Castle Rock—a period of 20 days in August and September 2007 when a fire burned the back side of Bald Mountain, when snowmaking guns were turned into firefighting apparatuses, when the Idaho Mountain Express went from semi-weekly to daily, and when the annual Wagon Days celebration was canceled due to the encroaching flames.
The Castle Rock Fire started nearly five years ago, on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2007, when lightning struck a single tree on a hillside near Castle Rock, a rock formation 15 miles northwest of Ketchum.
Ketchum Ranger District leader Kurt Nelson said that stopping the fire early proved impossible, as resources across the state were stretched across a number of fires.
"It was probably one of the biggest fire seasons we've seen," Nelson said in an interview this week. "There was a lot of demand for air resources across the West. It was actually similar to what we are seeing now."
Nelson said the fire took off before it could be corralled that night, leaving the Type 3 firefighting team ordered for the area that Friday with a challenging situation.
"We attempted to catch it, corral it through the first full burning period the next day," Nelson said. "It started making runs in the afternoon and spotting on both sides of Warm Springs Road. This thing had the potential to go big."
Nelson ordered a Type 1 Fire Management Team, a national team made up of high-trained and experienced wildland firefighters, as early as Aug. 19, when the fire burned up Rooks Creek and began to threaten the Warm Springs area of Ketchum.
The Forest Service originally estimated that the fire would be contained by Sunday, Aug. 19. But by the time Jeanne Pincha-Tulley, forest fire chief for the Tahoe National Forest and incident commander on Castle Rock, arrived in town, the fire was actively burning more than 7,000 acres and coming into Adams Gulch, just north of Ketchum.
"We knew it was going to be pretty serious because it was so close to a town," Pincha-Tulley said in an interview on Monday. "Once we got on site, it became pretty clear what the issues were."
Fire models conducted when the Type 1 team arrived showed that without intervention, there was a 98 percent to 99 percent chance that the fire would have burned through the city of Ketchum.
"If nothing was done, it would have burned to the Boulders," Ketchum Fire Chief Mike Elle said, referring to the Boulder Mountains far north of Ketchum.
That would have destroyed nearly $4 billion in structures, he said, and the blaze could have crossed state Highway 75 easily, even sending spot fires into Sun Valley.
"We got two-mile spotting off of that thing," Pincha-Tulley said. "That surprised us. That's really far."
Warm Springs was quickly evacuated. Elle said that all 35 of his volunteers as well as 10 full-time members provided fire protection to the houses out Warm Springs and, later, into Greenhorn Gulch, where fires came within 8 feet of the homes in Limekiln Gulch, south of Ketchum.
"When the fire blew up that day [Aug. 28], it pushed the fire up against the houses," he said. "The biggest heroes were the volunteers and their families, but also the employers that let them leave work and fight for our community."
Structure protection cost the city and fire district $1.6 million, Elle said, as the Forest Service's priority was fighting the wildfire, not saving structures.
Though he said at the time that this would have bankrupted the fire district, grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency paid for 75 percent of the costs. A state grant covered the rest.
Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall and Blaine County commissioners called state and federal elected officials, including the late District 25 Sen. Clint Stennett, U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and Larry Craig and Rep. Mike Simpson.
Together, they ensured the fire became the top-priority fire in the nation. That support resulted in 1,800 firefighters and 22 aircraft dropping $1 million worth of fire retardant on the area per day.
The fire continued to march towards south towards Greenhorn and onto the flanks of Bald Mountain, reaching 48,520 acres. It burned up the back side of Bald Mountain and threatened to come over the top, sending spot fires into the ski area before being contained on Sept. 4. As it burned, residents were evacuated throughout Greenhorn Gulch, East Fork and Hulen Meadows, even into the Cold Springs development mid-valley on the east side of Highway 75.
Hall said that Aug. 30, the day the fire roared up Bassett Gulch and threatened Baldy, was the scariest, most fraught day of the entire two weeks.
High winds had grounded air support, he said. The only things that would keep the fire back were ground crews and Sun Valley Co.'s snowmaking guns, which were pumping water at full force to increase humidity in the area and keep the front of Baldy from catching fire.
"We saw small fires starting on the runs," Hall said. "It was crazy. We were going to lose our town and our livelihood. All you can do is just stand there. You feel helpless."
But crews managed to hold the fires back, and Nelson noted that not a single structure was lost in the fire. Only one firefighter was injured, and Nelson said she only had minor injuries from a falling tree and was able to return to the line.
Pincha-Tulley said that coordination among state, local and federal agencies was key to her success in getting what she needed to fight the fire. However, she said that she also has never seen a community as supportive and as trusting as this one in her years of fighting fires.
"I have never had people evacuate an area and say, 'Hey, Jeanne, I know you'll save the place. We'll go down to Hailey and see you in a few days,'" she said. "We had people bringing firefighters cookies up the yin-yang. At one point, I had to tell people not to hand the firefighters money or give them alcohol because both would get them fired."
Those involved said they had no regrets about the fire, which was fought as smoothly as possible. Hall said that despite the unpopularity of canceling Wagon Days that year, he stands by his decision that the annual Labor Day festival would not have been appropriate.
"It wasn't a decision made lightly," he said. "There is no way I could throw a huge Wagon Days party while I had 1,800 firefighters risking their lives up on that mountain."
Though Hall said it was terrifying at the time—people were crying in the streets, he said, as they watched the fire creep ever closer to Baldy's face—he's glad that the town can look at the fire's five-year anniversary as a celebration, not a time for mourning.
"This is a five-year anniversary that we are celebrating, and not a five-year anniversary where we are remembering that someone had died or we lost a lot of structures," he said. "It's a really important part of our history now."
Next week: Could it happen again?
Kate Wutz: email@example.com