KETCHUM, Idaho (AP) — The Sharps Fire has had Wood River Valley residents crossing their fingers that it would not be a repeat of the 2013 Beaver Creek Fire, which burned more than 100,000 acres on the west side of the valley and prompted widespread evacuations.
On July 31, the Carey School was transformed into a firefighting command center, as Great Basin Incident Management Team 1 arrived to take over leadership of fighting the fast-growing Sharps Fire, which was started July 29 east of Bellevue. It’s the same team that came in for the 2013 fire, and with it came Incident Commander Beth Lund_who was also in charge in 2013. Many in the valley have welcomed her back whole-heartedly.
“(The community’s) just been so welcoming, and they were welcoming the first time,” Lund said.
On Aug. 1, the city of Hailey put out a banner, hung high above Main Street, thanking firefighters for their service.
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The Idaho Mountain Express caught up with Lund last weekend at the incident command center, which had surrounded the school with tents set up for firefighters to have a place to sleep, eat and shower.
Five years ago, Lund told the Express that she was eyeing retirement, but says now that she no longer sees it on the near horizon and aims to continue managing Great Basin Team 1 as long as she has something to contribute.
“People think (retirement is) going to be easy, and for some people it probably is an easy choice. But I like to feel useful and I’m kind of a workaholic,” Lund said.
For 43 years, Lund has worked with wildfires all over the West. A self-dubbed “Navy brat,” Lund graduated high school in 1973 in the Bay Area and moved to Chester, California, where she pursued a degree in forestry. She was recruited by the Forest Service in 1976, when the agency was in the middle of dealing with a lawsuit on the basis of sexual discrimination and in search of women to fill a statistical quota.
The suit was filed in 1972, after a female employee was refused a promotion and raise in pay. It led to the first steps within the Forest Service to give women the same jobs and equal pay as men. It was a drastic leap from a 1950 agency employment leaflet that stated the agency’s position on women in field positions: “The field work of the Forest Service is strictly a man’s job because of the physical requirements, the arduous nature of the work, and the work environment.”
The suit allowed appointment of the first female forest supervisor in the agency’s history, at the Tahoe National Forest in California in 1985. A year later, the first female candidate for smokejumper training arrived at the McCall smokejumper base in Idaho.
But Lund said she doesn’t like to dwell on the fact that she’s a woman in her role. She left California in 1984 at the conclusion of the lawsuit and implementation of a consent decree that forced the Forest Service to open positions to women previously reserved for men.
“I didn’t want to be one of those people that just gets a job because I’m a female,” she said. “So, when they were trying to get females to get into higher-ranking jobs for statistics and stuff, I felt I wanted to be ready when I wanted to move into supervision and management. So, I left and went to Idaho.”
She landed in Lowman and began working for the Great Basin Team in 1986 as a division supervisor. After taking a few years away from wildfires to raise her two children, Allison and Casey, Lund came back to the team and eventually became one of only three female incident commanders in the country.
One of the other female incident commanders_Jeanne Pincha-Tulley_has also come to the Wood River Valley’s rescue, in 2007 for the Castle Rock Fire.
“I remember coming to the Beaver Creek Fire and people told me Jeanne is a local hero because her team put out the Castle Rock Fire,” Lund said. “And then we came and did Beaver Creek and now we’re back doing the other side. I find it kind of ironic that two out of the three women that were ever ICs have come here to Sun Valley.”
Lund also remembers the Beaver Creek Fire to be one of the most challenging fires she’s ever had to deal with in her career.
“I’m not just saying this because I’m here. The Beaver Creek Fire was interesting because it was really close to the community, so there were a lot of challenges.”
Lund remembers that she found the community really good to work with in comparison to other fires where she’s had to deal with threatened residents. Some other communities have “angry dispositions towards the government,” she said.
“Usually and ironically, it’s the fires that had the urban interface — that’s where as a fire leader you get challenged by having to work with the local fire departments to protect structures and figure out that relationship,” she said. “I guess that’s something that draws people like me to this kind of work — trying to help people and problem solving and making sense out of chaos.”
This time around, Lund remembers a few faces herself, having worked closely with Ketchum Fire Chief Mike Elle in 2013, as well as with Wood River Fire & Rescue Chief Bart Lassman.
“They’re wonderful here. They’re great. Obviously, we haven’t impacted Ketchum or Sun Valley much, but they’ve been coming to our cooperation meetings just to make sure that they’re in the loop,” Lund said.
More importantly, Lund said, she hopes that communities living close to wilderness will start to take note of that fact and become more fire-aware.
“I reflect a lot on the fact that wildfires, it’s a natural disaster — well, we call it a disaster — it’s actually a natural change agent,” she said. “It’s something that’s been on the earth forever, but it’s the only one we try to actually control.”
Though the Forest Service works with communities to increase fire awareness, Lund said she believes it’s up to state and county governments to work with their communities to teach developers to be cognizant about where they’re building.
“And I think slowly that’s catching on,” she said. “A lot of the bigger counties and developers are more proactive and creating standards that people have to meet to develop.”
The good news, Lund said, is that the Wood River Valley should be fairly well protected from another large-scale wildfire for the next several years, because of the Castle Rock, Beaver Creek and now the Sharps fires.
“The fuels have all mostly been taken care of,” she said.
When this fire is over, Lund will return to Ogden, Utah, to go back to her day job as deputy director for fire and aviation in the Intermountain Region of the Forest Service. She’ll go back to tending her garden and remodeling her bathroom with the help of friends’ knowledge and YouTube videos. She said she hopes to someday learn carpentry.
“I kind of want to learn how to do my own carpentry on my house,” she said. “Not have to call on men and other specialists_not by any stretch (do I) dislike men, but I just want to. I think it’d be nice to be self-sufficient. I think it’s cool to build things.”