Driveway on Fire

How Not to Clean Up the Cottonwood Cotton

By Ray Brooks

Many of us in Idaho are used to the annual cottonwood event, during which the cottony stuff can pile up like snow. Not everyone is aware of its flammability.

Unfortunately, I used to be one of the ignorant. My awakening came in early summer of 1997, when my older brother, my wife, and I were engaged in the doleful task of preparing the contents of my mother’s house in Ketchum for auction. Mom had recently suffered a grave illness and was now in a nursing home. The house had been sold to pay for her future expenses, and we were picking up the pieces. I felt a real sadness at parting with my mom’s dream home. When she retired from the family business, she had fulfilled a fantasy by moving to what had at one time been called “Millionaires Row” up Warm Springs Creek in Ketchum. Although her place had only been a party-house and garage for the millionaire who built it in the early 1950s, it had fit my mother’s lifestyle perfectly. The house was surrounded by cottonwood, and on that fateful day, cotton from the trees covered the lawn, piling four inches deep in places.

For a break at lunchtime, we decided to drive our mother’s powder blue Wayne’s World sedan to a restaurant in town. But a window had been left down in the car, and first we had to empty two inches of cotton out of it. During lunch, my brother mentioned that the cotton was highly flammable. He recounted the story of a bus from the Sun Valley Resort that had filled with cottonwood cotton after windows were left open. The punch line of the story was that the driver had cleared the cotton by tossing a match in the bus. Although the cotton vanished, the subsequent fire and minor explosion were not good for the bus.

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Ray Brooks

About Ray Brooks

Ray Brooks is a native Idahoan. Beyond retirement age, he remains an active rock-climber, river runner, and hiker, who keenly appreciates Idaho history. His climbing career started in central Idaho in 1969. To support his outdoor habits, he worked on Forest Service helicopter fire crews, was a Middle Fork Salmon boatman, ran an outdoor shop in Moscow, and became a sales representative for outdoor gear.