Friday, January 3, 2014

Beaver Creek Fire threatened Ketchum and Hailey

Three-week-long blaze was deemed No. 1 priority in U.S.


By GREG MOORE
Express Staff Writer

Photo by Willy Cook

    When a small fire was ignited near Fairfield by one of the many lightning bolts that pounded south-central Idaho on the night of Aug. 7, federal land managers expected it to be a threat primarily to homes and ranchland on the Camas Prairie, and predicted that it would be contained in three days. However, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman said presciently, “Anything can change when we have bad weather.”
    Over the next few days, the weather got about as bad as it gets for feeding a wildfire. Humidity dropped, the temperature soared and the wind began to blow. By the time it was contained at the end of August at a cost of $23 million, the Beaver Creek Fire had scorched 174 square miles of prime recreation land on the west side of the Wood River Valley.
    In one day on Aug. 9, the fire roared north for eight miles, from near the Camas County line to the upper Deer Creek and Warm Springs Creek drainages.
    On Aug. 12, a Type 1 fire management team took over command, based out of a headquarters camp at Peregrine Ranch north of Hailey. Type 1 teams are assigned to fires of the highest priority, and the Beaver Creek Fire was soon named the No. 1 priority fire in the country.
    During a public meeting on the evening of Aug. 14, Incident Commander Beth Lund said she believed there was a “moderate to high probability of success” of keeping the fire out of Greenhorn Gulch, the next drainage north of Deer Creek, but residents there and along the west side of the central Wood River Valley were evacuated just in case.
    The following day, Lund’s words were proved wrong when the fire burned into Imperial Gulch, a side drainage of Greenhorn Gulch.
    “It was a pretty impressive firestorm that came over from the Deer Creek side,” Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson said.
    During the next two days, the fire gobbled up 20,000 acres of forest per day and roared through the residential area of Greenhorn, destroying one house. Through what were widely viewed as heroic efforts, local firefighters saved 30 homes there.
    “The burn during at that time was very, very hot,” incident meteorologist Joe Goudsward said.
    The fire turned the corner north from Greenhorn, and for the second time in six years, Bald Mountain was threatened by wildlire.
    On the night of Aug. 16, fire managers were monitoring the situation in Croy Canyon west of Hailey, not expecting a major run. But the situation deteriorated quickly during the night, and in the early-morning hours of Aug. 17, Hailey residents watched the sky over Carbonate Mountain get redder and redder. At about 2:30 a.m., flames appeared over the ridge and bore down on the town. At the same time, the fire approached the mouth of the canyon, where firefighters set an intentional burn to deprive the fire of fuel.
    The burn worked, and the fire’s advance was stopped at the Big Wood River.
    Over the next two weeks, as the weather gradually began to cooperate, firefighters tamped down the blaze in Deer Creek, Croy Canyon, the upper Warm Springs drainage and in Baker Creek to the northwest of Ketchum. Ketchum itself may have been saved by a buffer area to the west already burned by the Castle Rock Fire—considered a near disaster when it occurred in 2007.
    “Little did we know how fortunate we were as a community to have that fire occur six years before,” Nelson said later.
    But Mother Nature wasn’t done yet. On Sept 2, a 10-year rainstorm dumped three-quarters of an inch of rain in one hour on Croy Creek, Deer Creek and Greenhorn Gulch, sending tons of mud down the hillsides. The normally tiny stream of Deer Creek flowed about 10 feet deep, and portions of homes in Greenhorn were ruined by mud and water.
    Following a burned-area recovery plan, a $1.6 million aerial reseeding and mulching project to reduce erosion and promote plant growth was completed by the Forest Service on Nov. 26 after five days of work.
    The seeding was applied by plane to about 5,900 acres of public land, and straw mulch was dropped by helicopter on about 570 acres in Greenhorn and Imperial gulches. The seeds were a mixture of non-native, sterile rye for short-term erosion control, non-native bunchgrasses expected to outcompete cheatgrass in the early spring and native grasses, forbs and sagebrush to provide long-term forage for wildlife.
    But federal land managers warned that hillsides in the burned areas will remain unstable for the next few years, and recovery and the potential for further damage will depend on the whims of Mother Nature.
Greg Moore: gmoore@mtexpress.com




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