Idaho Burning

It started innocently enough on Thursday August 7th in the dark of night. I sat on my back patio near the Big Wood River as the wind howled through the towering cottonwoods, strong enough that they bent, but didn’t break. There were a few trees down in the neighborhood the next day however. It blew, then spit rain for about 20 minutes, and the sky grew black. Some lightning sparked in the distance. Then it was over and gone, just like that. The stars sparkled and everything was calm, the mountain storm had blown through.

The next day I woke early to get a start on a summit attempt on Hyndman Peak in the Pioneer Range. From the top, I could see a single column of smoke in the distance. A lightning sparked wildfire, surely it would be under control, as it is a common occurence in Idaho, wildfires pop up throughout the state in the summer, although the recent ‘Elk Complex” and “Pony Complex” fires were growing into large sprawling blazes and threatening homes further west of Hailey, closer to Boise.

From south(Hailey) to north(Ketchum) the fire grows.

From south(Hailey) to north(Ketchum) the fire grows.

The blaze continued to grow and was christened the “Beaver Creek” fire, and the smoke flew higher and darker, and was now easily looming over from the Sun Valley area. Then all hell broke loose, meaning the temperatures soared, the humidity dropped, and the blaze grew into a beast and spread rapidly- nearly 9000 acres in one day. Although it stayed to the west of town, and incident leaders expressed concern that if it came down the Deer Creek and Greenhorn drainages, it could be big trouble, perhaps they could keep it contained in a northerly direction towards Dollarhide Summit, then it would be OK. The blaze had other ideas, and soon crested the ridge and started running down towards the Wood River Valley. The smoke was unbearable for several days, you couldn’t see a quarter of a mile. You certainly couldn’t go mountain biking, hiking, or really do anything in this outdoor playground. The whole valley was clogged with smoke.

The fire enters Greenhorn Gulch.

The fire enters Greenhorn Gulch.

There were now several fires raging across southern Idaho, and continuing to grow, and the weather wasn’t giving it a break. The morning inversions kept the smoke stuck in the valley, and then when the winds picked up in the afternoon, the fires grew even bigger. Then the worst was confirmed, the Beaver Creek fire jumped the ridge and started running east down Deer Creek towards Hailey. Then it crested into Greenhorn Gulch, which was full of dry fuel from dead, beetle killed trees. The blaze roared down the drainages on August 15th and 16th, consuming some of the finest hiking and biking trail systems in the area. The fire roared down Imperial Gulch and literally blew away the house at it’s mouth. Remarkably, this was the only permanent structure lost to the blaze. It was time to go, the evacuation notice was delivered. I grabbed the kids, dogs, and a few belongings and left, unsure if I’d see our place again. The sky behind me as I headed south was filled with smoke, towering unbelievably high. It looked like armageddon. The fire ended up running down to the Big Wood River, where a supposedly remarkable battle by the fire crews, which had now swelled to 1800, saved the neighborhood, and the rest of the houses in Greenhorn. In total, 2300 homes were evacuated. The focus now was to protect the Sun Valley resort, which had cut massive fire lines, and turned on their snowmaking equipment in an effort to raise the humidity. The town of Ketchum was abandoned, and even the Casino bar closed it’s doors, which none of the long-timers can ever remember happening.

A small part of an impressive aerial defense.

A small part of an impressive aerial defense.

The towns were saved of course, and on the recreation front, the trails in Greenhorn, Deer Creek, Baker Creek and the East Fork of Baker Creek including Osberg Ridge will be closed for the foreseeable future. The popular Coyote Yurts which accessed some of the best trails, and is operated by Sun Valley Trekking were also lost to the blaze, although the company says it plans to rebuild before the winter for ski access. There is still plenty of mountain biking opportunities in the area, and now that the fires are gone, and the temps cooler, fall is the ideal time to experience some of the other great trails that the area has to offer.

The Beaver Creek fire burns into Imperial Gulch, and soon crests the hill heading towards Hwy 75

The Beaver Creek fire burns into Imperial Gulch, and soon crests the hill heading towards Hwy 75

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