Surviving Fire Season 

How the Beaver Creek Fire wounded the Wood River Valley

The popular Greenhorn Trail, near Sun Valley, was severely burned, leading to the trail system's indefinite closure.

Courtesy U.S. Forest Service

The popular Greenhorn Trail, near Sun Valley, was severely burned, leading to the trail system's indefinite closure.

Jim Santa watched the smoke settle around Ketchum on the afternoon of Tuesday, Aug. 13, from the storefront of Sturtevants Mountain Outfitters. Santa is the guide coordinator for the business—the type of guy who's holding a trout in most of his pictures. If he's not wearing waders, he's on a mountain bike or a pair of cross-country skis. He describes his college degree as a "major in steelhead fishing and a minor in accounting."

Ash flakes fell from the sky like snow, resting on the sidewalk, but never melting. The temperature dipped into the low 70s. After watching the smoke tint Ketchum orange, Santa picked up the phone and called a client who planned to fly in on his private Cessna that day for some guided mountain biking.

"You don't want to come right now," Santa said. "It's too smoky."

He hated making the call, and not just because his business would suffer. Santa has been around Sun Valley since 1986 and the best part of his job, he said, is showing off the wilderness in his own backyard.

"It was frustrating and disappointing to tell people, 'Hey, don't come, you can't come here right now.' It's backwards," Santa said.

He even had to cancel an event in which U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo usually brings people from all over the country to experience Sun Valley.

"No one expected it to get so devastating: 'It's not going to be that bad,'" Santa said. "It ended up completely out of hand for a while."

Things We Lost in the Fire

The Beaver Creek fire started west of Sun Valley on Aug. 7 from a lightning strike and burned until Sept. 2, creeping up to Highway 75 between Hailey and Ketchum. The fire burned 185 square miles in the Sawtooth National Forest, consuming eight structures and tying up almost 2,000 firefighters. The cost of fighting the fire hit $25 million.

At the same time, the Elk Complex and Pony fires claimed 81 structures--almost half of them homes--and burned a collective 280,642 acres, all within 75 miles of Sun Valley.

Smoke choked the resort town and fire razed many recreational opportunities the community relies on not only for business, but for quality of life. Tens of thousands of people come to the area each year to access almost endless outdoor recreation possibilities, from hiking and mountain biking to skiing, hunting, trail running and fishing.

But Beaver Creek is the third fire-related disaster to hit the Wood River Valley in the past six years. While these massive blazes pour smoke into the valley, residents evacuate, tourists stay away and the economy crumbles. Properties and personal safety are threatened. These effects last long after the fires have been extinguished, and hyper-intense fires are happening more often.

After the Beaver Creek fire ripped through the area, it was Joe Miczulski's job as recreation program manager for the Ketchum office of the U.S. Forest Service to survey the damage to the area's campsites and trails. He was disappointed by what he found.

Of the 140 campsites in the district, more than half will be closed for the foreseeable future because of the risk of flooding and mudslides. Miczulski said that the flood and slide risk is especially high at night, when campers are asleep and not expecting disasters like that to occur.

He's also concerned about 90 miles of trail within the district.

"A lot of popular trails have burned over," Miczulski said. "Trees are completely gone around them. They're subject to mudflows, debris flows, trees falling over. A number of trails will be closed indefinitely until we can re-establish tread. It'll be a multi-year project."

The Forest Service's assessment of the burned area found that trails along the bottom of valleys can be especially dangerous--if a mudslide or flash flood begins, there's nowhere for hikers to escape.

"There's no way" those trails will open by next spring, Miczulski said. Instead, he'll pick and choose which will be easiest to repair and reopen. More heavily damaged trails will have to wait, as time and funding become available. He recognizes recreation is an important part of Ketchum's economy and said he's doing all he can to get it back to where it was.

"We've spent our professional careers trying to provide recreational opportunities for folks," Miczulski said. "To see them damaged in this way for a significant period of time, it's disheartening."

