USA — The warning shout came early: National wildfire forecasters in Boise on May 1 said winter drought and spring warming trend were potent harbingers of a dangerous summer across Idaho and the West.
The state got all it bargained for, as destructive blazes torched mountain hamlets, killed livestock and wildlife, charred more than 1,000 square miles and chased thousands from upscale resort towns, including Sun Valley, as flames licked at city limits.
The worst wildfire season in more than a half-decade is among The Associated Press’s top Idaho stories of 2013, not just for its cost in homes and cabins, habitat and tens of millions in taxpayer resources. Even when flames calmed, lingering smoke virtually shuttered central Idaho’s tourist economy during what ordinarily would be high season, as restaurants, hotels and stores emptied.
Sun Valley’s annual writer conference was scotched; the normally crowded tarmac at Hailey’s Friedman Memorial Airport emptied of private jets as their owners fled for clearer air.
For weeks in July and August, Idaho fires were the nation’s top priority blazes, as record-high temperatures never cooled much at night and lightning storms rolled through.
“The 2013 fire season is one that will be in our memories for a while until the next big, bad year happens,” said Bobby Shindelar, top fire officer on the Boise National Forest, where 19 human-caused fires and 113 lightning-caused fires burned, more than twice 2012’s tally. At times, “it exceeded our firefighting capability,” he said. “There’s nothing in our arsenal that can contain those fires, other than a change in the weather.”
More than 80 structures, half of them residences, were wiped out in Fall Creek, a vacation hamlet along the South Fork of Boise River; fortunately, nobody lost their lives.
Todd Crist, a contractor from Jerome, Idaho, whose Fall Creek cabin was incinerated Aug. 10 by the Elk Complex fire, has bought out his two neighbors’ property and now has a total of 16 acres where he plans to rebuild over the next couple of years.
Though the approaching flames last summer “sounded like a jet airplane” and he was warned by the local sheriff to leave or risk death, Crist said he’s no longer worried about wildfire, at least not at his own backwoods refuge.
“There’s no more trees left,” Crist said, of his mountain moonscape. “I’m not worried about it at all.”
Here are some of the other stories that shaped Idaho in 2013:
‘COACH PETE’ BEATS FEET: It couldn’t last forever: Chris Petersen’s eight-year, 92-12 run as head of Boise State University’s football team came to a sudden end in December when he jumped to the University of Washington and its 72,500-seat stadium. But it was good while it lasted, with numerous league titles, a pair of Fiesta Bowl victories and credit for boosting the Broncos to national prominence. Along the way, BSU sought to leverage Petersen’s image as a squeaky clean promoter of youth athletics whose coaching style relied on “out-of-the-box” thinking and the odd quirky play that kept defenses on their toes. The final season in Boise was Petersen’s worst, as the Broncos went 8-5. He’ll be replaced by Brian Harsin, a former Boise State quarterback who quit his head coaching job at Arkansas State to return to Idaho. Harsin has his work cut out for him, not only because he’ll follow in Petersen’s rather enormous shoes, but also because he takes over a program in upheaval: Joe Southwick, the senior quarterback, alleges he was dismissed inappropriately before the team’s Christmas Eve Hawaii Bowl loss after other players falsely accused him of urinating from a hotel balcony. Southwick says another player was at fault and took a polygraph test he hopes will help clear his name. But so far, Bronco administrators are sticking by their decision.
— INSURANCE EXCHANGE: After 15-plus hours of debate, Idaho lawmakers passed the state-based Internet marketplace for insurance that Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter championed as better than the federal government’s version. Getting it up and running has been marred by problems and delays, and not just because the federal software Idaho is now using for enrollment didn’t work properly. Amid a public outcry of insider dealing, Your Health Idaho leaders were forced to cancel a $375,000 annual contract that director Amy Dowd had struck with a former board member. The controversy continues: Republican State Sen. Russ Fulcher is challenging Otter in next May’s Republican primary, arguing his support of the state exchange was tantamount to inviting President Obama’s liberal health care policies into Idaho. Fulcher’s name for the exchange: “Ottercare.” At year’s end, however, Dowd has said enrollment is accelerating.
UZBEK REFUGEE ARRESTED ON TERROR CHARGES: A Russian-speaking truck driver who fled Uzbekistan in 2009 was arrested in May by federal authorities who say he was teaching people to build bombs to target public transportation. Fazliddin Kurbanov, 30, is now charged with felonies in Idaho and Utah. Among other things, prosecutors allege Kurbanov traveled the West assisting a militant group in his native Uzbekistan, a Central Asian country with a southern border with Afghanistan. Just now, prosecution and defense are preparing complicated cases, portions of which could touch on national secrets in the global war on terror, court documents indicate.
