Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Goodwill spreads through community

Ketchum businesses take a hit, but not to the heart

Express Staff Writer

Young volunteers assist Blaine County Firewise coordinator Angie Grant-Kettleband with disseminating information at Ketchum?s City Hall. Photo by Willy Cook

The Castle Rock Fire brought together the Wood River Valley community in valiant ways, setting a new standard for volunteerism and community service. The organization and outpouring of community assistance was so impressive that the director of state disaster services, under the Bureau of Homeland Security, William H. "Bill" Bishop, wants to take key people from the area around the state to talk about how the services and people worked together.

Ketchum City Hall ran a full-scale relief operation for evacuees, all volunteers and any city departments that needed to assist with fire notification and protection.

"When the fire first escalated before the Forest Service came, there was a point in time we were serving 450 to 550 people lunch and dinner," said Ron LeBlanc, city administrator and executive director of the Ketchum Urban Renewal Agency. "I came in on Saturday, Aug. 18, and the last full day we were still serving was Sunday, Sept. 2."

"The Air National Guard and Army were here because our city's police forces needed help because we are so small," LeBlanc said. "We also had the sheriff's department and the Idaho State Police at checkpoints."

Many valley residents dropped of unsolicited food, from full dinners to roasting pans piled high with chocolate chip cookies, LeBlanc said. Unable to take prepared food, city hall began to plan menus a day ahead of time.

"We had restaurants who were very instrumental," LeBlanc said. "Some restaurants felt the impact of the economy, so we did pay for some food, and some was donated. Everyone who we asked for food stepped up to the plate."

LeBlanc became a menu planner, and planning a day in advance with 400 sandwiches could only have been done with the volunteers. Volunteers were organized into crews, and several volunteers assisted throughout the entire duration of the Castle Rock Fire.

LeBlanc called for donations from places such as Costco in Twin Falls, and much to his surprise, Costco's manager not only sent a huge truck with palates of beverages and snacks, but came and hand delivered a basket of goods to City Hall in thanks for calling Costco.

"Chateau, Jane's, Atkinsons', Ketchum Kitchens and others got us whatever we needed," LeBlanc said. "There was a wedding planned in Adam's Gulch with 350 people, but because of the smoke they could not hold the wedding. The bride and groom made a smaller wedding and gave all their rib-eye steaks, green beans and mashed potatoes to the hot shot fire crews, which we put in to-go boxes and brought out to the field. The bride and groom came by to watch."

"This was unique," LeBlanc said. "People who have been in the Forest Service for 25 years have never seen a community like this before. They had heard it was a great community and great place to live, but they have never been treated like this before."

There were no significant incidents of any kind, reported LeBlanc, who had 24 to 27 posts that needed to be manned in evacuated areas. LeBlanc said people really paid attention, and only about four people refused to evacuate.

Cynthia Miley and Cindy Jesinger coordinated volunteers with an extensive database and pulled together special teams that distributed leaflets and created phone banks. The city paid particular attention to pets, and the database was especially helpful with evacuating large animals.

"There were horses, llamas and other large animals that needed to be moved. We had 40 kennels donated at City Hall for owners with small animals to borrow and get their pets out of harm's way," LeBlanc said. "We moved about 75 large animals. One woman had to ride her horse to the blockade. Smoke makes horses skittish, and I am sure we will find sheep for the next few months."

The database at City Hall assisted in locating people with trailers and land to bring the animals to safety with food and water. In addition, veteranarians were on stand-by for both small and large animals. People with missing pets should call the Wood River Animal Shelter in Hailey.

As recovery efforts continue the Forest Service will have information about the status of trails and will send crews to evaluate their safety.

The city will recover equipment and will return dishes and restaurant apparatus to donors. If there is city equipment at people's homes, such as cones, signs or barricades, LeBlanc asked for them to be left at the end of driveways for pick-up.

For those wishing to donate money to firefighters, there are a number of possibilities, including a fund set up by the Sawtooth Board of Realtors, as well as the Wildland Firefighters Fund.

"There is an account set up at the First Bank of Idaho," said Rod Grey, vice president of the Sawtooth Board of Realtors. "People can donate at any branch. It will be in conjunction with the Ketchum Sun Valley Volunteer Firefighters. It will be going to the burn-out funds, re-supply of local fire districts and firefighter education."

Grey said fund organizers have discussed giving some money to the under-funded fire departments that assisted from neighboring counties. The board will keep track of contributors, and when the fund has reached its run, it will announce its plans. Grey hopes the fund will be open for six months.

"This community is very generous, and the fund has had everything from five-digit donations to little boys walking in with dollar bills," Grey said.

Beyond money, the fire's goodwill spread to Seattle, where second-home owners and avid skiers who love Sun Valley got together and donated 2,000 tee-shirts for the firefighters to express their gratitude.

Unfortunately, the economic recovery will be the most difficult. LeBlanc said that August is normally the busiest sales tax month of the year, but retail businesses were at an all-time low for the month.

"We estimate it will be half," LeBlanc said. "The summer never really kicked in and there was lots of construction and lots of projects going on."

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