Twenty Days of Fire
For 20 days in August the Castle Rock Fire burned across the Smoky Mountains. As the blaze swept through a beloved backcountry recreation area, threatening Bald Mountain and Ketchum, thousands of residents were forced to leave their homes.
by Jason D.B. Kauffman, Sun Valley Guide, Winter 2008
When Bill Murphy, the fire management officer for the Sawtooth National Forest, arrived at a one-tenth-acre wildfire north of Galena Summit in early June, he sensed he was in the presence of something extraordinary.
It wasn’t that the forest floor had ignited so early in the season—he’d witnessed wildfires as early as mid-May. It wasn’t that the small blaze was surrounded by lush growth, that was still a common sight this early in the summer. Rather, Murphy was startled to see the fire spotting 150 feet ahead of itself into dead and downed woody material. “I was thinking, our dead stuff is really dry.” A bad sign so early in the year.
Nineteen days later, on the warm and gusty afternoon of June 22, a small, human-caused blaze ignited south of Trail Creek Cabin. Within an hour it had transformed into a meadow- and forest-consuming inferno, racing across the north-facing slopes of Morgan Ridge. By the time the Trail Creek Fire was contained, 288 acres had burned.
Once again, Murphy was struck by the severity of the blaze and how rapidly it had moved so early in the fire season. He recalled an interagency meeting with the National Weather Service the previous month. A member of the group had pointed to a red-colored anomaly on a map of Idaho and asked what it was. On the detailed map of statewide water conditions, the color red signified extremely dry conditions. “It was the Wood River drainages,” Murphy said.
The Wood River Valley, home to the communities of Sun Valley, Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue, whose vast outdoor recreation offerings attract thousands of visitors each season, was officially the driest region in the state.
Spring snowpacks in the Big Wood River basin had been only about 30 percent of normal. The months of April and May were among the driest since record-taking began and the 2007 summer was shaping up as one of the hottest on record. The situation provided the perfect recipe for a major wildfire, and the week of August 12 brought with it the perfect storm.
On Tuesday, August 14, a large weather system trailing dry thunderstorms passed over the high desert south of the Wood River Valley. By Thursday, August 16, it had made its way here. The day combined dry thunderstorms with warm temperatures, gusting winds and critically dry fuels. Around noon, fire crews were sent scrambling to six lightning starts in the Stanley area, another out Muldoon Canyon east of the south valley city of Bellevue and, finally, to a small blaze in the Warm Springs Creek drainage, 10 miles southwest of Ketchum.
With so many starts, Murphy and other fire managers were left prioritizing where to send firefighters. Crews were able to go after and douse seven of the fires, said Murphy. But apparently Mother Nature had other ideas for that small blaze in Warm Springs Creek canyon.
The Battle Begins
Its nose pointed parallel to the smooth ribbon of concrete ahead, the Twin Otter turbo-prop airplane leapt to life and raced down the runway at the Magic Valley Regional Airport in southern Idaho. Reaching critical velocity, the front end of the plane lifted. Moments later, the dual-engine aircraft took to the air over Twin Falls and the surrounding farmland. The pilot banked hard and headed north.
It was 2:54 p.m., Thursday, August 16.
In the belly of the fixed-wing aircraft, four Bureau of Land Management smokejumpers sat patiently. Perhaps they fidgeted with their firefighting gear, making last-minute preparations for their upcoming jump.
Jarring turbulence marked the less-than-one-hour flight north, over 75 miles of rolling sagebrush and lava rock-dotted plains and then over the foothills that quickly become South Central Idaho’s vast Smoky Mountains.
Ahead of the mid-sized Twin Otter, thunderclouds covered large portions of the bright blue sky. The turbulent conditions spawned by the violent weather system rocked the aircraft and the men inside it.
Circling over the Warm Springs Creek drainage, the men spotted what they had come to find, a small column of smoke, rising into the air just south of Warm Springs Creek.
Within hours, the blaze beneath them would come to be called the Castle Rock Fire, a name Wood River Valley residents will remember for years to come.
With gear on and parachutes prepared, three of the jumpers leapt from the safety of the plane and floated 3,000 feet down to the partially forested valley floor. Remaining behind was the fourth member of their team, who had succumbed to motion sickness after the turbulent flight.
It was 3:39 p.m.
On most other days, more jumpers would have accompanied the trio. The standard number for a call is eight. But this was the record-setting wildfire season of 2007, and the hot and dry month of August at that. The other 83 members of Boise Smokejumpers were jumping on dozens of wildfires that had exploded in the region during several days of lightning storms.
The trio directed their chutes to a landing site near Castle Rock, a locally known landmark, and Incident Commander-in-training Dale Springer quickly led his team toward the haze of smoke coming from the small wildfire now spreading out from near Rough Canyon, a drainage south of Warm Springs Road. There, they found the fire’s origin, a lightning-struck tree. Things looked promising when they first arrived. “I thought we could get it,” Springer said.
His optimism turned to concern as high winds fanned the flames, pushing them into north-facing timber. “It was a half-acre fire and it ran away,” he said. “It got in the timber and there was not much we could do.”
From less than five acres on that first day, the blaze increased to 150 by the following evening, spreading over an area packed with campers, hikers and bikers during this peak recreation season. And while local U.S. Forest Service officials threw every available resource at the fire, fierce winds whipped it into a fury over the weekend, sending it north over Warm Springs Road. From there, the blaze made a startling run up the length of Rooks Creek, eight miles west of Ketchum.
The fire’s astonishing jump over Warm Springs Road and up the length of Rooks Creek sounded the alarm for local government officials, who watched with increasing trepidation as the fire bore down on residential areas of the county and the western edge of Ketchum.
