Fireworks-caused wildfire destroyed his home a year ago
Three hawks circled over Warm Springs Mesa just north of Harris Ranch one day last week, searching for food.
Van Danielson, 72, looked skyward, admiring the birds of prey that have inhabited the hillsides all his life.
His mood turned somber as he looked down on an 18-acre parcel that has been in his family since the mid-1950s. Sunflowers, some already in bloom, dotted the landscape, along with wild alfalfa, grasses and other plants. A singed white oak in the driveway had started to leaf out on one side while brown leaves hung limp across from them. A few steps away, a small yucca plant sent up a stalk and began to bloom.
Amid the plants sat cinder blocks and charred appliances, all that’s left of a two-story home.
“Everything is greening up, except the house,” Danielson said wryly.
A year ago this week, the home built by his dad, Jesse — pronounced without the “e” — burned in the Table Rock Fire.
A Roman candle, illegal in the Foothills, started the blaze in dry brush on the late evening of June 30. Erratic winds, gusting up to 40 miles per hour, pushed the flames south toward Warm Springs Mesa and east toward Harris Ranch.
Danielson’s home lies in between, about 2 to 3 miles as the crow flies from Table Rock, he estimated.
It took firefighters from Boise, the federal Bureau of Land Management, Meridian, Eagle and Star about 22 hours to contain the blaze. Before it was extinguished, it consumed 2,500 acres of land and threatened dozens of other homes in the Harris Ranch, Warm Springs Mesa, Boulder Heights and Table Rock subdivisions.
Of Danielson’s house, all that still stands today is the cinder-block walls of the home’s basement. Bricks from the chimney that stood toward the center of the structure are scattered around. Nearby are the charred remains of a washer and dryer and air conditioner. Danielson pointed out the frames of his grandchildren’s bunk beds.
What’s left of a vintage 1900s upright piano sits with other rubble that fell from the home’s first floor into the basement when the floor gave way.
Danielson also lost eight vehicles, including four 1950s-vintage Cadillacs that he planned to restore, along with two tractors.
His son, Steve, lived at the home with his family at the time of the fire and also lost a pickup. The younger Danielsons have stayed with family and friends since the fire, and currently are living in the Idaho City area.
“The heat was so intense it caved in the roofs on several of the vehicles,” Van Danielson said.
Danielson recalled how the upper-level floor was supported by 12-inch tamarack logs, hand-hewn by his father. He said the floors were so level there was only a difference of a quarter-inch from one end to the other.
“I still have a hard time digesting that it’s gone,” Danielson said. “All the work I put into it. All the work Mom and Dad put into it. It’s beyond belief.”
No insurance, limited options
The biggest hurdle to rebuilding: The house wasn’t insured. Neither were most of the vehicles.
The house was covered by insurance when Danielson’s parents lived there. But the policy lapsed after his mother, Alice, died a decade ago, five years after her husband.
“After (Mom) passed, I stopped paying for insurance because no one was living there,” he said.
When Steve and his family moved in a couple of years ago, Van Danielson never reinstated the policy. That, he now says, was a mistake.
Danielson’s only current recourse is the $19,299 in restitution ordered from Taylor Kemp, 20, the man convicted of starting the fire.
But Danielson doesn’t expect much.
“I can’t rebuild. I don’t have any money to rebuild. And I’m sure Mr. Kemp isn’t going to help” because he doesn’t have any money, Danielson said.
Kemp, for his part, has appealed the restitution order, which with money also owed to the BLM, city of Boise and Idaho Power totals $391,790. He also asked for the restitution order to be placed on hold during the appeal. A hearing before Ada County Magistrate James Cawthon is scheduled for July 27.
So far, Kemp has paid $66 in restitution. His payments are divided among the four victims by percentage of loss. The BLM, with 70 percent of the overall claim, will receive the largest amount from all payments.
Kemp called 911 to report the fire and originally gave deputies a description of people he said were the suspects. But he was eventually accused of starting the blaze himself and was cited for violating Ada County’s fireworks ordinance. He pleaded guilty and last month was sentenced to six months in jail, with all but 20 days suspended.
Sixteen of those remaining days can be served as community service.
When Kemp was first cited on the fireworks violation, Danielson said he’d like to see the young man ordered to visit the property and help clean up some of the mess. Cawthon at sentencing suggested Kemp take Danielson up on the offer during a lecture over Kemp’s perceived lack of remorse.
“I haven’t heard anything to Mr. Danielson about his losses. I can’t give Mr. Danielson any money that will cover what he lost. His connection to his parents, that is lost,” Cawthon said. “... I guess we’ll find out what kind of man you are.”
That perception isn’t right, said Kemp’s attorney, Neil Price.
“Taylor has expressed to me that he is very sorry for the incredible loss (Danielson) has experienced,” Price said. “He was reluctant to say anything in court because he was wary of it being misinterpreted as an admission of guilt.”
And Kemp is interested in using his community service to aid Danielson, the attorney said. But when he signed up for his community service hours, he was advised by the Ada County Sheriff’s Office that the time could not be spent at a private residence. Evidently, there is “some sort of miscommunication” between what the judge ordered and what the Sheriff’s Office is allowing, Price said.
“He would like to serve those hours at Mr. Danielson’s residence if he’s allowed,” Price said.
A Sheriff’s Office spokesman confirmed the restriction on performing community service that benefits private property, adding that the policy also forbids it for liability reasons. Price plans to bring the matter up with Cawthon, and the Sheriff’s Office has also reached out to the judge to work something out.
Danielson said he’s disappointed that Kemp has never apologized to him.
But despite the losses, Danielson said he considers himself lucky.
“All of the material things that were lost here can’t compare to the five lives that I could have lost,” he said. “If friends of my son hadn’t come up here and warned him about the fire, I could have had five funerals to attend. I’m so thankful that didn’t happen.”