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Ketchum Prepares For Wildfires As Drought Worsens

An old burn area from the Beaver Creek Fire north of Ketchum. Burned trees litter the ground and charred trees surround them. Foothills can be seen in the distance.
Rachel Cohen
/
Boise State Public Radio
A burn area north of Ketchum from the 2013 Beaver Creek Fire, pictured in June of 2021.

For the first time, the Wood River Valley is in the most severe drought category of the U.S. Drought Monitor, according to the city of Ketchum.

Ketchum Fire Chief Bill McLaughlin said the extreme dry weather could mean more fire starts that are harder to put out.

“The hills right now are already brown and look a lot like they normally do in early August," he said.

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise announced it was moving to "Preparedness Level 4" this week, which means the country is already experiencing significant wildland fire activity and more than half of the nation's fire resources are being used.

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This week, cities in the valley, and Blaine County itself, passed a firework ban, and Ketchum is set to enter Stage One fire restrictions this week, which prohibits campfires and most outdoor smoking.

McLaughlin said Ketchum also purchased a new wildland firefighting engine this year and new firefighting hand tools, and firefighters spent more time training to tackle wildland fires.

The valley used to have significant fires every 10 years or so, McLaughlin said, but with climate change, fire seasons have gotten longer and drier.

Two major fires in recent years have triggered evacuations — the Castle Rock Fire in 2007 and the Beaver Creek Fire in 2013. Some fire managers have said the Castle Rock burn area provided a protective buffer to some parts of the community when the Beaver Creek Fire came through.

Now, shrubs and sagebrush have grown back in some of those spots. And McLaughlin said while that landscape is theoretically easier to treat than dense forests, it all depends on the available personnel.

“We don’t have a guarantee that when that fire starts, we’re going to be able to call up and get helicopters, get retardant ships or get the hand crews that we need to stop the fire while it's still small enough," he said.

McLaughlin said many firefighters are already committed to blazes across the region.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

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