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Fighting Fire With Fire

The Fire That Saved Sun Valley

by LANCE OLSEN

In 2007, fire broke out in the forest west of Sun Valley, Idaho.  Prevailing west-to-east winds pushed it toward the long-famed resort town, precipitating vigorous firefighting efforts to protect Sun Valley, nearby Ketchum and homes of both modest and ostentatiously pretentious scale. This fire, named the Castle Rock Fire, was successfully stopped before wiping out the towns and homes.

End of story? Nope.

As The Wall Street Journal’s reporter Jim Carlton pointed out six years after the 2007 fire, (Fighting Fire With Fire to Save Idaho Resort, August 22, 2013, page A4) the Castle Rock Fire also saved Idaho towns and homes when another fire broke out in 2013.

In 2013, fire started west of the old 2007 burn. Prevailing west-to-east winds pushed this new fire too toward Sun Valley and Ketchum, or at least it pushed the new fire in that direction until the new fire – named the Beaver Creek Fire — got into the area burned in 2007, by the Castle Rock fire. Once there, the Beaver Creek fire fizzled.

“Without Castle Rock,” fire expert Wayne Patterson told the The Wall Street Journal, “we would have had a much larger [fire] front to deal with, and it probably would have made it into Ketchum.” The Journal’s reporter, Jim Carlton, further referenced Patterson for saying that the 42,000 acre fire of 2007 ended up causing little property damage, but left a buffer of land that protected property in the fire of 2013.

Once again, the resort towns and less flamboyant places were saved from fire, but this time it was an old fire saving them from the next one.

All this brings several things to mind for all of us who understand that fire is a feature of forested places. First, this story does nothing to diminish the role that firefighters played, or the risks to life and limb we force them to take when we expect them to save humble cabins or extravagant McMansions from burning.

Second, the fact that it was The Wall Street Journal explaining how Idaho property was saved by the same 2007 fire that had threatened it tells us that we can find some truths about fires in unexpected places. Too often, we take our news of fire from sources that don’t cover all the bases, so it’s always a good idea to shop around a bit before we let ourselves arrive at conclusions.

Third, and more important in my own opinion, is that this story tells us something interesting about the fires of 2013. A fire that briefly threatened the town of Lolo, Montana this year might be as good an example as any.  Like Idaho’s Castle Rock Fire of 2007, prevailing west-to-east winds pushed this fire close to entering the town. Like the Castle Rock, this fire was stopped by energetic firefighting.  Now the question is whether it has now provided an already burnt-over area that will provide a buffer against future fire risk for the Montana town.  Will some future news story report that a fire saved Lolo from fire?

More broadly, though, what we have here is good reason to see fire as an effective control on fire. Fire experts have seen this potential for quite some time, and have long been scrutinizing use of deliberately set – prescribed – fires to do the same work as Idaho’s Castle Rock Fire did for Ketchum and Sun Valley.

These proposals often meet public reaction that is, so to speak, explosive.

Locals raise grievances about smoke. Many an activist argues that the agencies don’t really know what they’re doing, and can’t be trusted to keep prescribed fires in control. And some prescribed fires have indeed spread beyond the acreage they were intended to burn. As a case in point, the Montana Supreme Court in 2013 ordered agencies to pay a rancher for damage caused when a prescribed fire spread to his land.

These, however, may be merely expressions of the normal human tendency to live in the passing moment without a thought of tomorrow. For example, from the world of wildlife we know that species ranging from ruffed grouse to elk and moose often thrive in areas where fire has done its work on the land.  These benefits aren’t immediate but, within just a few years, the likes of elk can experience something of a population boom where fire has set the stage for growth of grasses and shrubs making up some of their most important food sources.

And, after a 1988 fire swept out of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness and across his land, a Montana rancher shrugged it off, telling me he wouldn’t be able to put his cows on the burned ground anytime soon, but the grasses would bounce back by the following year. Perhaps the 2007 fire that saved Idaho resort towns in 2013 just underscores what that rancher said about the difference between today and tomorrow.

Lance Olsen, Montana native, has served as council member of the Montana Wilderness Association, advisor to the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, and president of the Great Bear Foundation from 1982-1992. He currently runs a listserv restricted to climate researchers, wildlife researchers, agency staff, grad students, and NGOs operating from local to global scale.