pine needles off the roof of his cabin Aug. 10 when he heard a roar behind him.

“I thought it was a plane coming over our hill,” said Crist, a contractor from Hagerman.

When he turned, a wall of flames 200 feet high from the Elk Complex Fire was bearing down on the heavily forested, isolated canyon near Anderson Ranch Reservoir. Crist came down from his roof and drove to to make sure his neighbors were getting out.

“Right when I got there, (Elmore sheriff’s Deputy Ferrell Ramsey) told me, ‘If you want to get out alive, leave now,’” Crist said.

The fire was so close, Crist could feel the heat. The howl was louder than he had imagined it could be. He left.

Crist didn’t know for sure that his second home was gone until he saw TV footage shot from a helicopter.

Official notice came the following Thursday: His cabin was one of 38 homes and 43 outbuildings destroyed when the fire burned through the canyon filled with summer homes and a few year-round residences built high on the hills as well as along the creek bottom. Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said later that the fires burned 95 percent of the buildings in Fall Creek and killed 200 head of sheep and 100 cattle.

The extremely dry conditions in the thick forest and the high winds at the time turned a spot fire off the main Elk Complex into a conflagration that residents acknowledged was more than any fire crew could have stopped that day.

“Fall Creek is like a funnel,” said Bob Shindelar, the Boise National Forest’s fire chief. “The intense heat, the embers — it was blowing full-grown trees over like they were candlesticks.”

Ramsey, who risked his own life to evacuate residents who stayed after they were ordered out, said he’s worked three major fires.

“That was the most explosive situation I’ve seen,” Ramsey said.

After an aerial tour of Idaho fires with U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell on Aug. 16, Otter conducted a press conference at Boise’s National Interagency Fire Center. Otter pronounced Fall Creek as “almost an indefensible area.”

Otter’s statement made Fall Creek residents frustrated and angry. And they were disappointed more wasn’t done in the days before the fire’s arrival.

To compound matters, they felt their plight was ignored as media attention and firefighting efforts moved east to the prominent resort communities of Hailey and Ketchum.

“The cabins in here aren’t worth millions of dollars like in Sun Valley,” Crist said. “But they mean as much to us personally as the homes in Sun Valley do to their owners.”

Shindelar said every available firefighter and piece of equipment was on the Elk Complex, which grew to 100,000 acres in two days while another nearby giant fire, the Pony Complex, also exploded. Others fires burned to the east and to the west in Oregon.

PREPARING FOR FIRE

Many Fall Creek residents had not cleared away brush and trees or provided defensible space around their homes, officials say. Even where homes had taken such firewise prevention steps, steep terrain and steep driveways made providing fire protection dangerous and escape uncertain.

“There was so much work to be done in Fall Creek, it would have taken weeks to have done all that needed to be done,” said Shindelar.

The area is not connected to the electrical grid, so the cabins depend on solar collectors or diesel generators for power. There is no local fire department or district. Elmore County, like many rural Idaho counties, does not have building codes that require people to make their homes defensible from fire, Shindelar said.

When Fall Creek residents were building their cabins, fire had not burned through Fall Creek for decades. Even when fires occurred nearby, they were quickly brought under control.

But that success — aggressive fire protection since World War II — has allowed thickets of smaller trees and other fire fuels to build up throughout the West. Climate change and drought are making fires more frequent, more erratic and more extreme.

At the same time, rural enclaves have grown without giving serious consideration to fire protection. Now, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, which are trained to fight wildfires, are expected to protect homes in places like Fall Creek that don’t have their own fire protection.

“We call it no man’s land,” said Shindelar.

But Fall Creek could become defensible, he said. It would take upgrading roads and a huge effort by homeowners to provide defensible space for them and firefighters. All of that takes money.

Then there is still the issue of no local fire department.

“Unfortunately, people’s memories are short,” Shindelar said. “When we get five, 10 years away, people will forget what happened at Fall Creek.”

He likened the situation to a flood plain, where it’s just a matter of time until the area floods.

“We need the help from residents and local government to develop a fire department,” Shindelar said, “and develop building codes that will help protect and encourage landowners to help us with the problem.”

Residents point to their county property tax bills — which have a line item for fire — and say they should benefit from the taxes they pay.

HUMAN RESILIENCE

In 1976, Dan Williard, his father and other relatives moved the log cabin that served as their family retreat from Wendell to the upper end of Fall Creek. Built in 1937, it had been Wendell’s Log Cabin Club in the 1940s. In July the Williard family held its 24th consecutive family reunion at the cabin on Lester Creek Road.

Having gone through the nearby Trinity Ridge Fire last year, the Williards knew to get their ATVs and snow machines out early.

Williard went back to his cabin Aug. 10 but had to leave abruptly when he saw the fire come over the ridge. All he was able to save before the cabin was destroyed was the cabin log book containing guest signatures and comments.

Crist wasn’t so lucky. A car and several snow machines were incinerated. Pieces of aluminum melted, pooled and then re-formed; they sit beside the skeletons of the snowmobiles.

Collette Boguslawski and her husband, John, raised their three sons and a daughter in their home high on a hill overlooking Fall Creek. The year-round residents use snowmobiles to make the four-mile drive from the Fall River Lodge, which survived the fire, in winter.

To keep fire away, they had cleared the area around their home after discussions with the Forest Service. Their house had a metal roof.

But the heat of the wind-driven blaze Aug. 10 burned the house and a guest house to the ground. The wood pile and the propane gas tank, 30 feet from the house, were untouched.

When Otter addressed reporters Aug. 16, he said he didn’t want government telling people where they can build. The decision on whether to rebuild or not, he said, “that’s going to be on them, not Butch Otter.” But Otter said the state should inform residents and insurance companies of the hazard the state believes such construction creates.

That also angered several residents. Boguslawski said her insurance company did not discourage her family from rebuilding, Otter’s warning notwithstanding. Despite the fire’s heat, many of the trees surrounding their home appear to have survived. They plan to rebuild next spring, using their insurance settlement.

“We’re pretty resilient,” she said. “We’re not done with this yet.”

Both Crist and Williard plan to rebuild, too. Williard wants the next generation to have the same kind of a retreat that he did.

He’s been having a hard time getting his cabin log up to date because of the emotions of the past few weeks.

“We knew there was a possibility that one day we would be facing” loss of the cabin to fire, Williard said. “You can prepare and prepare and prepare, but you can’t really be prepared for that.”

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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