The signs tell the story of what’s happened in this beautiful area in the two weeks since the Beaver Creek Fire began with a lightning strike.
“Heli-attack. No Stopping. Keep Moving,” says the illuminated highway sign.
“We’re praying,” says the hand-lettered sign outside a church near state Highway 75.
“Thank you firefighters” is the most popular sign and is a heartfelt sentiment repeated over and over again when Sun Valley-area residents meet any of the 1,800 firefighters who are valiantly fighting the slippery, frustrating inferno that has defied expectations since it began.
This is not the first time the Sun Valley area and the Wood River Valley have been saved from wildfire. The Castle Rock Fire of 2007 roared above the north valley and crept up the back of Baldy, threatening the economic heart of this area. Who could have guessed that great battle was just a preview of what was to come?
This time, as mid-valley residents evacuated their homes, they saw canyons being consumed in record time by wind-blown flames.
Hailey residents watched in shock, dismay and awe as fire poured down Carbonate Mountain, the forest-and-rock face that parallels Main Street, and rained ash and blackened pine needles on the river neighborhoods below.
It’s remarkable that the Beaver Creek Fire, fueled by tiers of old timber and sage, has destroyed just one local residence and a handful of out-buildings to date. That’s a victory for firefighters who have come from all over the country to defend us. It’s a victory for the elected officials who long ago had the vision to impose building restrictions that kept homes off the hillsides. It’s a victory for the communities of the Wood River Valley, even though the fire’s finish line is not yet entirely in view.
Fire is not the only enemy for those living life here.
In the winter of 1976-77, valley residents who thought they were restaurateurs, shop owners, waiters, bartenders and ski instructors found out that we are all really snow farmers. Every year, the annual snow crop blooms in the winter and brings the harvest of winter-season visitors. Except, for that entire lost winter, the snow never came.
The resources poured into fighting the Beaver Creek Fire did not come here because the homes of the rich and famous were threatened, although that is the message too often implied by national media reports that always mention them.
Fires on the scale of Beaver Creek call for responses far larger than any community can provide, which is why we are grateful to live in a country where people can count on resources provided by others. This was the case with Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy and the Castle Rock and Beaver Creek fires.
Sadly, that truth gets overlooked in the stories and videos churned out by national media sources. Television videos of billowing smoke, leaping flames and empty streets were the story on Saturday, but by Monday they gave the world a wildly inaccurate picture of the view from our Main Streets.
Although our communities have been disrupted, they are not ghost towns. Businesses are operating, although some temporarily closed or curtailed hours. When the fire abates, it will seem like a close scrape—and life will go on as usual because our communities survived unscathed.
The reality of the Beaver Creek Fire has been exhausting and exhilarating for residents and tenacious visitors who stayed in defiance of the smoky days and nights.
Who would guess that an area as beautiful as this one would require so much toughness on the part of those who make it their permanent home?
The Castle Rock Fire in 2007 canceled the Wagon Days celebration, the economic equivalent of Macy’s or Best Buy losing its Christmas sales. Thankfully, this year’s Wagon Days still looms, giving locals and visitors alike a great chance to relax and celebrate not only survival, but to put these days into the context of the long history of an area and a people who are mountain strong.
Today’s Beaver Creek Fire reduced a section of hills near Greenhorn Gulch on the west side of state Highway 75 between Hailey and Ketchum to ghostly mounds of ash. Even so, there’s a surprising sight in the middle: three tall green aspens that apparently escaped unscathed even though the ash-scape runs to the edge of their trunks.
The people of the Wood River Valley are like those aspens—sturdy and resilient when facing danger and ready to overcome yet another economic setback that no one needed or deserved in the busiest month of the year.
If we count the goodwill we’ve received from others in such a difficult time, if we count the outpouring of help from our neighbors, friends and fellow citizens, and if we count the experience of witnessing one of nature’s most powerful performances, we are all rich beyond measure.