August 16, 2013 in Idaho

Nation’s top wildfire threatens Sun Valley, Ketchum

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Betsy Russell photo

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, left, speaks at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise on Friday; at center is Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, at right, Sen. Jim Risch
(Full-size photo)

BOISE – A wildfire that’s threatening the resort cities of Sun Valley and Ketchum has been named the nation’s No. 1 top-priority wildfire, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell announced today.

Tidwell and Idaho Gov. Butch Otter visited the fire lines this morning, and met with officials and spoke with reporters at the National Interagency Fire Center this afternoon. As of late afternoon, 1,600 homes have been evacuated in the Sun Valley-Ketchum area, and 3,500 residents have received pre-evacuation notices in an area that includes all of both cities.

Asked if the fire could come into the storied resort towns of Sun Valley and Ketchum, Tidwell said, “At this time, there’s a chance, and that’s why they’ve done the pre-evacuation notices.” He added, “They’re going to probably have a difficult day today with the fire behavior they expect.”

Otter said among those receiving pre-evacuation orders was state Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, who accompanied him on the tour this morning.

“Please carry the message back,” Otter told reporters. “If you’re asked to leave, please get out.”

Added Tidwell, “We’re not going to ask anybody to leave unless there is a real threat.”

In addition to the pre-evacuation notices, the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office advised residents in mandatory evacuation areas shortly before noon today to “GO NOW.” Heavy, congested traffic was reported on Highway 75 through the Wood River Valley, where evacuees have been asked to head south to leave the area.

The Beaver Creek fire is among several burning in central Idaho right now that have exhibited wild fire behavior that Tidwell said is the “new normal.”

Last year’s massive Trinity Ridge fire in the same region took six weeks to burn between 125,000 and 130,000 acres; Tidwell said the nearby Elk Complex fire burned close to 115,000 acres in six days.

“It’s just what we’re seeing everywhere,” he said. “Any more, this is becoming the normal type of fire behavior for this time of year.” He noted extremely dry conditions as a contributor.

“The first take-home for me is what a great job these agencies are doing,” Tidwell said, speaking from the Boise center at which all agencies’ wildfire responses are coordinated. “Our folks are doing a great job in a very coordinated, inter-agency way, to make sure we get people out of harm’s way and then do what we can to be able to address these fires when they burn into an area where we can make a stand.”

Wind gusts of up to 30 mph were reported in the Sun Valley-Ketchum area this afternoon, worsening the conditions.

Otter said the officials’ tour highlighted how the Elk Complex fire had destroyed 95 percent of the structures in Falls Creek Canyon, and also trapped and killed a band of sheep and cause other extensive damage. He also flew over the McCan Fire, which “for all intents and purposes is out,” and the Pony Complex fire, which he said is substantially controlled. The progress on those other fires has allowed crews to be transferred to the Beaver Creek fire as the new top priority, which now has more than 600 firefighters working to halt the flames.

As of this morning, the Elk Complex fire was 40 percent contained; and the Pony Complex was 80 percent contained.

The Beaver Creek fire, which was ignited by lightning Aug. 7, was 9 percent contained as of this morning.


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