POCATELLO — A 41-year-old Pocatello resident, John Woods, claimed responsibility for lighting so-called illegal aerial fireworks that caused a massive brush fire that destroyed one home and severely damaged another on Bitterroot Drive on Thursday evening.
Woods said that night will go down as one of the worst days of his life.
“This was an accident that I will pay dearly for,” Woods said. “I lit off five fireworks and I think the fourth one was a bad deal. I burnt people’s houses down and I don’t know what else to say except I’m sorry.”
Woods said during a Friday interview with a Journal reporter that he purchased $255 worth of illegal aerial fireworks from the Fort Hall Indian Reservation before the Fourth of July festivities.
“I didn’t light them off for the Fourth of July and I was going to save them for New Year's when nothing could burn, but I decided I would light a few of them off last night,” Woods said. “It didn’t turn out very good, and now I see why they’re illegal. I wish I would have never done it.”
Though remorseful and terrified of the consequences that may follow, Woods said he takes full responsibility for causing the fire, adding that he was friends with his neighbors before the blaze erupted; however, under the circumstances he doesn’t think that anyone will forgive him for his actions.
And he doesn't blame them.
“The neighbors are mad at me and haven’t spoken to me but I don’t blame them. I mean, look what I did,” Woods said. “I’m sick myself. I feel terrible, and I (would have) rather burned my own house down than anybody else’s.”
Pocatello Mayor Brian Blad said during a Friday phone interview that he is not upset with Fort Hall vendors for selling the fireworks, because they have the legal right to do so.
Rather, Blad said he hoped the state legislature would tighten restrictions and people would simply make better judgment calls, especially when weather conditions have reached temperatures in the high '90s with little to no precipitation.
"With illegal aerial fireworks, the state statute allows for the sale of them," Blad said. "If you can't legally light them off, you should not be able to purchase them. But that’s not going to change until the legislature changes the statute."
Blad continued, "When it comes to fireworks, we all enjoy seeing them. The law is there and people are going to break it. I just wish people would use more common sense."
At approximately 9:45 p.m. on Thursday, Woods said he began lighting mortar rockets from the driveway of his Goldfield Drive home, which is located in a cul-de-sac at the bottom of the ravine below Bitterroot Drive.
Kandi Brown, a resident of Bitterroot Drive, said that after hearing the first explosion she came outside to investigate the sound. She proceeded to witness three additional mortars explode in the air directly adjacent to and less than 100 yards away from her home.
"I have no idea why he would even think of setting off illegal, totally professional fireworks on this hill," Brown said. "He lives right by the hill, he knows how dry it is. He probably would have done more if the fire wouldn't have started."
When the fourth mortar exploded, Brown said that instead of launching into the air like the previous explosions, this firework discharged so close to the hillside below her home and above Woods’ home that it showered sparks and embers onto the excessively dry June grass, which immediately erupted in flames.
"The last one blew up right into the hillside," Brown said. "That's why the fire was so big all of the sudden."
Woods said, “The fire was about 3 feet wide by 3 feet long at first. I ran to fill up this 5-gallon bucket to try and put it out but by the time the bucket was filled, the flames were about 20 (feet) by 20 (feet) and just shooting up the entire hillside.”
Pocatello Police Lt. Bill Collins confirmed on Friday the department received multiple phone calls from homeowners concerned with the fireworks before the blaze erupted, and that an officer was in the area when the fireworks went off.
Luckily, the officer arrived just as the flames began to accelerate and was able to radio reinforcements to respond immediately.
Pocatello firefighters arrived at Goldfield Drive only to realize the flames were quickly moving up the ravine to Bitterroot Drive. While one fire-engine remained on Goldfield Drive, several other engines and firefighter crews shifted their response to Bitterroot.
Gary Kmetz, a nine-year veteran of the Pocatello Fire Department, said that by the time crews arrived at Bitterroot Drive, the residence owned by Lynn Black at 888 Bitterroot was entirely engulfed in flames.
Collins said the fire is still under investigation by the police and fire departments, and while charges will likely be filed, he said is unsure what those charges will be at this point.
No information about the owner of the home adjacent to Black’s was available as of Friday evening, but residents in the neighborhood said the owner is out of town on vacation and still may not know their home has been partially damaged from the blaze.
Brown said that homes in the area typically cost around $200,000 to $280,000.
If Woods is charged with felonies, Collins said the Bannock County Prosecutor's Office will prosecute the case and at that point determine how much restitution Woods may be held liable for.
Woods was not charged as of Friday evening and was not taken into custody Thursday evening. Though he doesn’t see himself as a criminal, Woods said he now realizes the severity of the situation.
“I think I’m going to jail but I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Woods said. “I don’t think I’m a criminal but I did something really bad. I mean, this is something that little kids do, and I’m an adult, so I don’t know what I deserve.”
He continued, "But I stand by this. I did this, I own it."