Santa understands that disappointment. He talked about the fire consuming one of his favorite mountain biking trails, the popular Greenhorn trail. The fire burned through the area, closing the whole trail system indefinitely.

"It's still totally ride-able, but it's a different environment," he said. "It's a moonscape. No sage, just bare ground and mudslides."

And this isn't just the Ketchum area's problem. In 1988, it was Yellowstone National Park. In 2007, it was the Wood River Valley. In 2008, it was the Owyhees. In 2012, it was Stanley. In 2000, 2003, 2012 and 2013, it was Salmon. Salmon's economy hung on with the help of fire crews in the area, but the land between Idaho and Montana that burned 13 years ago still has not regrown.

Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall calls his area--including Sun Valley--an "outdoor recreation lifestyle." When that lifestyle starts to fall apart, "it degrades our quality of life," he said.

In the wake of yet another brutal fire season, Hall finds himself asking one question: "How in the world can we manage our forests better so that we don't live in fear of being one lightning strike away from economic and environmental disaster?"

In the Heat of the Moment

"It was surreal," backcountry guide Santa said. "I was standing in my driveway looking at these plumes of smoke Thursday night. I thought, 'Oh, that fire is like, here.' From the driveway, I could see stuff burning."

As the fire got closer, Santa had to cancel more than his mountain bike tours. Sturtevants' shuttle service usually runs daily to hiking and biking trailheads around the valley, but Santa stopped it. He also had to cancel all guided fishing trips due to another effect from the fire: ash-laden streams.

"Big Wood River is unfishable now because we've had mudslides. The river is full of ash and mud," Santa said. "Fish and Game says the oxygen levels are good, so there's no fish devastation. But the water is unfishable."

The Big Wood River's conditions have improved some since August, but Santa said the fish have been under so much stress, he's recommending leaving the area alone. But that means he could still lose business from clients hoping to take a guided trip down the river.

Sturtevants lost 45 percent of its typical August business because of the fire. Even a good ski year won't make up the lost revenue, Santa said.

"There's nothing you can do," he said. "It's gone. It's lost time."

The mayor sympathizes with Santa, as well as the other small businesses hurt by the fire. Hall has been mayor for eight years and he's campaigning for a third term. He's seen three major fire disasters affect his community; and, while it's too early to have solid numbers on the economic impacts, past experience has shown that fires wound deep.

"During the early days of the fire, we all had faith it would stop short of creating the environmental and economic devastation that it did," Hall said. "We were in denial."

As smoke settled like a thick fog and ash turned black cars gray, the mayor started worrying about a large population which contributes to his town's economy: second-home owners.

The population of Ketchum is about 2,700, but during the summer, that increases to upwards of 3,700 people. Keeping those thousand or so seasonal residents in town is vital, but a smoke-choked valley has little allure.

"Second-home owners really fuel our economy on a more steady basis," Hall said. "Conferences and tourism come and go in waves. What really underpins our economy are those second-home owners and primary residents. Once you lose them, the busiest month of the year is now the least busy."

Hall said most second-home owners come to the area in the summer for things like the Sun Valley Summer Symphony, the pleasant summer weather and scenery, and of course, the outdoor recreation.

Then there are those who visit as tourists. Ketchum's tourism economy thrives in the summer because of outdoor recreational activities. Hall said when smoke from the Castle Rock fire descended on the valley in 2007, the town lost $3.5 million in local-option tax receipts--a tax aimed mostly at tourists and imposed on retail, liquor by the drink and hotel rooms. Hall guesses another $2 million-$3 million were lost in other business revenues on top of that.

"[In 2007], we had to cancel the symphony, the Writers' Conference, the golf tournaments. They're all fundraisers for our high-profile nonprofits. It also hurts our economy when people aren't here spending real dollars on philanthropy," Hall said.

This year, smoke again caused the cancellation of the Sun Valley Writers' Conference, as well as the Killebrew-Thompson Memorial Golf Tournament.

