For the few residents that remained, the show over the past two weeks was both scary and exhilarating. On August 7, a lightning strike hit the hot and dry forest floor near Beaver Creek in the backcountry surrounding Sun Valley, and brutally unforgiving winds, high temperatures, and single-digit humidity fanned the flames that 10 days later threatened Highway 75, the central means of egress for residents in Ketchum, Hailey, and the surrounding area, while forcing the evacuation of 2,250 homes.
Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall requested residents not stop along the road to take pictures of the fire, for fear a hot car would ignite a fresh blaze in the tall dry grass along the roads. Smoke rose to a block out the horizon, and deftly-piloted helicopters began blanketing the hills with retardant and water, sucking it out of golf course water hazards and backyard creeks without so much as a breath of water rights NIMBYism from local landowners. Fire officials considered the possibility of flames climbing up the back of the ski area, as they had six years ago.
In a great sweep of Mother Nature’s peculiar brand of irony, the scar of the 2007 Castle Rock fire, which burned over 48,000 acres, was perhaps the Wood River Valley’s greatest defense against the Beaver Creek fire. That blaze, also sparked by lightning, grew from 18,000 to over 41,000 acres in a single weekend, and made a run that would have swallowed Ketchum whole if firefighters hadn’t taken to it. That time, flames fanned up the back of Bald Mountain, coming to within 150 feet of Sun Valley’s Seattle Ridge Lodge and the detachable quad next to it. This time, the same burn area, still a young plot of sagebrush and grass, largely kept the Beaver Creek fire in check, and firefighters deliberately dug their fire lines to connect to the scar.
This time, Zach Crist’s neighborhood near the west end of the ski resort was ensconced by the scar of a fire that had nearly burnt it down six years ago and that took a trophy home across the street with it. The fire never got within two miles of the ski area, although Sun Valley operations staff used the snowmaking system to dampen areas an errant ember might land on, and put sprinkler systems on roofs of the lodges. A few backcountry yurts, like the Trekking Coyote, got burnt down, but Crist believes they’ll be back up in time for winter, and even thinks that the skiing will be better. North-facing slopes that had before been stuffed with lodge pole pines will now be opened up, making for longer runs in some the area’s best heli-ski terrain. As Mother Nature taketh, she also giveth.
Which is not to say this fire didn’t produce its own victims. At 111,408 acres, the Beaver Creek fire has simply been bigger, and it made a serious effort to cut off the valley from its main exit, Highway 75, with the burn line nearly reaching the road along almost the entire town of Hailey. Crist notes that Ketchum was a “ghost town;” once the orders for evacuation started coming in, it was a scene of mass exodus, with huge lines at gas stations and the grocery stores full of panic-stricken families dumping essentials into their shopping carts before high-tailing it for the register. By overtaking the tail end of Sun Valley’s short summer tourist season, the biggest victim will undoubtedly be local businesses, many of whom had struggled to regain their footing after Castle Rock.
The feds are feeling the pinch, too. The Beaver Creek fire had been their number one priority these past few weeks, soaking up over $16 million as it deployed over 1,700 firefighters, 11 dedicated helicopters, 79 fire engines, nine bulldozers, and up to 10 fixed-wing aircraft while pushing fire officials to Priority Level 5 for the first time in five years. At the beginning of last week and still with two months of wildfire season to go, the US Forest Service had burned through $967 million of its annual firefighting budget fighting this summer’s 51 large uncontained fires – leaving only $50 million on the table; just enough for a few days’ fight. It’s had to pull money from areas like timber harvesting and recreation while watching Congress slash its budget for fire prevention, which is mostly thinning forests of dead trees, from $413 million in 2010 down to $299 after this year’s sequestration. That means future fires have the potential to burn more intensely with more fuel in the woods, but also means they could burn sooner for the same reason.
Back in Sun Valley, life is slowly trickling back to normal. Containment of the fire has increased from 8 percent on Monday to 67 percent on Friday to 92% as of press time, and fire crews are increasingly being sent to fresh fires elsewhere, like the even larger Rim fire approaching Yosemite. Power companies are repairing lines that sit above still-smoldering fields, and all evacuation orders, which peaked at 2,250 on August 17, have been lifted, as have all pre-evacuation statuses. Closures of wilderness areas that were ordered earlier in the month will be lifted for unburned areas by the Labor Day Weekend.
While it’s too early to tell the economic impact, the town and resort are doing their best to push through it. The Wagon Days celebration, Ketchum’s biggest annual event celebrating parades of Old West-vintage wagons, buggies, and horse-drawn carts, is set to go off this Thursday as planned. This Saturday’s ice skating show, hosted by Sun Valley free of charge, raised $30,000 of donations for the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, and a meet-and-greet barbeque was held on Sunday so residences could have a chance to thank some of the Beaver Creek fire fighters in person.
“This is the first time in 25 years that I can remember a community doing what Sun Valley did today,” said Vicki Minor, executive director of the Wildland Firefighter Foundation. “It’s been a tough year for our crews and the outpouring of love and support took such a load off of these guys.”