As smoke from the Beaver Creek Fire blows through the Wood River Valley, and evacuations are under way, another fire only 30 miles away to the southwest has already destroyed numerous buildings and killed 130 cattle.
The McCan Fire, burning northwest of Fairfied, has consumed nearly 24,000 acres since it began nine days ago after a lightening strike. On the evening of Aug. 8, high winds swept the blaze into the 50-acre Sandhill Farm, destroying three cabins, a greenhouse and several vehicles.
The two residents are lucky to have escaped with their lives.
“It was apocalyptic,” said Bill Corlett, who waited until the last moment to flee the blaze. He saw the fire burning, about a mile away on a distant ridge, then settled back into the small valley where his farm sits beside a creek.
“It was moving away from us so I thought we were safe,” said Corlett. “I told my wife that I was not leaving until I could see the flames.”
Sandhill Farm was featured in magazine articles as an example of the kind of rustic ranch living that could be achieved off-the-grid, with a little ingenuity.
Corlett and his wife, Faus Geiger, spent 13 years building and restoring old cabins on the property, raising organic produce. They worked at many jobs in the Wood River Valley to build their dream, filling it with everything they own.
“Years ago we pretty much committed to carving out a small portion of the wilderness to be self sufficient,” said Gieger in an interview in 2005.
The secluded farm was powered by a combination of solar panels, wind turbines and wood stoves. In winter, the property was accessed on snowmobile and skis. During summer, Sandhill Farm hosted Sawtooth Botanical Garden farm tours, and sold produce to Hailey and Ketchum restaurants.
On the night of the fire, Geiger left the property before dusk, but Corlett stayed on. He was determined to try to defend the property any way he could. But after dark the wind shifted 180 degrees and began blowing hard from the east, pushing the fire back toward his farm.
“I saw flames crest the entire ridge all at once,” Corlett said. “By the time I got out of there it was 50 yards away from me.”
Within a few minutes, the valley, and everything in it, was on fire. Night turned to day.
“It was apocalyptic.”
“You could have played baseball under the amount of light the fire produced,” he said.
Corlett rounded up his dogs and fled by automobile to a public park in Fairfield 10 miles away. He returned the next morning at 6 a.m. to find a scene of total destruction.
All of the farm buildings had been reduced to twisted pieces of metal and concrete slabs. His pick-up truck was incinerated and lying in a ditch.
“The only thing I could see that was not damaged was the roto-tiller, because it had been surrounded by dirt,” Corlett said.
“The ground was dead cold, as though the fire had burned weeks ago. It burned very hot and then was over,” he said.
Three-hundred yards away, Corlett found even more tragedy. A herd of 130 cows, killed by the blaze during the night, were lying in a nearby field.
“They tried to outrun the fire by running uphill,” he said.
Corlett said he and his wife are staying with friends in the Wood River Valley, with plans to leave the area, perhaps for good. He said he has no plans to rebuild on the property after such a heartbreaking experience.
“It will be years before it is even habitable,” said Corlett. “We never thought of it as just a house. It was our life.”
As of Thursday morning, the McCan Fire was 60 percent contained and moving northward into the mountains.
Two additional helicopters were assigned to the McCan helibase near Fairfield, which is supporting both the Beaver Creek and McCan fires with nine total helicopters.
Wildlife had been observed returning to the burned area near Fairfield to forage in unburned pockets of vegetation.