Hall said Ketchum lost $3 million more this summer from those two fiery weeks in August. And he sees another effect from these fires.

"People are starting to say, Sun Valley is a great place, but you can't go there in August because you could be smoked out. We're seeing people moving their conferences out of August completely. August is our biggest money-generating month," he said. "It just rubs salt into the wound."

As a resort town, Ketchum's economy is cyclical.

"You have seven months of business, and five months of slack," Hall said, "but you still have 12 months of bills. Once it's lost, you don't get that money back."

On Friday, Aug. 16, at 10 a.m., Hall kept an eye on the Beaver Creek fire as it began approaching Highway 75. The fire was at 64,000 acres and only 6 percent contained. Extreme fire behavior led to explosive growth and Hall made the decision to shut down Ketchum. A pre-evacuation notice was issued for the town that morning.

Hall said it took three hours to drive the 11 miles between Ketchum and Hailey, as fleeing residents and visitors clogged the roads leading out of the valley.

At noon that day, many businesses in the area, including Sturtevants, closed their doors.

"It was really bad," Santa said. "They told everyone, 'If you don't have to be here, get out of town.'"

Ketchum turned into a ghost town and members of the community started calling the Beaver Creek fire "The Beast."

At 4:45 p.m., the fire burned up to the highway, closing it. In all, Hall said 5,000 people left Ketchum.

"That was the moment when I went from worrying about recreation lifestyle to life safety," he said.

The Aftermath

According to data from the U.S. Travel Association, domestic and international travelers spent almost $4 billion in Idaho in 2011. Without tourism, Idaho's unemployment rate that year would have been 11.4 percent, instead of 8.3 percent. That makes tourism Idaho's third- or fourth-largest industry, depending on the year.

Recently laid off in a restructuring of the Idaho Department of Commerce, Karen Ballard was the administrator for the Idaho Tourism Board during the Beaver Creek fire. She said smoke definitely affects visitation, but added that while it may have detracted from Sun Valley, the state as a whole didn't feel a loss from the fire.

"It displaces tourists to the next place that's clear," Ballard said. It might just reroute them to McCall or Stanley, for example.

"People aren't making the decision not to come to Idaho. They're going to go somewhere else in the state," she said.

Ballard said the most frustrating part of her job is fighting sensationalism in the media that the whole state is burning down. During the Beaver Creek fire, she fielded calls from national press outlets about the smoke and fire.

"We don't want to feed a media frenzy about Idaho burning up, because it's such a small portion of the entire state," she said.

Her job during times like those was heavily focused on communication, to get the word out about where the sky is still clear, and if the roads are open to get there. She said as technology made the job easier, the Forest Service can offer immediate updates as roads open and close.

"Our job is to help manage expectations and defuse sensationalism and highlight the positive," Ballard said. "We still have many lovely rivers and campgrounds."

Tourism in Idaho is growing at a steady pace, with or without fires. Now the trick is to bring tourists back to the Ketchum-Sun Valley area to help those small businesses affected by the Beaver Creek fire.

The Idaho Department of Commerce is helping in another way, too. It has resurrected a program instituted during the Castle Rock fire in 2007, when the agency offered businesses economic injury disaster loans. The interest on those loans is low--4 percent. Typical small business loans can have interest rates as high as 10 percent.

It's hard to say how many businesses have come forward to take these loans, because businesses are reluctant to broadcast their revenue troubles, but there are a couple million dollars set aside for the taking.

Hall said he's held a few information sessions about these loans, and suspects at least a dozen businesses will apply. Santa said Sturtevants is one business considering it.

But Hall said these businesses "needed the money yesterday" and loan processing takes time.

"All that does is put a Band-Aid over the situation. The real truth is, all that revenue is lost. That revenue is gone. Period. At the end of the day, you still have to pay that money back. At the end of the day, you're still short," Hall said. "All these small businesses now just have to take a deep breath and hold it until Christmas comes, and business picks up again."

