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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited. 

For the week of Aug 28 - Sept 3, 2002

Opinion Columns

A new approach to where ‘Smoky’ left off?

Commentary by PAT MURPHY

In an age when reckless personal behavior and self-indulgence is part of the culture, carelessness that causes devastating fires probably doesn’t rank high on the list of urgent social emergencies.

Maybe it’s time it did.

Twice in as many months, hundreds of acres of Wood River Valley brush land have been wiped out in fast-moving fires that authorities blame on foolish young people playing with incendiary materials.

In July, a juvenile firing a bottle rocket touched off a fire that swept up a hillside in Indian Creek north of Hailey. Then last week, more than 1,000 acres of the foothills south of Hailey bordering the Woodside area east of Friedman Memorial Airport were devoured in a blaze caused by a 9-year-old paying with matches.

Since criminal charges aren’t customarily filed, the only practical recourse fire fighting agencies have after these costly, devastating fires is to try recovering costs from those who set the fires. But federal, state and local fire agencies rarely if ever seek full reimbursement: last week’s fire ran up an estimated $296,000 in fire fighting costs, a kingly sum not likely within the reach of the family whose child set the blaze.

Yes, many of the costs are fixed, such as fire fighting personnel who’re always on duty. But other costs are not, such as the costs of bringing in expensive aerial fire fighting helicopters and aircraft.

Ultimately, however, the most expensive cost is the loss of habitat for wildlife that depend on range land growth for forage, not to mention the ugly, scorched scar left for years to heal.

With fire fighting costs and fire losses on public lands skyrocketing, fire fighting agencies need to put their heads together and produce an aggressive new education and prevention program to protect public lands from carelessness and indifference.

Static signboards with slogans are fine as reminders. In his prime, Smoky the Bear did wonders to teach children to be careful.

America’s marketing geniuses who’ve created spellbinding reality TV shows could perform miracles with new generations: surely they have the skills to develop a dramatic ad series that can rivet the attention of parents and their children on the tragic consequences of carelessness that causes fires.

I don’t know Ron Taylor. But he’s a man who obviously knows when to exit a no-win situation when he sees one.

Taylor is the Blaine County sheriff’s lieutenant whom Ketchum Mayor Ed Simon abruptly tapped to become assistant police chief over the rigorous objections of Ketchum Police Chief Cal Nevland, who preferred one of his own, Lt. Mike McNeil, for the job.

So, Taylor could see the prospect of working alongside a police chief who didn’t want him, a chief who felt so strongly that he even filed a lawsuit against the mayor, his titular boss, challenging the mayor’s right to appoint subordinates in a city department.

After just a few days on the job, Taylor decided to return to the sheriff’s department.

So, Taylor has helped resolve part of the turmoil brought on by Mayor Simon’s failed appointment and by Chief Nevland’s lawsuit. Lt. McNeil, meanwhile, filed a grievance against the city claiming he was not given a chance for the assistant chief’s job.

Where all this is headed was up in the air this week.

But Mayor Simon surely has second thoughts. This is the second time in his relatively young administration of eight months that a precipitous decision involving major city hall personnel has backfired.

Earlier, he wanted to unceremoniously replace city attorney Margaret Simms without consulting the city council. He backed off after an uproar.

Now the flap with the police chief, which, notwithstanding the mayor’s denials, has the appearance of a grudge match going back to a disastrous, ill-fated attempt by Simon to fire Nevland during his earlier stint on the city council and that led to Simon’s recall from office.

Perhaps the mayor has reasons for these jarring new personnel decisions. If so, he needs to explain them adequately lest he appear he’s just pointlessly hiring and firing to change the faces in city hall.

However, maybe the best credo for the mayor right now is the old chestnut – if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.



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