What began as a voluntary evacuation order for some on Saturday, August 18, became, by 4 p.m. on Sunday, a mandatory evacuation order for all homes west of the Ketchum city limits in the Warm Springs Creek area, including those living in the Frenchman’s Bend and Board Ranch neighborhoods, an area comprised of numerous homes ranging from mobile to multi-million-dollar structures.
At daybreak on Monday, August 20, a Type 1 incident management team from California took over running the stubborn, now 10,726-acre blaze. Firmly entrenched in upper Adams Gulch and Eve Gulch, as well as in Fox Creek, the fire was now encroaching on three more neighborhoods north of Ketchum.
Fearing the worst, the fast-growing ranks of firefighters began fighting fire with fire, using the technique of back-burning to clear burnable materials from forest areas around Adams Gulch residences, the Hulen Meadows development and Griffin Butte.
Despite the fire’s increasingly close proximity to the renowned Sun Valley ski area, Incident Commander Jeanne Pincha-Tulley insisted that constructing fire line between Ketchum and the fire remained her top priority.
Wood River Valley residents responded to the threat to their neighbors with offers of shelter, food and much-needed encouragement for the displaced, as well as for the firefighters struggling to save their cherished mountain valley. Out of the fire, the community’s grace under pressure and unwavering sense of generosity became a story in itself.
However, the weekend of August 25 was a dark time, as residents watched the fire steadily advance over the Smoky Mountains. What had been a lesser concern during the previous week, several small spot fires in the Red Warrior Creek drainage west of Ketchum, quickly became alarming. With flames cresting the ridge separating the Warm Springs Creek and Greenhorn Gulch drainages to the south, numerous residents from Hailey, 12 miles south of Ketchum, reported seeing a glowing wall of red advancing on them from the north. At an estimated 18,015 acres on Friday, August 24, the blaze had exploded to 41,100 acres by day’s end Sunday. Fueled by fierce winds that blew a wall of flames down Greenhorn Gulch and up to the fence lines of several homes, the rapid growth represented a remarkable 56 percent expansion in two days. The grim situation led county officials to place 1,000 homes between Hailey and Ketchum under mandatory evacuation orders.
The fire’s extreme run also sent it racing north up the southwest side of Bald Mountain to within 50 yards of Sun Valley Resort’s Seattle Ridge Lodge. There, more than 40 firefighters fought a successful battle to stop the advancing flames from consuming the lodge.
Then, what many had referred to as the worst-case scenario came true on Tuesday, August 28. Buffeted by gusting winds, a small boiling cauldron of fire near the bottom of Bassett Gulch, 1.5 miles west of Bald Mountain, proceeded to race east to the top of the 9,151-foot summit. “What we hoped would not happen did happen,” fire information officer David Olson said.
A column of black smoke sent embers showering down on Bald Mountain’s north- and east-facing slopes, which hold the majority of developed runs, chairlifts and base accesses. It appeared that Sun Valley’s ski area might go up in flames.
But a fast response from firefighters and from helicopters dropping retardant and water quickly doused the spot fires that had been ignited by the falling embers.
Considering the immediate threat if the fire continued over the summit and towards the city of Ketchum, officials again issued mandatory evacuation orders, this time for 1,400 homes in Ketchum’s Warm Springs neighborhood.
In the six days following, fire crews working night and day ignited backburns, beginning along the northwest boundary of the ski area next to International and Cozy ski runs. The crews raced to complete the burnouts in preparation for another anticipated wind event. From one sub-ridge below Guyer Ridge to the next, crews worked west toward their objective; burning the north-facing slopes behind Board Ranch to Frenchman’s Bend, which once completed would fully contain the Castle Rock Fire.
Misting rain fell over the Ketchum area early on September 4 as firefighters achieved what they and the entire community had waited for with bated breath for two and a half long weeks. Around 6 a.m., crews put the final touches on the last stretch of fire line, and in doing so brought the large blaze to 100 percent containment.
At last count, lands falling within the Castle Rock Fire perimeter stood at 48,520 acres. Amazingly, no homes, no ski lodges or ski lifts were lost.
North to south, the fire’s containment came as a great relief to the community. While most residents were able to go about their daily lives during the fire, the nearly three weeks of choking smoke, road closures, lost business and evacuations left them in a weary state. But throughout the ordeal, they had never been more as one.
Perhaps the most positive feedback about the community’s response to the Castle Rock Fire came from the firefighters. Considering the almost endless lines of volunteers, offers of food and shelter, constant waves of encouragement and the homemade thank you signs scattered throughout the valley, the fire crews expressed amazement. Not all communities in the West welcome firefighters with such open arms, fire information officer Dick Birger said in the days after containment. “We really do appreciate working with this community.”
In the weeks after the fire, Bill Murphy began considering the significance of the Castle Rock Fire. On the more than one million acres he oversees as fire management officer, Murphy has seen a significant increase in large fires during the past three summers.
In 2005, it was the White Cloud Mountains’ 40,483-acre Valley Road Fire. Next came the 4,252-acre Trailhead Fire in the Sawtooth Mountains. And then, Castle Rock. Altogether 94,983 acres have burned in three years, compared to 5,343 acres in the preceding nine years. That should be a wakeup call for the region, Murphy said. The Wood River and Sawtooth Valleys have not seen their last large fires. “I never say never. I would expect big fires to continue,” said Murphy.
Continued dry conditions could further exacerbate an already perilous situation. However, above average snowfalls are forecasted for this winter and that could put the Wood River Valley region on the path to recovery.