BUHL, Idaho – When she was about 10 years old, Helene Byrne saw flames jumping from tree to tree during the massive forest fires of 1910. When she was 15, another fire forced her family to move from the town of Harrison, on the edge of Lake Coeur d’Alene, to Kellogg.
“There were no jobs left in Harrison,” Byrne said Thursday. “We had a little car and moved to Kellogg for work.”
Few people living today likely carry memories of the Great Fire of 1910. But Byrne attained a milestone last week when she turned 110 years old on Wednesday.
She celebrated her birthday with an open house Saturday afternoon at Evergreen Place Assisted Living in Buhl, where she’s lived for the past year. But she’s marking it in other ways as well, including joining a national study of such “supercentenarians.”
The Boston University School of Medicine New England Supercentenarian Study is claimed to be the largest recruitment of people 110 and older ever done.
According to the study’s website, there are probably between 70 and 140 supercentenarians in the country. The study has recruited 60 so far between the ages of 110 and 119.
So far, Byrne has filled out a questionnaire and a history of her life was recorded along with her medical record. The next step is looking at her blood and comparing her DNA with other supercentenarians.
On a question about why she agreed to participate in the study, daughter Shirley Anderson said her mother wrote that she thought she might be able to help someone else.
After graduating from Kellogg High School, Byrne left for Hagerman, where she taught school for a year before she was married to her husband, Lloyd.
“We met at a dance,” she said.
After getting married in 1927, the two settled in Lloyd’s hometown of Buhl. Except for a few years in Salt Lake City and Boise, the couple and their eventual two daughters always returned to the Twin Falls County town.
It’s not immediately clear how many supercentenarians have called the Magic Valley home, but Byrne’s longevity is clearly rare.
The College of Southern Idaho Office on Aging doesn’t keep track of how many people over the age of 100 it serves, said Shawna Wasko, public information and contracts manager. But she said several people older than 100 have meals delivered to their home.
Wasko also noted the 85-and-older age bracket is the fastest growing in the nation.
Anderson said her mother was able to live at home until she was 104 years old. According to the supercentenarians study, it’s not unusual for people who live to be older than 100 to be independent until a very advanced age.
Byrne’s husband, Lloyd, lived until he was 95. His brother lived to 100, and their mother lived until she was 93. Her parents died relatively young, Anderson said. They both had high blood pressure.
“Mother has had it, but it’s controlled,” Anderson said. “It shows you what modern medicine can do.”
Byrne said she doesn’t often dwell on the past, preferring to concentrate on the present.
“If somebody asked you that, what would you say?” Byrne said with a chuckle, when asked what the key to living such a long life is.
As for how Byrne has managed to live so long and stay so healthy? “I guess because I lived among good people,” she said.