Two Idaho Examples from the 2007 Fires
The fire map for August 20 of 2007 said it all. The state of Idaho was on fire.
Particularly hard hit was the area around Yellow Pine, a central Idaho community that year after year finds itself in harm’s way.
As fire storms erupted on all sides of the little town, Forest Service officials and the county sheriff prepared for a mandatory evacuation. Kif Brown, a Yellow Pine resident and assistant fire chief, explained how, late one night, a Forest Service information officer showed residents an evacuation notice, asking them to leave by the next day.
"It’s smoky as all get out in town and here he is with a flashlight showing us this proclamation order. It made us pretty uncomfortable. I would have had to be handcuffed or would have had to been going out here horizontal. And the reason for that is twofold. I have uninsured assets that I wanted to protect. But also somebody has to stay behind and help protect the community."
Brown was not alone in his refusal to obey the evacuation order. "I was determined not to go until we decided to go," said Susan Matlock, another Yellow Pine resident. "We just don’t trust the Forest Service, and that has nothing to do with our fire fighters. We love those guys and gals."
Some of Yellow Pine’s residents were upset with the way the evacuation notice had been served, and with the conflicting information they were getting from different agencies. But they were also suspicious of the motives of the Forest Service. Would fire officials use the wildfire as an excuse to just let the old town burn?
“It looked like nuclear bombs were going off and converging on us, so it was a tough time to stay behind,” said Kif Brown. “But you know, I’m one of the few people who have training in town with fire and just really felt it important to save these historic buildings, and we felt we could do it.
“A lot of people would like to see them burned and maybe the town gentrified a bit. There are very few towns you can come into and see these old buildings. People really travel a long ways and are willing to spend a lot of money to come up and see this old part of the mining history.“
A lightning bolt struck a tree about ten miles southwest of the resort town of Ketchum, Idaho. Fierce winds then pushed the fire perilously close to summer cottages and million dollar homes and the world famous ski mountain, Mount Baldy. With a major ski area at the top, and expensive homes at the bottom, and three thousand feet of combustible fuels in between, the Castle Rock fire was one tricky fire. In fact, it quickly became the Number One priority fire in America.
“I was concerned, and the neighbors were concerned,” explained Ketchum resident Rudy Kopfer. “I own a home, and it’s wooden walls and wooden roof. It’s a little frightening around here right now.”
Janet Kellam of Ketchum concurred. “It was pretty emotional, especially for some folks who are up against the trees. They haven’t had to deal with this before. And you have to make choices: if we evac, when do we get back in? What do we take? What’s going to happen to our homes? Is somebody really going to protect it? Do we trust that crews will come in? I know some people didn’t feel comfortable with that.”
“It looked like a volcano going off," explained Incident commander Jeanne Pincha-Tulley. "It really frightened most of the population around here. For us, we were ready for it. Because we took it on our terms, we were able to hold the structures, and it was a great day. For the 1400 people we evacuated, it was a terrible day.”
From the beginning, a massive information campaign kept the community informed of not only the dangers but also the game plan.
"This community is really amazing!" said Pincha-Tulley. "The support that we’ve had, the community meetings. My information shop has been working really hard to get info out on a routine basis. We’ve been doing five or six media releases a day. We’ve been working in concert with the county and city so that we get the same information out. People are so well informed that I think they’re supporting what we’re doing."
District ranger Kurt Nelson agreed. "To me this is a textbook example of how a community pulls together and works as a team. In all of our careers, we’ve never seen anything like this, where a community, faced with fire breathing right down on their community, had the ability to pull together and actually trust the Forest Service."