Just as hundreds of pedestrians were hitting the streets for Hailey's first city-wide music festival Monday afternoon, a plume of smoke rose over the China Gardens neighborhood west of town. Several residents of Aspen Drive fought the blaze with garden hoses before firefighters arrived and took over.
Hailey police are investigating the cause of the "suspicious" fire that consumed some 7 1/2 acres of riverside land and threatened 12 homes between the China Gardens neighborhood and the Big Wood River. The fire, which was first reported at 4:16 p.m., consumed three unoccupied outbuildings and spread over much of the private property before being contained. No injuries were reported.
Hailey Police Chief Jeff Gunter told the Idaho Mountain Express Tuesday afternoon his department is seeking the location of certain Hailey residents who may have caused the blaze.
Aspen Drive residents Wyatt Caldwell and Chris Mattias fought the blaze only a few yards from their home with garden hoses for several minutes before firefighters arrived.
"It was everywhere all at once," said Wyatt. "There was cottonwood cotton on the ground four inches deep and it just burned all at once."
Caldwell and Mattias moved aside after fire crews arrived and went to work. Gray smoke churned into the sky between 5 and 6:30 p.m. as firefighters tried to gain the upper hand and prevent the blaze from moving onto residential properties. Residents in adjacent neighborhoods reported that hot embers and ash rained down on their properties during the height of the blaze.
According to information released by the city of Hailey, 13 engines from all Wood River Valley agencies responded to the fire. Upon arrival, firefighters found a small but rapidly growing wildfire burning with 30-foot flame lengths threatening 12 homes, with fire impinging on six of those homes. During the firefighting efforts, eight to 10 tall cottonwood trees fell and 12 were cut down to protect the firefighters from injury.
The fire was deemed to be under control by 8 p.m. Monday and most firefighters were released from the scene by 11 p.m., the city reported. However, firefighters from Wood River Fire & Rescue and Hailey were still on the scene Tuesday afternoon, to ensure that smoldering areas did not reignite.
"I think everyone was astonished at how fast this fire moved," said Fire Chief Mike Chapman on Tuesday. "These were green and lush trees, but the cotton is only this thick four or five days a year. We have done tests on it and found that it can burn two city blocks in 20 seconds. A person cannot outrun it when it burns."
Chapman said the river trail along the west side of the Big Wood River is open to Heagle Park, but that areas of the burn will remain off limits until firefighters can be sure the hollow trunks of the tall cottonwood trees are not smoldering.
Fire departments from Bellevue, Hailey, Ketchum, Sun Valley and Blaine County (Wood River Fire & Rescue) responded to the blaze. Friedman Memorial Airport sent an aircraft crash/rescue truck and the Bureau of Land Management responded with an engine from Carey. In addition to the 13 structural engines that responded, five support staff vehicles aided in extinguishing the fire. Seven engines were assigned to structural protection on Aspen Drive, while the remaining units fought the fire on two fronts.
"We used almost every resource in the valley," said Chapman. "It is amazing the amount of wildfire resources used on events like these."
Management of the fire was turned over to Wood River Fire & Rescue Chief Bart Lassman at 9 a.m. Tuesday. The National Weather Service has predicted substantial winds this afternoon. Crews have been assigned to extinguish all remaining "hot spots" in the burn area today to ensure they are not re-ignited by wind gusts.
The cost of the fire is currently estimated at $50,000.