Friday, December 28, 2007

Castle Rock Fire brought valley together

Lightning-sparked blaze burned for 20 days near Ketchum

Express Staff Writer

As a structure firefighter looks on, a Sikorsky S-61 Fire King helicopter drops a load of water to stop advancing flames from reaching homes in the Greenhorn Gulch drainage south of Ketchum. Photo by Willy Cook

Making its way onto local, state and national headlines, the Wood River Valley's biggest story of 2007 was something locals learned they had little control over.

Ignited by a single bolt of lightning on the warm and gusty afternoon of Thursday, Aug. 19, the fast-moving Castle Rock Fire eventually marched across 48,520 acres of Smoky Mountain backcountry in just 20 days.

During those dark days, fire crews constructed an astonishing 97.5 miles of fire line and laid down 71 miles of fire hose to aid in the large-scale fire-suppression effort.

During the fire's fiercest days, more than 1,700 firefighters, supported by helicopters, air tankers and bulldozers, worked to control the blaze, which for a time was the nation's No. 1 priority wildfire.

At times it looked like the fire might triumph despite the firefighters' most valiant efforts. Threatened by the blaze's advance were residential neighborhoods in the Warm Springs Creek drainage, in the Hulen Meadows and Fox Creek areas and from St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center south to the East Fork of the Big Wood River.

Along the way, the Castle Rock Fire also made heroes of the firefighters who fought to control it. One firefighter in particular became the darling of the extended Wood River Valley community.

Standing front and center in the face of the onslaught, Castle Rock Fire incident commander Jeanne Pincha-Tulley became an overnight sensation for her straight-talking ways and ability to soothe even the most frayed of nerves. At least one local elected official went so far as to suggest that a ski run on Bald Mountain—the beloved ski area she and other wildland firefighters fought successfully to save—be named in her honor.

So far no action has been taken, but stay tuned.

From its origins south of Warm Springs Road near Castle Rock, the fire burned in multiple directions according to how the erratic winds were blowing and what types of fuels were available. The blaze's earliest advances sent it burning northeast into the Rooks Creek, Adams Gulch, Eve Gulch and Fox Creek drainages. Local elected officials issued a series of mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders affecting up to 2,500 homes in response to the fast-moving flames.

The large fire later took off to the southeast, burning up and over the major ridge separating Warm Springs Creek and Greenhorn Gulch. Reaching Greenhorn Gulch, the fire briefly threatened homes there before racing northeast to within 50 yards of the Seattle Ridge Lodge.

Several days later, a small spot fire burning in the lower Bassett Gulch area, 1.5 miles west of Bald Mountain, charged up Baldy's back side to the 9,151-foot summit, once again threatening Sun Valley Resort's infrastructure. But as they had so many times before, firefighters fought back and were able to keep the advancing flames at bay.

Unfortunately, the fire did lead to a temporary lull in tourism. It also led to the cancellation of Ketchum's annual Wagon Days celebration.

But instead of responding to the fire with resignation, valley residents offered shelter, food and much-needed encouragement to their displaced neighbors and the firefighters struggling to save their cherished valley. Out of the fire, the community's grace under pressure and unwavering sense of generosity became a story in itself.

North to south, the fire's containment on the rainy morning of Tuesday, Sept. 4, came as a great relief. 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 valley's response to the fire came from the firefighters themselves. They expressed amazement about the almost endless lines of community volunteers, offers of food and shelter, constant waves of encouragement from street sides and the homemade signs scattered throughout the valley thanking them for their efforts.

Equally important is what the fire didn't do. No homes or lives were lost from the onslaught of the largest wildfire in the recorded history of the Wood River Valley.

Set against winter's brilliant backdrop of white, the blackened, needle-straight snags poking through the snow on Griffin Butte and Guyer Ridge on Baldy, as well as in the Fox Creek and Greenhorn Gulch drainages, will stand as mute reminders to those late summer days of 2007 for decades to come.

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