Ketchum Fire Strike Team Leader Mike Witthar lingered at the edge of the hissing moonscape that was Rotarun Friday afternoon like a tournament coach; content with his winning players' performance, but cautiously eying the impending challenges.
This was just one battle, one of many played out in the past several days as the Beaver Creek Fire has made its mercurial journey across the hills, tossing embers as far as a mile and a half away to keep firefighters engaged in a game of cat and mouse.
As his team grabbed some shade and water in the emerald lawn of a home at Rodeo Drive near the popular ski hill, Witthar was philosophical and optimistic, two unusual axioms around this capricious fire that refuses to play by traditional rules.
"There is no fuel between the fire and here now so I'm feeling better,” he said, looking at the smoke in the distance, and watching the dozers come in to perform mitigation and cleanup.
When Witthar organized his strike team, with support from the Eagle Fire Department around 8:30 a.m. Saturday, they were fresh eyes on a scene of “a whole lot of nothing but smoke,” he said, the weather inversion keeping the ceiling low too.
“It got a little exciting there for a bit,” he said.
The controlled burn started at Carbonate Mountain in the early morning hours escaped established fire lines and had blown up the canyon towards Rotarun, taking nearly every living thing with it.
Riparian areas just north of the Draper Preserve were immolated as crews attempted to banish the fire deeper west, away from the structures like the Wood River Animal Shelter.
Evidence of a valiant fight was demarcated with fencing and low-cut grass splattered and dotted with the pale red retardant that firefighters threw out like stepping stones with the fire keeping pace a breath behind.
The Shelter, empty of animals, was unscathed. Democrat Gulch was all ash and smolder.
As the main road met with Rodeo Drive, the fight had taken a dramatic turn requiring quick decisions, tenacity and, a few dice rolls.
The fire has been like a snake with two heads, hooking around surrounding hills.
“We bumped it around pretty good, and there some fire whirls, but then we got a couple of drops from the tanker, the wind died down, and everything came together.”
Meanwhile, with Croy based firefighters tamping down the recent burn, the craggy face of Carbonate continued to erupt, popping and crackling, trees bursting and rocks spewing.
Still, from the firefight to the base camp in Hailey, Saturday afternoon, for the first time in a while, it felt like firefighters had a foot in the winner's circle and could make the playoffs.
Eagle firefighter Mike Hill said some structures were easier than others to protect because they were surrounded by more “defensible space,” which meant no elaborate landscaping that could create “ladders of fuel,” or that were built so close to the hills and sagebrush that there was no foothold room.
Using a pump and roll engine his crew was able to fend the fire from the home, where a plastic toddler car parked by a hammock, foam bat, small socks and a fishing net left floating in a small pond indicated this was a home with children.
A bike leaning against a pair of garbage bins was covered in the retardant and the brick driveway an unflattering shade of red. The goop ran off the roof and dribbled down the patio, but the house was otherwise unperturbed thanks to the crew.
Andy Varin, from Eagle, said he was stoked to be able to contribute, especially after driving past cheering folks on their way in to Hailey Friday night.
“They were flashing their lights and waving at us,” he recalled as Andrew Weinstein nodded and smiled adding, “It was pretty cool, that's a good feeling.”
Whitthar praised the team and encouraged them to use the time between calls to rest and regroup.
“We've got a good buffer around us now, we are more impervious to fire,” he said.
But he wasn't content to gloat and reflect; his ears were piqued for the next play, further north.
The question was not when, but where.