Hilltop Station after the fire in 2016
Tate McCullough won’t ever forget the day he saw 20-foot flames burning along both sides of Idaho 21 — a veritable tunnel of fire.
His business, Hilltop Station restaurant and grocery, was in the path of what became a 4,300-acre fire that destroyed three ranch outbuildings and some sheds at the Boise River Wildlife Management Area office. Boiseans could see the giant plume from the fire on July 19, 2016.
“It burned right by us,” McCullough said. “We had, the day before, cleared our back area of all our weeds and brush. We were making it look pretty.”
On Wednesday, McCullough was celebrating the one-year “burniversary” of surviving that fire when another one started.
“Spoke too soon,” he said in a Facebook post. “Be careful out there. Prayers for our friends, neighbors, and firefighters. And especially our friendly neighborhood firefighters.”
The Mile Marker 15 Fire on Wednesday started north of last year’s Mile Marker 14 Fire. Both fires started in the early afternoon of July 19.
Just a coincidence? Yes, no foul play is suspected, Boise District Bureau of Land Management Fire and Aviation officials said Thursday.
They haven’t finished investigating the Mile Marker 15 Fire, which burned just 53 acreas and was controlled by 2 p.m. Thursday, but they believe both blazes were caused by vehicles. And that’s not unusual — vehicles have been the No. 1 cause of fires investigated by the Boise District BLM this year.
So far this year, 17 fires of 43 fires they investigated were caused by vehicle equipment. That includes catalytic converter breakdown, tire failures, vehicle fires, dragging chains and mechanical breakdown. The other major causes: six fireworks (three of the six were illegal fireworks); five shooting (steel-core, tracer and lead-core ammo and exploding targets); and two welding/grinding.
“We get quite a few fires from wheel bearings that haven’t been maintained,” said Brandon Hampton, BLM fire information specialist. “All of this comes down to preventative maintenance. They could be prevented with a little time and energy from the user.”
Hampton and others said one of the reasons fires occur along this stretch of highway is because there are many vehicles pulling boats to and from Spring Shores Marina and to camp sites in Boise County and beyond.
Drivers need to be sure that chains are tied up and trailer wheels are sufficiently greased, Hampton said.
The Mile Marker 15 Fire, which started on the north side of Hilltop, was actually two small fires that never came together, said BLM Fire Operations Specialist Cody Kidd, incident commander.
“The house in between them had good defensible space, so it was never threatened,” Kidd said.
The house’s access road, green grass and cultivated fields all helped protect the structures.
There were several reasons for that, Kidd said. One big reason was that last year’s fire took out all the mature vegetation, so the fuel load was much reduced.
Last year’s fire started south of Hilltop Station and burned uphill, creating fire whirls and channels up the draws. Slope, wind and fuel all lined up for large fire growth.
Kidd said he had some crews and resources closer at hand this year, by design and by chance. Helping battle the blaze were two engine crews from Boise and two Forest Service hand crews that just happened to be at Lucky Peak.