Ski resort fire a bad omen? |

Ski resort fire a bad omen?

Allen Best
Vail, CO Colorado
Elaine Thompson/APFlames and smoke roll above a home in the Warm Springs area of Ketchum, Idaho, Aug. 30.

KETCHUM, Idaho ” Firefighters last week 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 since winter, which itself was dry, with a snowpack that was 47 percent of average in early April.

Winters more often than not have been below average in the last decade. The trees ” mostly 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 stalling 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 percent at the start, and it just got worse. A bookstore owner told the Idaho Mountain Express said 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 canceled Labor Day festivities. Wagon Days, which celebrates the valley’s pioneering heritage as an outfitter for mines, draws upward of 10,000 people. Also canceled 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 percent for August.

Some of the downturn was caused by the absence of arriving tourists. But part of the story was of second-home owners decamping or failing to arrive. The Mountain Express tells of art pieces ” Picassos, Renoirs, O’Keeffes and others ” being encased and flown out on private planes.

“There are a number of collectors in the valley that have paintings and sculpture of significant value, pieces that you would read about in the New York Times,” said Gail Severn, an art gallery owner.

While the U.S. Forest Service spent upwards of $16 million on the fire ” including the use of 19 helicopters, 7 bulldozers, and 106 engines ” one insurance company dispatched its own crew to the scene to apply flame retardant to homes.

AIG Private Client Group has been offering loss-prevention services to more expensive homes built in what is called the urban-wildlands interface. In the Ketchum-Sun Valley area, it had 40 high-end homes at risk in the fire, to which flame retardant was applied by a contractor from Montana.

A company spokesman, Peter Tulupman, told the Idaho Statesman that the company realized several years ago that it could save money if it took a proactive approach to wildfires.

Don Smurthwaite, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, told the New York Times that the agencies see no downside to the company’s work.

“The homeowner receives added protection, the insurance may be able to avoid a large payoff, and it frees up firefighters to work on suppression rather than protecting structures,” he said. “That’s one the big change in firefighting in the last 20 years. People are moving into areas that have burned historically.”

The Idaho Mountain Express recalled small efforts ” a matter of a few truck loads of wood “in recent years to thin the forest on the edge of residential areas. But no efforts had been made to remove wood from where the fire started and took off.

“It doesn’t make sense to do fuels reduction where you don’t have homes,” said the local district ranger, Kurt Nelson.

At a briefing, federal firefighting officials were asked to comment on the relative size and difficulty of the fire. “

“Ten years ago, 46,000 acres was a big fire,” they said. “But with the amount of drying and the amount of fuels in the forest now, this isn’t a small fire, but it’s not a huge fire,

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