A mellow summer fire season went up in smoke during the first week of fall, as a blaze sparked in the sagebrush out Croy Canyon, a 10-minute drive from downtown Hailey, on Monday afternoon.
That’s when neighbors noticed smoke rising from the Rancho Cielo subdivision, a small cluster of homes southeast of the junction between Croy Canyon and Rock Creek roads, about 5 miles from the edge of town.
By noon Tuesday, the fire had consumed 48 acres, but the outlook is good, according to BLM Fire Information Officer Kelsey Brizendine. She said she expects the fire to be contained Tuesday night, and controlled—when fire lines are complete and expected to hold—by Thursday.
For a while, it looked much worse.
Wood River Fire & Rescue got a call reporting smoke coming from 70 Cielo Drive at 3:02 p.m., and arrived at the scene to find about 1.5 acres already burning. Winds gusting up to 25 mph pushed the fire fast, Chief Bart Lassman said, and he called in backup. Ketchum, Sun Valley, Hailey, Bellevue and Carey all responded, bringing 12 engines into the fold. With the fire burning from private property toward public lands, Lassman notified the BLM, which sent in five engines and a 20-person hand crew—plus, the promise of two planes and a helicopter, 1.5 hours away in Boise.
Local firefighters held it off until the aircraft arrived, stretching hoses 1,000 feet up from the road to hem the flaming edge away from homes.
“Things were happening very quickly,” Lassman said. “This fire could have gone from 48 acres to 4,800 acres, but we were able to hold it. We got enough people on it early. There’s a lot of luck in that. But it’s our county departments—they did a great job. Their good, aggressive firefighting saved those homes.”
As required by the Wood River Fire Protection District, most of the properties maintained a 30-foot “defensible” area around their houses—basically, a manicured or irrigated buffer to keep embers off the house. That helped, Lassman said. So did the wind, which pushed the fire to the north and to the west, up into the sage-strewn hillside and away from the buildings. One outbuilding did catch, but all of the homes survived unscathed, Lassman said.
At 70 Cielo, a couple was ready to buy the house. A real estate agent was conducting a final walk-through when smoke was spotted out back. For a while, the agent was as trapped alongside neighbors at the end of the cul-de-sac, Lassman said, before the fire reversed course and sprinted toward the hilly brush.
The home’s owner, Brian Emerick, came down to his property immediately after hearing word from a neighbor. He said he saw the fire burning from about a mile out, as close as he was allowed to get.
“From there, it was scary,” he said. “The good news is, everybody’s safe. None of the structures were lost. The firefighters saved the day.”
And, the prospective buyers bought the house. With the fire still hot on the hill, they closed the deal Tuesday.
Lassman told the Idaho Mountain Express that Emerick was conducting a nonpermitted open burn over the weekend at the edge of his property. Though the fire appeared out, the dry gusts blew the settled embers back into flames the next day. Wood River wouldn’t have granted the permit had Emerick sought one, Lassman said: A burn ban has been in effect since early July, and the spot he chose was too close to tall grass, anyway.
With the source of the fire under investigation, Emerick declined to comment on what started the blaze. On Tuesday, Blaine County Sheriff Steve Harkins said his office was investigating the cause.
“Our agency is compiling the facts, and we’ll send it to the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for legal review,” he said. “It’s up to them to decide if anything should be pursued.”
Lassman called the wildfire an accident. He said the fire department has no authority to enforce burn bans, but anyone deemed responsible for a wildfire could be on the hook for both local and federal suppression costs.
“It’s not an activity we just let people do,” Lassman said of open burning. “When we put out a fire ban, we do it for a reason. People need to be very cautious. We’re not out of the woods until the snow flies. It’s like this every year. Nothing’s changed. It’s still ready to burn.”