For the week of July 1 thru July 7, 1998  

Ready for Ro’s return

Local fire agencies practice protecting rural homes from wildland fire

Express Staff Writer

1fire3c.gif (6835 bytes)Wildland fires are often fought from the air using converted cargo planes that drop fire retardant and helicopters that drop water. Here, a helicopter under contract with the Bureau of Land Management makes a drop during the drill on Saturday. (Express photo by Andy Scutro)

As Pete Kramer spoke with Jim Haupt in Haupt’s driveway Saturday morning, he pointed out the green hillsides above Croy Creek where the infamous Ro fire roared through in August 1992.

Kramer, chief of fire-fighting efforts at Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey, was wearing a helmet and a bright yellow fire-retardant jumpsuit as he spoke with Haupt.

All around the men, a major-league fire drill was underway.

For two hours Saturday, crews and equipment from Wood River Fire and Rescue, Friedman Memorial Airport, Hailey, Sun Valley, Ketchum, Bellevue and Carey fire departments joined up with the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service crews to fight a simulated fire in the Sage Springs subdivision west of Hailey.

In all, 27 vehicles, about 60 firefighters and a water-dropping helicopter from the BLM took part in the drill.

Out in the Haupt’s yard, a crew from the Carey Rural Fire Department was digging a ditch in the brush that would act as a fire break.

In front of the house, a crew from the Bureau of Land Management based in Shoshone was unrolling hose from a heavy brush truck.

"You don’t mind if 30 acres of sagebrush burns off," Kramer said. "But if you put somebody’s house and livelihood out there, you’ve got a problem."

Kramer was talking about the phenomenon of "urban interface," fire-fighting jargon for protecting the growing number of homes and people from forest and range fires.

It’s an evolving issue for communities in the Wood River Valley that have spread from the towns and cities into side canyons and drainages.

Homes in places like Croy Creek become expensive, flammable buoys surrounded by a sea of fuel in the event of a major fire.

"You just don’t have wildland fires anymore, because you have the sprawl of people building out here," Kramer said.

Urban interface means the fire departments that traditionally protect homes and property have to coordinate with federal agencies like the BLM and Forest Service, which are trained to battle remote wildland blazes.

It’s no coincidence that the sixth annual urban interface drill was held in Croy Creek.

It was there in the summer of 1992 that a fire named Ro, after a firefighter’s wife Rosemary, consumed more than 21,000 acres, 10 buildings and four cars.

Ro licked at the Hailey city limits from the mouth of Croy Creek. The fire required 628 people and $1.3 million to extinguish and did an estimated $995,000 in property damage.

Other recent large-scale fires have also proven the realities of urban interface.

The Tip Top fire of 1996 burned 16,000 acres in mid-October. Earlier that year, a fire that started behind the Wood River High School scorched the hillside facing Hailey on Labor Day weekend.

Whether or not there’s a volatile fire season in the Wood River Valley this year depends on Mother Nature.

The agencies plan to be ready for a hot season.

Despite some communications breakdowns between all the agencies involved in Saturday’s drill, Wood River assistant fire chief Jeff Nevins said afterward, "I think it went pretty well."

While Nevins isn’t making any predictions about the fire potential this summer, it’s generally agreed that the wet spring has provided abundant fuel should high temperatures dry out the vegetation that encircles the valley.

As one Hailey volunteer, standing between a home under construction and thousands of acres of open brush to the south and west, said, "We could be right back here in a month."


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