Beaver Creek Fire: Lessons learned from a wildfire

HAILEY, Idaho (KBOI) - Dangerously close. That's what fire crews and neighbors in Hailey and Ketchum are still saying about the Beaver Creek Fire, which ripped through the Sawtooth National Forest in August 2013, scorching more than 111,000 acres.

Bob Grabowski has lived in his home in Hailey for 30 years, and has been evacuated from his home twice.

"That's enough," he laughed. "That's quite sufficient."

The blaze threatened some 5,000 homes, and the firefighters working to protect those homes. Grabowski's home was salvaged, and now the burn scars are starting to heal.

"Already you see it's begun to green up," he said, pointing at the burn line which came within feet of his back door.

However, the fear of losing his home nine months ago is a memory that no crew can extinguish.

"It was just devastating," Grabowski said.

Lightning sparked the blaze around midnight on August 7, 2013 in Camas County. The fire pushed north through the Sawtooth National Forest, and winds drove it east into Blaine County toward Highway 75. By August 15, flames ripped down over the mountains into areas like Greenhorn Gulch, just north of Hailey.

"This whole area burned probably in about four hours," Ketchum Fire Chief Mike Elle said. Elle and his crews were tasked with helping to protect the homes in Greenhorn Gulch. However, Elle said the morning the fire flew into the gulch, their equipment order arrived only a few hours before the flames did.

"We didn't have any time to prep," Elle said. "That made things a little more dangerous than usual. We were just relying on engines to pull into the driveways and do what they could with what they had on their engine and their crew."

The blaze swept up against dozens of homes in the Greenhorn area, but thanks to firefighters, only one was lost to the Beaver Creek Fire.

"They did a fantastic job," Elle said. "By all rights we should have lost all of the homes when a fire front like that went through."

"Bless the fire people who were just amazing. Absolutely amazing," Grabowski said.

Elle said his crews stood directly in between the homes and the fire front to fight the flames, but by doing that, he worries crews were putting too much on the line.

"There was some comments that the firefighters that were out here may have stayed too long," he said. "When the fire storm was going on in here that they may have, should have, backed out and come back in when it passed. But firefighters are firefighters.It's what we do, and we love what we do. You know, it's how you fight fires. You stand up against it with a hose and you put it out and that's kind of in our blood. Sometimes we forget that we should be protecting ourselves instead of a property that can be replaced."

Because of that, the Ketchum Fire Department is changing the way it trains crews to attack wildfires.

"A home is not worth the injuries or a firefighter death," Elle said. "It simply isn't"

The chief said the department will focus training efforts on distinguishing when it's okay to stand and fight, versus when crews absolutely have to back off.

"All we're doing is instead of standing between the home and the fire front when it gets there, we're going to walk around the other side of the house and let the fire burn around the house and then we're going to go back and put it out," Elle explained.

But he said in order for this strategy to work, homeowners have to take responsibility to make sure their house can handle the heat. In the backcountry, the fire department said that goes beyond having defensible space.

"A lot of the damage to homes we had and the loss of buildings we had were due to wood shake roofs," Elle said.

It's a building choice that could be a costly change, but the Ketchum Fire Department said several roofs in Greenhorn Gulch caught fire during the Beaver Creek Fire, so they're trying to get the message out. They're changing their ways, and you need to as well.

Bob Grabowski has lived in his home for 30 years, and when KBOI 2News asked him if he would think about making changes to his house in light of what happened, he said he wasn't sure. But he says when push comes to shove, he would let his house burn if it meant he could help out the brave firefighters who put it all on the line for him last summer.

"There is no comparison whatsoever," he said. "I love my home. I love the collection of art we have here and all of that but they are things, and things can be replaced."