A Community Resurrection

Francie St. Onge and her husband have owned Sun Valley Trekking for 15 years and she describes herself as having "skied out of the womb." Her business helps tourists and area residents explore the backcountry through guided ski trips, mountain biking and yurt rentals.

Every August, she books a three-week trek with a nonprofit but, like Santa, the smoke this year forced her to cancel it.

"It resulted in the cancellation of one of our biggest contracts of the year," she said. Including a few other canceled trips, she calculated almost $20,000 in lost revenue to her business. But she lost even more to the fire.

"It was amazing to see what was left," St. Onge said. "Nothing but a pile of ashes with a little stove pipe sticking out."

Sun Valley Trekking has six backcountry yurt sites, but the two Coyote yurts, as well as the deck, sauna and outhouse, burned down in the Beaver Creek fire. "Despite firefighters' best efforts," St. Onge said.

She said they laid down lines of fire retardants around the huts, but the fire consumed it anyway.

The yurt had sat there since 1995, though she almost lost it to the Castle Rock fire in 2007.

"It was a huge financial blow to us," she said.

So she came up with a plan: the Coyote Yurt Resurrection project.

"It's a huge, monumental effort," St. Onge said. "Construction is challenging anyway because you're always running to the hardware store to get different sized nails, but you can't do that up there. If you bring the wrong-sized nails, you're really bummed."

The construction site is only 13 miles from the main highway, but it's on old logging roads. At 10-15 mph, it takes an hour to get up there. It's challenging to haul big loads of lumber to the site, but the crew must complete the project before the snow flies.

St. Onge said the new site will be better than ever, with a 20-foot yurt and a 16-foot yurt, a deck, hammock, barbecue, fire pit, sauna and a couple of outhouses. All that with 360-degree views of the Boulder, Smokey and Pioneer mountains. They'll rebuild the kitchen and the bunk beds and cut five cords of firewood--again.

The cost of the new site will be close to $30,000, St. Onge estimates, so she has started a fundraiser on indiegogo.com to help.

"A lot of people have offered to help and asked what they can do, so I'm hopeful," she said. "The yurt site is dearly loved, part of many families' tradition. It's an important part of the community culture."

St. Onge mentioned one perk of the fire, though: It opened up new backcountry skiing on the north-facing slopes, where the powder is often the best. She said she can't wait to explore the new terrain.

Still, Chris Lundy, owner of Sawtooth Mountain Guides, cautions skiers who embark on the new terrain. Lundy's organization provides avalanche training to backcountry skiers, and before that, he spent eight years as the avalanche forecaster for the Sawtooth Avalanche Center.

Lundy said heavily forested areas provide anchoring in the snowpack and burned areas can reduce that stability. If an avalanche does run, it will more easily knock over those dead trees, making larger slide paths. What was once not really considered avalanche terrain can slowly start to change, but he said that process takes years.

"In relation to skiing, the impact of a burn is more positive. It opens up skiing that was once too thick, so now it's more enjoyable," Lundy said. "From a skiing standpoint, it's awesome."

He warns, though, that backcountry skiers need to constantly be thinking about new, more opened terrain with avalanche safety in mind.

Soon the snow will start to fall over Ketchum and cover up the charred land. But beneath, the lasting effects of the fire will continue to smolder. After burning for 26 days, costing $25 million to fight and draining more than $3 million from Ketchum's economy, 2,000 firefighters brought the Beaver Creek fire to full containment on Sept. 2. Eight structures burned, more than 90 trails were razed and the perception of the Wood River Valley in August changed. But community members, resilient as ever, joke there's nothing left in the area to burn for another 100 years.

"It's just part of the risk," said St. Onge. "We live in a fire-dependent ecosystem. We have to make the best of it."

"None of us are leaving," Santa said. "Everything will recover. By next July, it should be back to normal. Things will regrow and be fresh and new."

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