CHALLENGE FROM THE RIGHT: In what’s shaping up to be the most-competitive Republican primary season in years, conservative, libertarian-leaning candidates began lining up in 2013 to challenge so-called “Main Street” GOP officeholders. Idaho Falls lawyer Bryan Smith is getting a helping hand from the anti-tax Club For Growth as he seeks to oust eight-term U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson. For state offices, Idaho Sen. Russ Fulcher of Meridian hopes to halt Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s gubernatorial run at two terms, while Valley County’s Todd Hatfield is hoping to jettison appointee State Controller Brandon Woolf. Meanwhile, there’s a crowd developing in the contest for Idaho secretary of state, with Ben Ysursa retiring. Former House Speaker Lawerence Denney is hoping to garner a big share of the conservative vote against three declared rivals: Former state Sens. Mitch Toryanski and Evan Frasure and Phil McGrane, chief deputy Ada County clerk.
BASQUE LEGEND: The death of Pete T. Cenarrusa robbed Idaho of one of its political legends. Cenarrusa, a Basque-American who held state office in Idaho uninterrupted for more than five decades and spent nearly as long in the sheep business, died in September at age 95 of lung cancer. Cenarrusa was elected to the Idaho House of Representatives as a Republican in 1950 and served nine terms, including three terms as speaker. Governor Don Samuelson appointed him Idaho secretary of state in 1967, the start of a nearly 36-year-run that earned him a reputation as a fair-dealing public servant for whom good sense trumped partisan politics. Ben Ysursa, his successor in the office, said: “He was a good man.”
— PRISON CORRUPTION: The Idaho State Police launched a criminal investigation into Corrections Corporation of America for possible contract fraud after a public records request from The Associated Press uncovered evidence that CCA was giving falsified staffing reports to the Idaho Department of Correction. CCA later acknowledged that roughly 4,800 hours were left unstaffed in violation of the state contract in 2012, and a federal judge suggested CCA had drastically underestimated that shortfall. As scrutiny at the CCA-run Idaho Correctional Center intensified, the company announced that it would leave the state when its current contract expires next year. Now some lawmakers are pushing to have the Idaho Department of Correction take over the facility and take steps to end Idaho’s 16-year move toward prison privatization.
FETAL PAIN LAW OVERTURNED: Idaho became the first state to have a so-called fetal pain law banning abortions after 20 weeks struck down by the federal courts when U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled in favor of an eastern Idaho woman in March. Jennie Linn McCormack and her attorney, Richard Hearn, sued the state after she was charged with felony illegal abortion because prosecutors said she took an abortion-causing drug obtained over the Internet to terminate a pregnancy that was past the 20-week mark. McCormack and Hearn successfully argued that Idaho’s restrictive pre-viability abortion laws were unconstitutional and placed an undue burden on a woman’s right to have an abortion.
ABDUCTION IN THE WILDERNESS: Hundreds of law enforcement agents descended on central Idaho when a California man fled to the wilderness near Cascade after abducting a teenage girl and killing her mother and brother. The search for 16-year-old Hannah Anderson and her captor, 40-year-old James Lee DiMaggio, spanned hundreds of miles and a full week before a tip from horseback riders led FBI agents to a campsite in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. DiMaggio was killed in the Aug. 10 shootout, and Hannah was reunited with her surviving family in San Diego to begin what her father said would be a slow recovery.
DUNCAN COMPETENCY HEARING: A federal judge ruled in December that a man convicted of murder and kidnapping in a brutal attack on a northern Idaho family was mentally sound when he waived the right to appeal his death sentence. Joseph Edward Duncan III was convicted of killing several members of a Coeur d’Alene family in 2005 before snatching their two young children and fleeing to the Montana wilderness. Duncan tortured and abused the children for weeks before killing 9-year-old Dylan Groene and returning with Dylan’s 8-year-old sister to Idaho, where he was captured. Duncan represented himself during his death penalty sentencing hearing and then waived his right to appeal his death sentence. But he later changed his mind, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge to hold a hearing to see whether Duncan was competent when he made that decision. The hearing took several days and his attorneys argued that Duncan suffered serious mental health problems. But Lodge said any such problems didn’t impact Duncan’s ability to understand his legal position or to prevent him from making a rational, though perhaps unwise, choice.