Fire rages through the heart of Tipanuk

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Lightning and high winds gusting above 60 mph last Thursday sparked a series of major fires in the area, including one that tore through the heart of the rural community of Tipanuk, completely destroying three homes and damaging two others.

Last year's fire that threatened Tipanuk and forced its evacuation turned out to be just a dress rehearsal for the real thing last week.

But unlike last year, residents didn't argue with authorities and many had already self-evacuated to the homes of friends and family or the Red Cross shelter set up at the high school by the time sheriff's deputies began going door to door urging evacuation.

At 5,500 acres the Ditto Rest fire wasn't the largest in the area, but it caused the most damage in human terms.

After burning along the interstate from a point about 20 miles east of Boise it suddenly turned and tore a diagonal swath through the center of Tipanuk, then took less than 30 minutes to burn all the way to Exit 90 and within a quarter mile of the Evander Andrews power plant before it was stopped in an area that had been burned by fire earlier this season.

Fire crews described the chaos created by Thursday nights storm as a virtual "war zone." The BLM completely exhausted its resources in the area and requested aid from every local fire department to help it handle the multiple fires that broke out. The Mountain Home Fire Department, for example, quartered the compass during the evening, sending crews north, south, east and west of the city at various points in the evening to fight fires alone or in support of other area fire crews.

In fact, the department was involved, one way or another, in almost every one of the major and minor fires that broke out that night.

For the Mountain Home firemen the evening began at 7:20 p.m. when they were called out to a vehicle fire at milepost 101. That turned out to be just a minor incident as the evening wore on.

"While we were out on that call, Bud (Corbus) noticed a bunch of lightning strikes to the west of town," Fire Chief Phil Gridley said. Anticipating further calls, Gridley called out his crews and began staging his resources at the fire station.

"By the time we got back to the station, we had a request for help from the BLM and Grand View (Fire Department). They had a major fire down there, so we sent a brush truck and four firemen to help" under the command of Corbus, Gridley said.

Two fires had been triggered by lightning down there, and quickly burned together, running from near the Simplot feedlot all the way to C.J. Strike reservoir, eventually consuming 16,000 acres. Although several homes were threatened, none were lost in that fire. Corbus said it looked like a solid wall of smoke and dust so thick it was "hard to see the fire itself until you were almost on it. You can't fight a fire that big. You can just hope you can work at the edges" and direct it, he said.

Besides Mountain Home, the base fire department also responded with units to help the BLM and Grand View Fire Departments control what became known as the Rabbit/Ditch Fire.

As Corbus and his team were heading to Grand View, the Mountain Home firemen were called to a structure fire near JB's Auto on Airbase Road that turned out to be a small brush fire caused by the high winds dropping a power line, one of dozens of power lines to go down that night, leaving area residents without power for lengthy periods of time several times during the night.

"As we were getting that fire knocked down," Gridley said, "we got a call for the BLM requesting assistance at Tipanuk. They were requesting four structure trucks."

By federal law, the BLM can fight range fires but is prohibited from working any structure fires.

The Oasis Fire Department, a subscription service that responds only to member's calls, already was working the area, and before the evening was over elements from the Meridian Fire Department had joined the firefighters trying to save Tipanuk.

Gridley sent three crews, two structure trucks and a water tender to Tipanuk, and called the Mountain Home city public works department and the Elmore County Highway District asking for each of them to send a water tender as well, which they promptly did.

Gridley held 15 firemen in reserve at the fire station in case they were needed in town.

About the same time, Chief Deputy Nick Schiltz was on the phone to Sheriff Rick Layher, who was driving out Ditto Creek Road to evaluate the situation, when their connection was abruptly interrupted. With the heavy smoke and dust from the fire and storm front bearing down on Tipanuk reducing visibility to a matter of a few dozen yards at best, Layher had missed a curve on the dirt road and rolled his car. He had to climb out through the rear window of the vehicle, which was totalled, but was treated and released that evening at Elmore Medical for only minor injuries and back at work the next day.

At the same time, Schilz set up a mini-emergency operations center at the sheriff's office and was sending all the deputies and reserves he could summon to Tipanuk to begin a formal evacuation of the community. The Red Cross already was setting up a shelter at the high school, where eventually 23 people would spent all or part of the night. The airbase provided extra cots in case they were needed.

The evacuation of Tipanuk went smoothly, Schilz said. "Nobody argued with us, and a lot of people had left already."

Despite the onset of darkness and the high winds that prevented the BLM from using its aerial resources, crews were battling desperately to keep the fire from entering the scattered community of Tipanuk.

"But about 1:30 a.m., the fire just exploded," Gridley said, tearing through the center of Tipanuk and heading toward Mountain Home at better than 25 miles per hour on the ground. "It went through Tipanuk quick," he said.

