If convicted of violating Ada County’s fireworks ordinance, Taylor Kemp could serve up to six months in jail and pay a $1,000 fine.
The larger penalty for allegedly starting the Table Rock Fire in late June would happen outside of a courtroom. Fire officials will seek repayment of the $400,000 it cost to put out the blaze; the owner of the lone house that burned might try to recoup his losses as well.
The Ada County Sheriff’s Office announced Wednesday that it had cited Kemp, 19, with a fireworks violation relating to the fire, which consumed at least 2,500 acres, threatened dozens of homes and blackened a well-known Boise Foothills landmark.
But Kemp denies having anything to do with starting the fire and says he was pressured into confessing.
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“Yes, I was up on Table Rock that night. Yes, I made the 911 call but I had absolutely nothing to do with the start of that fire,” Kemp wrote in chat messages to a Statesman reporter Wednesday.
Just before midnight on June 29, Kemp said, he and a male friend were near Table Rock with Pop-Its. Sold at fireworks stands, they’re those small noisemakers that pop when you throw them on the ground. He said they did not have any fireworks that required lighting, aerial or otherwise.
The pair saw four to five people in their early 20s lighting Roman candles. One of those fell over, Kemp said, starting the fire. He said the people, who were about 75 feet from him, were intoxicated.
Kemp said two plainclothes detectives came to his apartment off West State Street one day in late August and spoke to him outside for about 20 to 25 minutes.
He said they scared him and got him to say “I guess it could have been me,” even though it wasn’t true.
Kemp said the detectives told him to write a letter of regret or they would arrest him. He refused.
“I was scared for my life, to be honest,” he said.
I was backed up against a tree in the fetal position because of the way they were talking to me.
Taylor Kemp on his second visit with detectives
Kemp said he doesn’t know how he will be able to defend himself in court. He said he lost his job when the news broke Wednesday that he had been cited, and he doesn’t have money for an attorney.
Thursday morning, an employee at the Boise business where Kemp said he worked told the Stateman Kemp was not employed there, but had come in once for a job interview.
What detectives say
Kemp spoke to detectives one other time, on the morning of June 30. He told them the story about seeing young adults with Roman candles, the same thing he had told a television reporter hours earlier. Kemp did call 911 to report the fire, said Patrick Orr, Sheriff’s Office spokesman.
Ada County 911 dispatchers had received numerous reports of people setting off fireworks near Table Rock Road before the hillside caught fire that night.
Deputies went on to interview dozens of other people about the fire and pored through more than 100 tips from the public.
When detectives returned to Kemp in late August, Orr said, he finally admitted what happened: He was shooting off Roman candles late the night of June 29, by the road near the Table Rock gate, when wind blew one of them over and ignited the side of a nearby hill.
Aerial fireworks such as Roman candles are legal to buy in parts of Idaho — Kemp allegedly told deputies he bought his at a fireworks stand in Elmore County. But they’re illegal to light anywhere in the state. And Ada County bans all fireworks, not just aerial ones, in the Foothills and other parts of the county from June 1 to Oct. 31, when there is a severe risk of fire.
The latter, a misdemeanor, is the ordinance Kemp is accused of violating.
Boise Fire Department and U.S. Bureau of Land Management crews converged on the fire as soon as possible and were able to stop its spread, but not before it consumed a house on Pheasant Lane and an outbuilding nearby.
The bill for fighting the fire includes $250,000 spent by the BLM and $150,000 out of BFD coffers.
“We will seek restitution. It’s part of our due diligence,” said Josh Renz, fire mitigation and education specialist for the BLM.
Van Danielson is the owner of the home that burned — his son Steven and Steven’s wife and family lived there. Van said he knew the Sheriff’s Office had a suspect, but he had not heard there was a citation until a Statesman reporter called Wednesday.
That, he said, will give him someone to go after to try to recoup the loss of more than $200,000 from the home and family belongings.
“I had no insurance so it’s got to come out of his hip pocket,” said Danielson, 72.
He probably doesn’t have anything, but that’s OK. I can own him for the rest of his life or at least a portion of it.
Van Danielson, owner of the home burned in the fire
He said he looks forward to the day he can speak to Kemp in court.
“I want 160 hours out of him helping to clean the mess up. I think that’s only fair,” said Danielson.