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When Challis BLM office burned, even land-use critics rallied around federal employees

The Challis BLM building, constructed 15 years ago, was destroyed by fire Oct. 4. Many were initially suspicious of arson, but officials say it was caused by an electrical issue.
The Challis BLM building, constructed 15 years ago, was destroyed by fire Oct. 4. Many were initially suspicious of arson, but officials say it was caused by an electrical issue. lramseth@postregister.com

The fire started early on Oct. 4, destroying the Bureau of Land Management office on the edge of town within minutes.

Volunteer firefighters worked the blaze through the night. In the morning, Challis BLM Manager Todd Kuck began calling his 25 employees, saying they no longer had a place to work.

By that afternoon, state and federal investigators had arrived, combing the scene for any evidence of foul play. Reports of a loud bang when the fire began stoked rumors around the town of 1,000.

“There was talk that the 3 Percenters had something to do with it,” said Custer County Sheriff Stu Lumpkin, referring to the radical patriot group opposed to federal overreach. The Idaho chapter of the group held a protest rally at the BLM office earlier this year.

Custer County, where 97 percent of land is owned by the federal government, easily could have been the latest spot for an escalating conflict around the West between land managers and anti-government militants such as Cliven and Ammon Bundy. But the opposite has happened since the fire, residents and officials say. The community has rallied to help the local BLM office, despite often sharp disagreements over who should control the land and how it should be managed.

Investigators soon determined the blaze was due to an electrical problem, to the relief of many. County commissioners met with BLM leaders to ensure that the office wouldn’t be moved to Salmon or another city. Officials opened up the Community Event Center so BLM employees could temporarily get back to work. Residents called Kuck and other BLM workers to see whether there was anything they could do to help.

“We have a different culture and value system here,” said Challis Mayor Michael Barrett. “ We react to things a little bit differently because we’re such a small community.”

CLOSE COMMUNITY

Farmers, ranchers and other Custer County residents don’t agree on much with the BLM or the Forest Service, which also maintains a Challis office. They don’t like when roads are blocked, or areas are closed seasonally to protect big game range. There have been dust-ups in the past over prescribed burns spreading to private property, or vice versa, Lumpkin said.

Transferring federal lands to state and county control is a popular idea in Custer County. Under county management, the thinking goes, there could be selective logging, grazing and new areas opened to mining. Barrett argues it would boost the struggling local economy, which saw hundreds laid off at the Thompson Creek molybdenum mine in recent years.

But that doesn’t mean residents want the BLM to leave anytime soon. The office is among the largest employers in Challis. Its employees are well-paid, and many have children in the local school district. People go to church with BLM employees; they see them at the grocery store and the post office. They’re friends and neighbors, Barrett said.

“I’m just glad that, as a community, we were able to help them out. That’s what communities do,” said Jolie Turek, who leads the county’s economic development office and has a close friend who works for the BLM.

As rumors of possible arson traveled around the community after the fire, Barrett said he consistently heard one response: “That better not have happened here.”

He said he knew only a handful of locals — none of them ranchers or farmers — who took part in the militia rally at the BLM office in February, shortly after the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon ended. The rally was peaceful, and the office stayed open that day. But Custer County residents generally weren’t big fans of the rally or the Oregon occupation, Barrett said, despite agreeing with some of its principles.

“Are there people here who support what happened at Malheur? Sure. If I told you there weren’t you could probably walk out on the street and find somebody,” Barrett said. “But I think by and large the community doesn’t support things like that. We support working things out here. And when we can’t, we take it to our representatives, and the people we think can effect some change.”

SLOW RECOVERY

Kuck, the BLM manager, wrote a guest column after the fire in the Challis Messenger. He said he felt “truly blessed” to live and work in Challis.

“While we sometimes disagree, this community understands that BLM employees are members of this community, and that means a great deal to us,” Kuck wrote. “While the near future will be challenging for our employees with the loss of our building, we are not going anywhere.”

The fire started in the shop area of the building, torching an all-terrain-vehicle, a forklift, motorcycles, rafts, and other tools and supplies, Kuck said. It moved to the roof, quickly spreading through the u-shaped office section of the structure.

Federal investigators told Lumpkin that the bang was from an acetylene tank blowing.

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