Those homes that were surrounded by fire breaks and/or grassy areas tended to have the fire pass them by. Homes without those protective measures were quickly consumed, although one isolated trailer, in the midst of the 200-yard-wide burn path, miraculously was undamaged even though everything around it burned right up to the trailer's foundation.

"We've been telling people for years," Gridley said, " to be proactive, to make sure they have some kind of firebreak around their property. If they let that brush grow up to their house, they're going to lose their house."

As the fire exploded through Tipanuk and headed to Mountain Home Gridley repositioned his crews to protect the power plant, although eventually the fire stopped just short of that facility when it hit an area burned a month ago.

"While we were there," Gridley said, we got a call about a fire on Highway 20 above the Pilot," and he directed some of his reserves to head there. They quickly put out that fire, which burned only a few dozen acres.

By 2:30 a.m., as his weary crews were returning to the fire station, the BLM asked for assistance with a fire that had broken out on the Bruneau Highway. "They had no resources left, so we headed out there. It was burning pretty good, but we stopped it at about 20 acres.

"While we were there, the BLM requested we send a structure pumper truck and a brush unit to Glenns Ferry."

The Cold Fire there had begun about five miles north of Glenns Ferry at about 9 p.m. in Cold Creek Canyon. King Hill Rural Fire District (KHRFD) responded to that blaze and stayed on the line until about 5:30 a.m. the following morning, said Fire Chief Bob Janousek.

Fire crews from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) were called in to assist fighting the fire, and an Incident Command official began taking over operations.

While BLM crews concentrated on the rim fire, crews from the KHRFD redirected their efforts to protecting the Elk Ranch and a home in Alkali Canyon, after the fire left the rim and began moving south into the canyon. No structures were damaged.

Once those structures were secured, Janousek moved most of his volunteer crew up to the opposite rim and set up a protective shield around another home near Morrow Reservoir.

Fire crews battled heavy winds throughout much of the evening.

Fire crews from Bliss, Hagerman, Jerome, Gooding, Wendell, Twin Falls, Rock Creek, and Mountain Home were directed to a staging area at the Glenns Ferry Schools front parking lot.

Janousek expressed dissatisfaction with how the fire operations were handled. "I really think it could have been handled a little better," he said.

According to Janousek the Incident Command officer was unfamiliar with the area. Besides getting lost, he also did not know the terrain.

Janousek said fighting local fires should be handled by local fire chiefs who are familiar with the area, and the terrain--knowledgeable about where fire trucks can and cannot go.

"We know the area. We know where we can put the trucks."

Janousek also was unhappy that fire units from other areas had been called in to assist, when the fire had already been contained. "We didn't need them," he said.

According to Janousek, he had spoken with Phil Gridley, Fire Chief for the City of Mountain Home, on the radio the night of the fire. He told Gridley that his crews were not needed, but that it was "not my call", because BLM was handling operations.

Glenns Ferry stood down its crews after Mountain Home's arrived. Mountain Home crews stayed on scene at the request of the BLM until about noon the following day.

Thursday night's series of fires "was the worst firestorm we've had since at least '83," Gridley said.

The next morning, the damage assessment began. The Red Cross had a disaster team in the Tipanuk area, helping families burned out by the fire. Three homes had been totally destroyed, two others damaged, 20 cars had been burned up and nine outbuildings had been consumed by the blaze.

Residents had begun returning as early as 5:30 a.m. to begin assessing the damage to their property.

Chantil Zobrist stood in the ashes that were all that was left of the $80,000 seven-bedroom home where she had been living with her boyfriend, Cody Kastner. She, Cody and two of his brothers had been in the home owned by Gene Kastner when the fire began bearing down on them. They had gathered the family pets, two dogs, five puppies and two kittens, and got out just in time, but were unable to save any personal items.

Gene and his sons were sifting through the smoking rubble Friday morning trying to see if anything had survived, but the house had burned to its foundations.

"Our friends and family are helping us out right now," Zobrist said. "We lost everything, but we're going to rebuild."

Her biggest concern at that point, was finding their horse, which had run away during the fire. In fact, several Tipanuk residents were spending that morning trying to track down horses and other animals that had gone missing during the night.

Red Cross officials said donations to help with the Tipanuk relief effort could be made by going to and selecting the Idaho Disaster Relief Fund.

In addition, Alain Isaac of Lane's Appliance is holding a raffle for a mattress and boxed springs set that had been specially made and donated for anyone who scored a hole in one at the weekend's DARE fundraiser golf tournament. When no one scored a hole in one, DARE program director Danny Dack told Isaac she should could raffle the $600 Spring Air Pillow Top queen set to help provide money for the local fire department's burnout fund, to assist the Tipanuk victims. Tickets are $1 each or six for $5 and can be purchased at Lane's Appliance.

The drawing for the set will be held Sept. 30.

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