Story and photos by Ben Olson
While over 400 fire personnel still fight to contain the Cape Horn fire outside of Bayview, the worst is apparently behind us.
Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter visited the scene of the fire Thursday morning and toured the aftermath with a small crew of media, stopping to view the remains of one burnt out home along Cape Horn Road.
“Whenever we have a crisis in Idaho, it’s everybody’s crisis” he told the media.
As of Thursday, the 2,000 acre blaze was fought down to 1155 acres and was 40% contained, though spot fires and hot spots are still being dealt with on the steep, inaccessible slopes.
Thursday afternoon, I was able to obtain access to the aftermath of the fire zone with Public Information Officer Bill Morse.
Morse, visiting North Idaho for the first time from his hometown of Flagstaff, took us into the area that was a blazing inferno just days ago, and the remains were quite a sight.
“This is the western slope of the fire,” Morse said, pointing up a hillside break with a line of hose running up and over the ridge. “You’ve heard of the hot shot fire fighters, well, this is what they’re there for. You can’t get an engine in there. They work on steep, difficult terrain and create fire breaks by hand.”
Further into the inferno, evidence of the extreme heat was everywhere; power lines melted and sagged, hillsides were barren with charred remains of undergrowth. Power boxes were burnt to a crisp, and real estate signs were melted beyond recognition. Small puffs of smoke still announced the evidence of hot spots that weren’t extinguished yet. All the while, an eerie midday haze crept over the waters of Lake Pend Oreille and hung over the small town of Bayview.
The temperature was pushing 95 degrees while we toured the area, stopping on occasion to speak with residents assessing the damage of their property.
Just Thursday morning, evacuated residents were allowed to return to their homes. They were happy to find that power had been restored, and aside from those who had lost their homes, there was an incredible amount of acreage that was saved from being destroyed.
“I’m just relieved to be here and fortunate that this oasis of homes was spared,” said Steve Seier, who had just returned to his home earlier in the day. “We’re a pretty tough family in Bayview. We all come together when the chips are down. I wouldn’t rather live anywhere else in the world.”
Next door to Seier’s home sat the charred remains of one of six homes destroyed.
A Ford sedan sagged to one side as the tires and paint had been burned off and the plastic melted. A collection of yard sculptures eerily sits untouched next to the pile of ashes and cinder that was once a home. The scene at once invokes emotions of sorrow and awe, that a force of nature is this powerful.
“When I left, the roof of this place was on fire,” said Seier, pointing to the burned remains.. “The fire came within 150 feet of me.”
Just up the hill, the remains of another structure was reduced to rubble. Oddly, two untouched red plastic lawn chairs sat above it all, overlooking the carnage. How they were spared, nobody knows.
One of the tenets that Gov. Otter spoke about was creating “defensible space” to prevent wildfire from threatening homes. A clear example of how defensible space helped prevent a disaster was Carl Costello’s home, just up the hill from the two burned structures by Seier’s property.
In stark contrast, a charred line of earth met directly with a rock landscaping feature, with healthy, green grass just feet away. Costello had worked on creating defensible space on his property for years, keeping combustibles away from his home, and opening up his property to prevent fire jumping from one source to another.
“I lived in Southern California and watched it burn so many times,” Costello said. “The way that you landscape and create defensible space around your home is important.”
Tim Karrigan, on Jeepster Road, was another resident moving back into his cabin. He and his wife fought the flames for four hours on Sunday, wetting down their property with as much hose as they could fit together, until they finally evacuated.
“We thought we were going to lose it all,” he said. “We had a row of trees there and there was crackling on the other side. We couldn’t tell how close it was. Then, a propane tank went up, the flames were higher than the trees. Boom. It was crazy. At that point, my wife said that we had to get out of there.”
The Karrigans packed what they could and evacuated, hoping for the best, expecting the worst.
“You look at it, and you say, ‘It’s just stuff,'” he said. “It’s not worth dying over.”
Further down the road, we catch up with a crew of timber fallers standing idle, waiting for their next assignment. Decked out in hard hats, yellow shirts stained with retardant and ash, and safety glasses smeared with grease and oil, the crew looked like they had earned a respite.
As I photographed one of the crew—an older gentleman in glasses—he asked if I recognized him. I said that I didn’t.
“I’m Larry Dolezal,” he said. “Rachel’s father.”
It took me a moment to realize that he wasn’t joking around. Here, just weeks after the strange story of Rachel Dolezal went across the world and back, her father was fighting a fire in our backyard. What a strange, small world it can be sometimes.
Dolezal and fellow timber faller Nate Cox from Brothers Fire out of Twisp, Wash. both said they were eager to get to their next task.
All along the tour, as we stopped and spoke with more and more returning evacuees, the feeling was mostlythe same amongst them; gratitude. They were quick to thank the fire personnel every chance they could get. “These local firefighters are the ones who really kicked butt for you guys,” Morse told one of the families. “They acted fast when it really counted.”
Signs were hung outside homes with spray-painted messages like “Fire fighters you saved us.” One home had a small table with iced tea and glasses set up at the roadside for firefighters to stop and quench their thirst. Other signs simply read “Thank You!”
By the day’s end, after scrambling up and down charred slopes and gazing up the steep inclines where the wind had blown fingers of fire all up and down the slope, I got an idea of what kind of hell on earth a wildfire can be.
Then I realized that I was taking a safe media tour well outside the hot spots and danger zones where a boulder the size of a Volkswagen could dislodge and crush a fire fighter in a heart beat. I was in no danger. The fire fighters had already cleared this area.
To say the least, the experience was awe inspiring. I always have had a healthy respect for those brave men and women who do our dirty work, who protect our land and property from this uncontrollable force, who endure the heat and terrible conditions, the life-threatening terrain, the back breaking work. After today, however, I consider myself honored just to shake their hand, to be occupying the same space as them.
Life seems strangely inadequate when you’ve just walked amongst heroes.
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