Pioneer Fire closes in on Lowman; some stay put despite evacuation advice

Pioneer Fire knocking on Lowman's door

Firefighters used backburns to help keep the Pioneer Fire from encroaching on Lowman, Idaho on Thursday.
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Firefighters used backburns to help keep the Pioneer Fire from encroaching on Lowman, Idaho on Thursday.

Fire entered Lowman in late July 1989.

Reports from that month describe a “virtual firestorm” that destroyed 25 structures in the small town over two days and sent residents fleeing.

Much of the Boise National Forest has burned in the years since. But no flames have come as close to Lowman again until this week, when the nearly 52,000-acre Pioneer Fire advanced.

By 9 p.m. Friday, the northern edge of the fire came within a half-mile of Lowman, and fire crews were most concerned about a new spot fire west of town, said Erin Darboven, spokeswoman for the agencies fighting the blaze. She did not have an estimate of how close that spot fire was to Lowman but said it likely wasn’t as close as the flames south of town.

Firefighters spent much of this week preparing to defend Lowman and redoubled those efforts Friday as fire activity increased.

On Friday afternoon, the fire crossed Highway 17 — the Banks-Lowman Road — and closed that much-used highway from Pine Flats to Lowman. The Boise County Sheriff’s Office issued a Level 2 evacuation order for Lowman and for campgrounds in the area from Pine Flats to Kirkham Hot Springs. At that level, evacuations aren’t mandatory, but are highly recommended, authorities say.

The Red Cross was ready to establish a shelter for evacuees in Idaho City Friday night but no one required the service, said Anna Fernandez-Gevaert, regional communications director for Idaho and Montana. Plans now call for opening a shelter Saturday morning at Idaho City High School if needed, she said.

Lowman residents contacted by the Statesman Friday said they’re prepared for the worst but confident in firefighting efforts so far.

“I’m not even remotely concerned about my house,” Cindy Rekow said Friday morning. She has had a 30-foot Firewise boundary around her home for years. “We’re of course cautious, and things could happen. But the (fire) crews they have brought up are a blessing, and they are awesome. I think everything is falling into place.”

Friday afternoon’s closure of the Banks-Lowman Road, coupled with the previous closure of Idaho 21 between Lowman and Idaho City, put more residents’ nerves on edge and added a feeling of isolation, since the only remaining route to the Treasure Valley is via Stanley, adding about five hours to the trip, said Fred Lawson, owner of Haven Hot Springs motel and restaurant.

Pilot cars guided people from the evacuation areas down the Banks-Lowman Road Friday and the service was expected to resume Saturday.

Some people in “Lower Lowman” heeded the evacuation advice, Lawson said, but those further up the canyon, like him, are mostly staying put. From his perch four miles up the canyon, Lawson watched helicopters pass overhead Friday, laden with water to dump on areas such as Archie Creek that were newly aflame.

Campgrounds close to Haven Hot Springs were included in the newly announced evacuation area, he said, but that didn’t change his answer about whether he’d be leaving: “Heck, no. We’ve got a buffer zone here.”

The fire grew Thursday night but remained two miles away from the town. But gusty winds and thunderstorms cut that distance in half Friday afternoon, and halved it again in the evening, said Darboven. Gusts of up to 35 mph were recorded, she said, vaulting flames across Highway 17 and driving them closer to homes. Numerous spot fires broke out.

“We’re just throwing all of our resources on it,” she said.

Nearly 1,500 people are fighting the fire with 10 helicopters, 52 engines, eight bulldozers, 18 water tenders and six tree-chippers..

New size and containment tallies weren’t available Friday evening, but earlier in the day the Pioneer Fire was estimated at more than 80 square miles and 27 percent containment.

The changes in the weather and fire behavior interrupted crews’ efforts to secure a fire line between Pioneer and Lowman, Darboven said.

Shelly Overlie runs Lowman Log Works with her husband. She said Friday morning that fire-preparedness is part of living in her neck of the woods. But she admits this fire feels a little too close.

Her yard is bare now, a Firewise measure, keeping fuel away from her house.

“We got a metal roof and concrete siding,” she said. “There’s nothing left in my yard. Not a single weed. You do what you got to do.”

She’s optimistic, but she and her family have a straightforward getaway plan.

“When I do see it (from my home) I’m out of here,” she said, and laughed.

Fires usually aren’t considered good for tourism, but this one hasn’t hurt Lowman business owners just yet, said Jim Dovel, owner of Sourdough Lodge up the canyon from Lowman.

“We’ve been through a lot of these,” he said.

Tourists are still coming through, and they filled all of his rooms Thursday night. He did see two cancellations Friday, but he’s seeing business come in from elsewhere.

“Instead of tourists, maybe we’re feeding a few more firefighters,” Dovel said. “It’s affected business, but not traumatically yet. We’re just gonna keep doing business until there is danger.”

If that danger comes, Dovel has getaway plans — a 24-hour one, even a 20-minute one.

“The property’s generally in shape. There’s no brush piles,” he said. And “I know which computers to take off the premises (in an emergency).”

At Haven Hot Springs, Lawson says he enjoys the lull in business the fire brought. He’s used to working 12 hours a day from May to the end of November. Since the fire, he said, tourists have been canceling their reservations to stay overnight, but he’s been serving many more locals and firefighters.

He was pretty unfazed by the fire and whether it could damage his business. An old fire left scars that now provide a solid fire line to protect his buildings, he said.

Besides, he said Friday evening, “What good does it do to worry? What happens just happens.”

Weekend storms complicate firefighting efforts

Thunderstorms pushed through southern Idaho with strong wind and lightning, but almost no rain, Friday afternoon, making for difficult firefighting conditions through the weekend, said Kori Anderson, meteorologist for the National Weather Service.

“We'll have gusty winds and that won't help (fire crews),” Anderson said, referring to the 52,000-acre Pioneer Fire burning just 2 miles south of Lowman.

The winds died down by 9 p.m. Friday, but were expected to resume Saturday and again Sunday, meteorologist Jay Breidenbach said. The winds and lightning likely won’t let up much until Monday, he said.

The high temperature for the Treasure Valley Friday was 97 degrees, but a gradual cool-down is expected for the weekend. Saturday’s high is predicted to be 93 degrees and Sunday’s high is expected to top out at 88 degrees.

After the weekend temperatures will dip down further. Monday through Wednesday will bring high temperatures in the mid-80s, he said.

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