Letters from the West

Resilient Lowman shrugs off fires, evacuations

You have to love the plucky determination of Chris and Beth Armour, the new owners of the South Fork Lodge in Lowman.

Their purchase of the landmark on the west side of lower Lowman on Idaho 21 closed just a month ago. They arrived at the end of July and began getting it ready for guests.

Then the 65,000-acre Pioneer Fire arrived on their doorstep. Authorities closed 21 and Idaho 17 and told residents to voluntarily evacuate. With the roads closed, employees couldn’t get in.

That’s not conducive to starting up a business. But it didn’t stop the Armours.

Firefighters set up a camp adjacent to the lodge. Agency staff and contractors filled their rooms — providing instant cash flow that would not otherwise have been available. Then they opened a canteen selling drinks, ice cream and snacks outside the lodge.

That didn’t bring in many firefighters, but now that Idaho 21 is open it might give tourists and fire gawkers a reason to stop. The Armours hope to have the restaurant, coffee shop and bar open by the end of the month.

They’re not the only persistent business owners in Lowman. Marla and Fred Lawson kept the Haven Lodge and hot springs in middle Lowman, even when the roads were closed. The road closures stopped people on their way with reservations, but they were able to transfer their reservations to the Sourdough Lodge in upper Lowman.

Now that Idaho 21 is open and the evacuation-level has dropped to “get ready,” many of the locals are returning and eating at their restaurant.

“We already have reservations,” Marla Lawson said.

Rural Idaho is a tough place to do business. Small towns have few people to serve as regulars in the hospitality businesses that are foundations of the state’s tourist business. And big-city Idahoans fill their coolers at Walmart or Costco and buy little in the small-town stores that we all want to be there and open when we need them.

In July, I got to return to the River Dance Lodge on the Clearwater in Syringa. It has a great restaurant that wasn’t open last year when fire burned on the ridge above the lodge that caters primarily to whitewater floaters.

I needed a few supplies I hadn’t picked up in Grangeville when I drove through. Instead of returning to Kooskia, I went to the Three Rivers Resort in Lowell, where the Selway joins the Lochsa to form the Middle Fork of the Clearwater.

It was for sale, but filled with summer visitors. But the store was closed. Two years of fire evacuations in a row were enough to convince the owners to say, why bother?

We all need to spend money with these backcountry businesses if we want them to survive. The businesses also need to do what the Lowman people do: Provide services on a predictable basis so we know they’ll be there.

I write a lot about how our goal for public lands management in a time of climate change is to make our lands more resilient to change. Communities surrounded by public lands also have to be resilient, and I can say without reserve that Lowman is one of these places.

Residents here don’t go looking for government help. Most follow John Freemuth’s modified Smokey the Bear credo: “Only you can protect your home from wildfire,” says the executive director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

These residents have seen what fire can do, so they know what they have to do to provide the firefighters with defensible space and to keep their home and grounds wet during the critical burning period.

Larry Cromwell, a retired naturopathic doctor who has lived in Lowman off and on his whole life, was running pumps from the South Fork of the Payette River to water the lawns of five houses for absentee owners. He proudly showed off his World War II-surplus Kohler gasoline-powered electric generator he used when the electricity went off.

He survived the 1989 Lowman fire and he expects to survive the Pioneer Fire, too.

“I think we’re terribly blessed to be where we are,” Cromwell said.

That’s resilience.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker