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Mountain News: Ketchum escapes fire



KETCHUM, Idaho – Firefighters on Monday finally declared victory over a 48,000-acre forest fire whose flames had invaded the slopes of the Sun Valley ski area’s Bald Mountain, forced the evacuation of 2,500 homes at its base in Ketchum, and dislocated expectant mothers to hospitals in Boise.

Despite an estimated $3.7 billion in assets to protect, no structures were destroyed, nor were there serious injuries.

Started in mid-August by lightning, the fire foreshadowed what may well someday happen adjacent to ski towns in Colorado and elsewhere. There has been almost no precipitation in Ketchum since winter, which itself was dry, with a snowpack that was 47 per cent of average in early April. Winters more often than not have been below average in the last decade. The trees — primarily Douglas fir, subalpine fir, and aspen — are mostly mature, with patches already dead from a bark beetle epidemic.

But critical in creating the big fire were winds, at times strong enough to snap tree trunks, which pushed the flames toward Ketchum and Sun Valley.

Last week those winds skittered firebrands two miles ahead of the fire onto Bald Mountain. Firefighters were able to stomp them out, but the fire came within 50 feet of the Seattle Ridge Lodge, a mountain-top restaurant. The resort’s snow-making system was used to dampen the vegetation, but the key to forestalling a further advance onto the mountain were several backburns 800 to 1,000 feet wide, which deprived the fire of fuels.

Smoke from the fire reduced visibility at times to two miles in the Wood River Valley, where the resorts are located. Joggers were advised against running outdoors, but those that did anyway left footprints in the ash that had fallen. One private gymnasium installed a charcoal air-filter system. St. Luke’s, the local hospital, remained open, but encouraged some visits to other hospitals out of potential harm’s way.

The valley’s economy shuddered. One restaurateur, Keith Perry, said that the fire and smoke quelled business by 25 per cent at the start, and it just got worse. A bookstore owner told the Idaho Mountain Express what should have been the best time of year had become the worst.

With flames still advancing, and worries about the valley’s lone two-lane highway being tied up with traffic, Ketchum city officials reluctantly cancelled Labour Day festivities. Wagon Days, which celebrates the valley’s pioneering heritage as an outfitter for mines, draws upward of 10,000 people. Also cancelled were a music festival and a performance of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.

Ron Le Blanc, the city administrator in Ketchum, estimated that tax collections on retail sales and lodging will be down 50 per cent for August.