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'Vicious' wildfire still a threat in Eastern Idaho

By Keith Ridler

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, July 1 2012 11:35 p.m. MDT

An aerial tanker lays down fire retardant near homes south of Pocatello.

Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho — To city and county planners in eastern Idaho, it's called the wildland urban interface. To the people who live in the idyllic setting where Pocatello and the forest meet, it's called home.

On Thursday, pilots of wildfire retardant bombers called it the target zone as they fought a blaze that eventually destroyed 66 houses.

"The retardant bombers saved our house," said 59-year-old Doug Hofeldt, who with his wife was evacuated ahead of the Charlotte fire first to a church and then farther away to a local high school where they watched the bombers making runs.

"You could hear tires exploding on cars and propane tanks going up," he said. "It was like a war zone. The (retardant bombers) put down a strip of retardant, one strip after another. I've never seen a fire move that fast in my life. It was absolutely vicious."

In some areas the red retardant strips had on one side a blackened landscape and charred homes, and on the other side homes still standing and undamaged amid the tinder-dry vegetation. Some homes even had a coating of red.

"They dumped directly on people's houses and in many cases it saved their house from being destroyed," said Pocatello Police Lt. Paul Manning, who said his own house was saved by a big water truck.

"That was my challenge on Thursday," he said. "I was trying to run the traffic command and evacuate my house at the same time."

The 1,038-acre, human-caused fire started near the intersection of Mink Creek Road and Charlotte Drive on a windy day about five miles south of the city. It quickly spread north through grass, sage brush and juniper trees, destroying the 66 homes, as well as 29 other structures.

Many of the buildings destroyed were in the Mink Creek area, but some survived, including Hofeldt's home. Damage has been estimated at $8 million.

Hofeldt and his wife were allowed back briefly Friday. He had conflicting emotions when he found his house still standing.

"I guess relief that it was still there, but sadness because I know so many of my friends lost there's," he said by phone on Sunday from a Pocatello hotel as the evacuation order remained in effect for his neighborhood. "They don't have a home to come back to."

The fire was 80 percent contained Sunday but firefighters remained cautious with a forecast of high winds and hot temperatures that could put hundreds more homes at risk.

Manning said 160 firefighters and some 40 pieces of firefighting equipment are mopping up and guarding against an escaped ember that could produce a repeat of Thursday. The fire is surrounded by paved roads or bulldozed fire lines, but a wind-whipped ember crossing a fire line could quickly cause problems in the highly populated area.

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