Friday, September 7, 2007

Gifts arise from the ashes

Warm Springs couple defy the flames


By DANA DUGAN
Express Staff Writer

Helicopters make use of a lake next door to the Vierling home. Photos by Lisa Vierling

The Castle Rock Fire seemed to start and end at Lisa and Michael Vierling's front door near Frenchman's Bend, in upper Warm Springs, west of Ketchum. On Friday, Aug. 17, Vierling had just returned from her World Cup Travel office in Ketchum when she received a call from a friend.

"She said, 'I don't know if you knew there's a fire near you.' I walked up the road towards the hot springs and you could see it right there," she said. "So I looked for Michael who was in town. When he came he brought hoses. Then we went up to look at the fire, and it was pretty much out of control. It was really quite something."

The Vierlings' compound of historical cabins, home, hot springs and a barn has been the site of many parties and gatherings over the years, including the annual Holiday Bazaar, dinners for visitors from Ketchum's sister city, Tegernsee, Germany, and a myriad of other events. Her hospitality, vitality and gorgeous home are well known around the valley. Vierling's eyes welled up as she continued.

"I just spent 18 years working on the house and property and I felt I owed it to the place to stay and protect it. It's been a good place for so many of us.

"What (Ketchum fire chief) Mike Elle did and the fire departments—such an amazing job. They should really be commended for the care they took. They came and said 'We have this game plan. You have four hours to evacuate.' All these people came out with trucks to help us. I have all these collections of my family's and my own. A collection of treasures. People just came out and did it. I can't thank them enough."

After removing their possessions, the Vierlings decided to stay despite repeated warnings.

"We thought we should stay and defend it," she said. "So we did. So did some of our neighbors¾Steve Hayward, an ex-firefighter whose family has been out in that canyon for 100 years, Bob Laughlin, who is building out there, and Leigh and Jerry Josephson. They felt the same way. We needed to keep everything wet. We supported each other and became a family."

Vierling said the way the firefighters—Alpine Company from Carson City and Rockin' R from New Mexico—mobilized was impressive.

"They knew we'd elected to stay and felt it was admirable but dangerous. So they taught us LCES, which is 'look out for the fire, communicate, develop an escape route and have a safety zone.

"I learned about fires, how they move. This was a fire started by Mother Nature. She'll go where she wants. You don't try to put her out like you would a fire started by a person. You try to tame her. They fight them differently. Fire has its characteristics. When it burns uphill it moves fast. When it comes down it goes slower. You had to sometimes just sit back and watch nature's fireworks display."

Around the Vierlings' home used to be all old-growth timber. The fire raged on three sides of them for nearly a week.

"We hiked up to the cougar caves above us one night, and the hills were blackened, and the fire looked like five devils of fire dancing in Frenchman's Saddle. After a while we knew all the firefighters' names. The commander, Steve Mello, is the oldest working smokejumper at 57. Fascinating.

"When I grow up I want to be a hot shot. They are so cool. They're in the fire, and they move the fire. They're like animals with packs. It's incredible what they do and how they put their lives on the line for us with such dedication and knowledge of fires. It's a brotherhood, the biggest Boy Scout group I've seen—organized and disciplined. It's fascinating to be a victim of a fire and have the care of these people and see how personally they take their job. When it was over, the firefighters who'd been with us came to us and thanked us. They said this community was amazing, thankful and giving."

Vierling is a born earth mother, with long flowing blonde locks. She said a friend begged her to braid her wild mane lest it catch fire. Though she had trouble sleeping for fear of where the fire was moving each night, she managed to keep her home welcoming.

"We'd get up at 7 a.m. and make coffee. Mornings were very smoky. During the day I was cooking and cutting my roses, giving them to the firefighters and taking them to Bob's. Everyone came over for breakfast and then lunch at our house. Then we'd have dinner at Bob's on my bistro tables that we moved. I had one black velvet dress that I'm wearing still, a couple of sailing slickers, a pair of thongs, a toothbrush and a comb. I found some tennis shoes. I still don't know where all my stuff is. People took things and then they were evacuated, too, so I'm still trying to track down my clothes and furniture."

After a week, the band of persevering homeowners began running out of food.

"Mother Hubbard's cabin got pretty bare," Vierling said. "My friend, Byron Karrys, snuck a motorbike out and got food for us at people's houses. He was like Robin Hood. We got the food but he got caught and was placed under house arrest."

During the day Michael hosed down every building and spread water over the property. It took a full day to accomplish. Next door at Tony Robbins' home, helicopters came and went regularly, sucking up water from his lake.

"They looked like dragonflies chasing each other," she said. "It was living with the fire all the time. We got so that we actually walked under the fire one night with Steve, with shovels and water to see how it worked.

"One day we had three fires coming at us at one time. I was doing LCES. I had my escape route. One of my choices was Tony's lake. So I had snorkel equipment, the dogs and the family jewels in the car ready to go."

After 20 days, the Vierlings were allowed out of their self-imposed prison, (she took to calling herself the "Prisoner of Zenda"). They remain profoundly affected.

"The people in this community have been incredible," Vierling said. "At one point our phones and electricity went out. It fried my computer. One of the firefighters was concerned that we be able to stay in communication so he fixed it. I could look at the incident site and see the maps on the Idaho Mountain Express site, which was fantastic.

"The fire enhanced my life. It changed me forever. We were in something that could have been so awful and we came out with so many gifts, including to be able to see how professional the firefighters are and what nature really does."

At the end, the rains came and doused the last of the burning embers that roasted still from Warm Springs to Greenhorn. The Vierlings' front door still stands, open and ready for more celebrations.




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